By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
October 30, 2011 09:55 PM
|Shawne Alston ran for a career-high 110 yards and scored two touchdowns in West Virginia's 41-31 win at Rutgers on Saturday.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Shawne Alston proved Saturday that there is always value in having a big, powerful running back at your disposal whenever you need to move forward in difficult playing conditions.
Alston ran for a career-high 110 yards and scored two key touchdowns in West Virginia’s 41-31 come-from-behind victory at Rutgers, becoming a big factor on a slick surface by making several important runs, including a 52-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter – the longest run by a Mountaineer running back this season.
“The weather can’t really determine how you run,” Alston explained. “You’ve just got to come out and play good football regardless of the weather.
“It was a slick surface, but at the same time you had to make one cut and go,” he said. “As long as you made one cut and go it wasn’t too bad.”
“Shawne Alston came in there and did a great job,” added West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “He played really well; I probably should have given him the ball a lot more.”
Alston, from Hampton, Va., said the cold weather really didn’t bother the players that much when they were out on the field.
“When you get into the game and into the flow of things those things don’t even matter,” he said. “You don’t even feel the coldness; you’re just trying to make your reads and make plays for the team.”
What Alston gives West Virginia is a 220-pound ball carrier who can run between the tackles. While freshmen Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and Vernard Roberts are smaller, shiftier backs who can break off long runs and provide versatility in the passing game, Alston is a guy who can carry the ball multiple times and get tough yards. He is averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry and has become West Virginia’s most effective red zone runner, Alston now matching Garrison for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with five.
Two of Alston’s second-half runs loomed large in West Virginia’s comeback win – his five-yard jaunt on third and one at the Rutgers 24 leading to Stedman Bailey’s 19-yard touchdown catch to pull WVU to within a field goal, and then his 11-yard carry on first and 10 at the WVU 11 that helped get the Mountaineers out of a deep hole. Eventually, West Virginia was able to score the go-ahead TD on Geno Smith’s 1-yard scramble.
Yet it was Alston’s 52-yard first-quarter rumble down the near sideline that everyone in the locker room was talking about afterward. Some of the players were wondering if he was ever going to get into the end zone.
“All of my teammates joke with me that I’m not fast enough to break off a big run,” he laughed.
Alston said the touchdown run was set up by quarterback Geno Smith’s call at the line of scrimmage.
“Geno checked into an outside zone play because he saw blitz coming from the backside and (Matt) Lindamood had a good block and Stedman Bailey also had a good block and I just ran for daylight,” Alston said.
For the most part, Alston said the Rutgers’ defense showed West Virginia exactly what the offense had prepared for all week.
“We expected them to play a lot of cover two and blitz and they did both,” said Alston. “Geno did a great job of getting into good plays when they did blitz.”
After Saturday’s performance, Alston can now be counted on as another reliable option to go to when the Mountaineers need to attack the middle of defenses. It took Alston a while to get to this point after battling neck issues all spring and the beginning of fall camp, but his 247 yards rushing are now second-most on the team behind Garrison’s 517.
Alston, who also made the key block on Tavon Austin’s 80-yard touchdown run, says it was a matter of working hard and getting healthy enough to get back out onto the field to gain the trust of the coaching staff.
“It was definitely hard not being able to play during the spring and some of fall camp,” he said. “I just kept working hard and continued going to treatment and working with the training staff and battling to get back.
“We have a lot of good backs in the backfield with Dustin and Andrew Buie; Vernard is also a good back. I think I bring a different dimension in that I’m a little bit bigger, but at the same time, all of them are good backs though.”
Alston says there was never a moment of doubt on the sidelines during Saturday’s game, even in the third quarter when the Mountaineers were trailing by 10 points and needed to get the football back.
“We always had confidence that we were going to come back and win the game,” he said. “At halftime (defensive back) Brantwon Bowser talked to us a lot. He stepped up. He’s a senior leader on the team and he talked to us and when we got back out on the field we just felt like, OK, defense get us the ball back and then the offense just had to handle business.
“The defense did a great job of stepping up and giving the offense the ball multiple times in the second half, and we were able to capitalize on the possessions that we were able to get,” he said.
More importantly, West Virginia proved that it could overcome some adversity while playing in extremely difficult conditions.
“When you face adversity and overcome it it’s always a good thing,” Alston explained. “It brings everybody together and you know if you are back in that moment again you can always know you can overcome it again because you did it in the past.”
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Winning a Habit For Izzo-Brown
By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
October 30, 2011 08:10 AM
|West Virginia has won at least 14 matches in a season 10 times in the last 12 years under Nikki Izzo-Brown.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks
Lately, Nikki Izzo-Brown’s West Virginia soccer teams seem to have fallen into a pattern of losing early season games to really tough teams, figuring things out, and then going on big runs heading into postseason play.
Last year, West Virginia was 2-3 after its first five games and 4-4-1 after nine before running off 14 straight victories to claim another Big East title and an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance.
In 2009, a very young Mountaineer team struggled out of the gate, going 2-2-4 through the first eight games before winning five of their next seven and once again reaching the national tournament.
In 2007, when West Virginia reached the NCAA tournament Elite Eight, the Mountaineers were only 3-2 after their first five games before winning 12 of their next 15.
So when her team began this season with losses to 10th-ranked Virginia, Penn State and 18th-ranked Ohio State, Izzo-Brown did what she always does - she rolled up her sleeves, got the players to work a little harder and eliminated the things they couldn’t do well.
She also remained positive.
“The only way you learn lessons is by playing the best you can play,” she explained. “I just think early on if we can schedule some of the best teams in the country and see where we need to improve before conference play, that’s what we’re going to do.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it puts us in tight situations where we don’t always end with the ‘W’ but I think we win because we learn from them.”
Izzo-Brown’s WVU program is certainly learning a lot from winning. The Mountaineers’ 14-4 record heading into today’s Big East tournament quarterfinal match against Seton Hall at Dick Dlesk Stadium represents the 10th time in the last 12 years they have won at least 14 matches in a season. In fact, Izzo-Brown’s Mountaineer teams have won at least 10 matches and earned an NCAA tournament bid every year since 2000, and just as impressively, she has never had a losing season in 17 years as a college coach.
Izzo-Brown has won so much - and won so frequently - that double-digit-win campaigns and NCAA tournament appearances are becoming the expectation around here. Make no mistake, winning 14 games in the Big East and reaching the NCAA tournament is just as hard today as it was when she was a much wider-eyed, 20-something-year-old head coach back in 2000.
“It’s so hard to do what we do,” Izzo-Brown explained. “Everybody wants to play against the best. Even we do. We want to play Stanford. We want to play North Carolina. You want to line yourself up against the best and when you get to that consistent level everyone brings their best game against you. That’s hard.
“There is an expectation now that we are going to be in the NCAA tournament. It’s not like it’s just because we’re good – we work. These girls work hard.”
What makes West Virginia’s yearly success so remarkable is that Izzo-Brown has never been able to beat the North Carolinas and Stanfords for A-list players. Even within the Big East, she still hasn’t managed to pry a top recruit away from Notre Dame, although she admits she is still at the plate swinging away.
“Maybe someday we will,” she says.
That doesn’t mean West Virginia isn’t getting great players – Blake Miller passed on Florida State to play at WVU and Bri Rodriguez was a Parade All-American who had a long list of suitors – but Izzo-Brown is still fishing from a different pond. The recruiting evaluations just require a little more clairvoyance on her part.
“You want the total package,” she said. “You want them athletic, technical, hard-nosed and competitive, there is no question, and then what is important to me is recognizing if there is potential to get them better here in our environment and see if they fit with my personality. I do want kids who are going to grind and be super competitive - and also want to be put into an environment that is going to challenge them.”
Izzo-Brown is also not married to a specific style of soccer. Sometimes she has used a direct style when she has had bigger and faster players; other times she has gone to a possession style for the players that are skilled but might not be quite as fast. And the set pieces she chooses to use in games are cloaked under a veil of secrecy almost bordering on paranoia.
If you can get your hands on one of West Virginia’s game tapes, you will notice her team’s attack this year is probably a lot different than her 2007 team, or the 2008 or 2009 teams. To borrow a football analogy, the spread offense she is using one year may turn into the power-I or a pro set the next based on the players she has and what they can do best.
“You have to adapt to the players,” she says. “It’s just like everything else. We want to put ourselves in the best position and put our players in the best position to perform at the highest level. We’ve got to kind of see what people are doing and the only way to see it is early on and then we go from there.”
And while each team might be a little different, the results are always the same - they all win.
“The one thing about this team that separates them from some of the other ones is they just work so hard for each other,” Izzo-Brown noted. “We’ve got really good chemistry. There is no separation. No seniors or freshmen, no line that is being drawn.
“Last Friday (against Pitt), Blake Miller is running to our 18-yard box defensively and she is our forward (to help protect WVU’s lead). You’ve got Mallory Smith running down balls inside our attacking 18. Kids are just stepping up at different times and helping each other out, and I think that is super important at this time of the season.”
Perhaps Izzo-Brown’s best coaching trait is her uncanny ability to flip a negative into a positive. Twice this year her teams got whacked over the head, losing a 5-0 ambush at Penn State back on Aug. 26 and earlier this month dropping a 4-1 match to a subpar Villanova team when one of her players received a red card and the team had to play the rest of the match a man down.
Both times West Virginia immediately rallied.
“My thing is you don’t want to kill them with negativity, but you also say, hey, we just had a great opportunity and we got our butts whipped and we’ve got to work even harder because someone just put four or five goals on us,” she explained. “Where were the breakdowns and who is going to step up and be more focused for us?
“For me, as much as you’re saying to yourself, oh my God, this is awful. I hate losing. But it’s also like, OK, we’ve got to figure this out collectively and that’s what these girls did. There are areas we obviously had to get better at and we had to do it quickly.”
The bottom line is that the true competitors - the players Izzo-Brown wants in her soccer program - despise losing.
“Athletes don’t want to fail,” she said. “It’s like sometimes you go to football games and you hear these fans screaming at the players. It’s like ‘do you really think Geno Smith wants to fail? No. That’s what I’m thinking. Do these kids really want to be bad? Of course not, so how do I make sure they are better and I’m maximizing their potential?”
Fortunately for Mountaineer soccer fans, that is a question Izzo-Brown always seems to have an answer for.
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