- David Ubben, College Football
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West Virginia's offense looked unchallenged in its first two outings, racking up 69 points against Marshall in its season opener and making 42 look easy against James Madison a week ago.
Saturday? The Mountaineers didn't respond well to their first challenge of the season. The offense was held scoreless in the third quarter and was forced to punt seven times in its 31-21 win over Maryland.
The biggest reason for the struggles? It's easy to point at running back Shawne Alston's absence, but even if that's the case, West Virginia's depth at the position looks at least questionable. Alston reportedly sat with a thigh injury.
Dustin Garrison returned from an ACL injury, shedding a possible redshirt. Andrew Buie got the start in place of Alston. The duo combined for just 31 yards on 15 carries and looked underwhelming for all 60 minutes.
The explosiveness wasn't there, and the whole offense suffered because of it. The Mountaineers' lack of a running game didn't garner an ounce of respect from Maryland's defense and as a result, Geno Smith was hasseled all day. Alston's blocking prowess in the backfield was even more needed, and its absence even more apparent with Smith taking a bigger beating than he had all season. On more than one occasion, the Mountaineers' Heisman frontrunner got up and walked gingerly after taking a shot. An early injury to Ryan Clarke was another shot to WVU's backs' ability to block in the backfield.
Smith finished 30-of-43 for 338 yards and three touchdowns, going without an interception for yet another game. He joins Texas' David Ash as the Big 12's only QBs without a pick after four weeks.
Tavon Austin was the day's biggest highlight-maker, catching 12 passes for 173 yards and three scores, finishing as the school's all-time leader in receptions.
The passing game is what everyone thought it was, even with a quiet day from Stedman Bailey, who caught just seven passes for 61 yards.
Still, the running game has looked good so far this season. With Alston down, it didn't. That may get fixed.
A bigger concern? The defense gave up 302 passing yards and three touchdown passes to true freshman quarterback Perry Hills. He averaged more than 10 yards an attempt, and freshman phenom Stefon Diggs showed off his speed with 113 yards on just three catches. Two went for touchdowns, including a 56-yarder on which Diggs embarrassed the WVU defense with cutbacks.
Through three games, the defense has been unimpressive for the Mountaineers, who will face their first real tests in the next two weeks. Baylor comes to town for what should be a hyped Big 12 opener next week, followed by a trip to Texas to face the Big 12's best defense.
We know what the passing game can do when the running game is there for balance. WVU's efficiency was unmatched by anyone in the Big 12 for its first two games. But when the Mountaineers are a one-dimensional team, can its offense still be productive enough to make up for a questionable defense?
Alston's likely return gives West Virginia a chance to maintain its balance, but without that balance, the first loss of the season for West Virginia could be coming fast.