West Virginia will look to win their third straight game on Saturday night, but in order to do that they will have to control the ground game on both sides of the ball.
The Mountaineers travel to Austin, Texas, to face the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, a team they beat 31-23 late last year. The Longhorns come into Saturday having just lost to Texas Tech 37-34 in overtime, and also come into Saturday with one of the best running backs in the country.
Bijan Robinson has been one of the most dynamic running backs in college football since the start of the 2021 season. Last year, Robinson 1,127 yards on 195 carries, while scoring 11 touchdowns.
This season, Robinson has rushed for 414 yards and seven touchdowns through just four games, and has carried a football with him around the University of Texas campus since fumbling in overtime of their loss to Texas Tech.
“In my opinion, I think five is one of the best if not the best running backs in the country,” West Virginia defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said of Robinson.
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said what impresses him the most is how versatile he is. Brown said Robinson can be effective in both the running and passing game.
“He really blocks well in pass protection. They use him as a lead blocker and he does really well. They split him out at wide receiver and you can tell that he takes coaching and he runs the routes the way a true wide receiver has and he doesn’t give up on runs,” Brown said.
Against the Mountaineers last season, Robinson did not play as he was dealing with an elbow injury, but the year prior Robinson rushed for 113 yards on 12 carries.
Robinson is not the only one in the Texas backfield that can cause problems though, as senior Roschon Johnson has the ability to add another layer to the Texas offense.
Johnson, a quarterback coming out of high school, has rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown on 30 rushing attempts, and has eight catches for 66 yards and a touchdown to go along with it.
For West Virginia’s rush defense, there have certainly been some ups and downs. Against Pitt and Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers on average allowed 1.98 yards per carry while facing more than 56 rushing attempts. Against Kansas however, the Mountaineer defense let the Jayhawks rush for 200 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Lesley said the difference between last week’s performance against Virginia Tech and their performance against Kansas was his defense playing the way they are capable of playing.
“I thought we just played to what we’re capable of doing,” Lesley said.
As for defending the Longhorns rushing attack led by Robinson, Lesley said the issue is not trying to limit him, but also limiting other weapons on the Longhorn offense.
“The issue is you can only hold so many people in check,” Lesley said. “You have to try to decide going in what’s the best plan to obviously win the game.”
West Virginia is also uncertain of the quarterback they will face when they line up Saturday night. Starter Quinn Ewers is coming back from a clavicle sprain, and has missed the last two games. On Thursday, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said Ewers is practicing and really wants to come back this week, but said he knows they have to have a safe approach.
As for the opposite side of the ball, West Virginia’s rushing attack has been aided by the performance of three running backs and strong offensive line play.
After rushing for 1,580 yards in 2021, West Virginia’s rushing attack has come out strong in their first four games. The Mountaineers have already rushed for more than half of their total from last season, accounting for 870 yards on the ground to go along with 11 rushing touchdowns.
“I think our offensive line is what you’d build your team around. They’ve done a heck of a job; they get things hatted up. The running backs have done a good job always going forward,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “When you’re getting positive yards every time you call it, you kind of just continue to do it.”
Continuing to run the ball is exactly what West Virginia did against Virginia Tech. The Mountaineers rushed for 218 total yards. Against the Hokies, an early Tony Mathis fumble found the redshirt sophomore watching most of the game from the sidelines. In stepped Justin Johnson for the Mountaineers, who rushed for 83 yards along with his first collegiate touchdown on 11 rushing attempts.
“He was good last spring, he was good in fall camp, so really not surprised,” Brown said of Johnson’s emergence in the backfield.
The plan for the Mountaineers rushing attack though, is to have all three backs be used and to give whoever is playing the best the most opportunities.
“We’ll continue to use all three and whoever’s got the hot hand will play more, but we’ll use all three of them,” Brown said.
The trip to Austin will not be an unfamiliar one for the Mountaineers. West Virginia is 5-5 against the Longhorns since joining the Big 12 in 2012, and have won on the road against Texas three times,
The most recent victory came in 2018 when the Mountaineers led by Will Grier beat Texas 42-41. Before that in 2016, the Mountaineers won 24-20, overcoming three Skyler Howard interceptions. The first year these two teams played in 2012 is the only other time the Mountaineers have defeated the Longhorns on the road, winning 48-45.
West Virginia and Texas will kickoff at 7:30 p.m. from DKR Memorial Stadium, with the game being televised on FS1.
Photo by Dale Sparks, All Pro Photography