MORGANTOWN — Two West Virginia running backs needed a wake-up call last week.
Leading rusher CJ Donaldson and talented freshman Jahiem White were not having the kind of seasons they are capable of when the team traveled to Orlando to play UCF last Saturday.
Donaldson, who enjoyed a breakout freshman campaign last season, had not run for more than 70 yards in four straight games. He was still getting the same volume of work, averaging more than 16 carries per game, but the big plays had disappeared from his game.
White had run for just 73 yards in the previous five games combined as he struggled to get on the field. Bad practice habits kept White off the field to the point where he didn’t get a single carry in two contests and had just one in another.
Something needed to change, and change it did. Donaldson and White both had their best games of the season against the Knights, rushing for 121 and 85 yards, respectively.
The team sent a message to Donaldson by bumping him from the starting lineup.
“Absolutely it was a message and he did get the message,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “You’ve always got to do what’s best for the football team. He absolutely did get the message and I like the way he responded.”
Not starting was just to send a message, as Donaldson still led the team with 17 carries, but it did wake him up.
“It made me have a reality check and understand that I’m not being productive,” the sophomore said. “I’m on this football team to break tackles and run the football hard and when I’m not doing that, I’m not helping the team out.”
Donaldson ran for a season-high 121 yards and the big-play element returned to his game as he broke off runs of 21 and 32 yards.
“The reality is that you have to be productive,” he said. “It’s definitely a sport that you love to play, but at the end of the day, it comes down to business and I wasn’t being productive.”
For White, Scott became his shadow at practice throughout the week, following him around nonstop and making sure he was doing everything right. That allowed him to get on the field, where his natural ability took over as he had runs of 11, 19 and 32 yards to finish with 85 on the ground.
“He had his best week of preparation. I was more proud of the fact that he only had one negative play,” Scott said. “He was 95% from a discipline standpoint. I’m going to do that for the rest of the season.”
While the coaches seemed to press all the right buttons to get Donaldson and White going, it was something the players themselves did that really caught Scott’s eye.
“Jaheim’s worst day last week was Saturday morning of the walk-through,” he relayed. “First play, something he had done all week, he couldn’t get lined up. Ran it again, couldn’t get lined up again.”
Those were the kind of mistakes that had kept White off the field in previous weeks. This time, however, Donaldson took it upon himself to make the fix.
“It’s Saturday morning before the football game and CJ said ‘Coach, I’ve got him, don’t say nothing to him, I’ve got him,’” Scott said. “He went over and said ‘This is the kind of stuff that’ll keep you off the football field, you’ve got to lock in, man.’
“I thought that was a huge step. None of the coaches got upset, we got the play right and we went on and ran the next play. That’s the kind of leadership you want, the kind of leadership you need.”
Consistency is key
Even during the weeks when Donaldson and White were seemingly stuck in neutral, WVU’s rushing game never slowed down. The Mountaineers currently lead the nation with 11-straight games of rushing for at least 140 yards.
“It is a stat that sticks out and we’re proud of, but we’ve got to keep it up now,” head coach Neal Brown said.
The last time WVU failed to gain 140 yards was nearly one year ago to the day of this Saturday’s game against BYU (7 p.m./FOX), on Nov. 5, 2022, when the Mountaineers managed just 76 yards against Iowa State. The Mountaineers closed out the final three games of 2022 running the ball well and have done the same this entire season.
“It’s a complete team deal. It’s a testament to (offensive line) Coach (Matt) Moore and the guys up front,” Scott said. “It’s also a testament to (quarterback Garrett) Garrett and the quarterback spot not taking negative plays.”
The success can’t be attributed to any one single person.
“We’ve had some injuries up front so there’s been kind of a moving bunch up there,” Brown said. “We’ve had several different tight ends over those 11 games. A number of running backs have been the leading rusher over that time. And we’ve played multiple quarterbacks.”
Over those 11 games, Donaldson was the team’s leading rusher four times, Greene has done it three times and Jaylen Anderson did it twice. White led the team once earlier this season and backup quarterback Nicco Marchiol even led the Mountaineers in rushing on one occasion.