By John Antonik for WVUsports.com
November 24, 2010 09:05 AM
|Shawne Alston has seen more playing time in West Virginia's last two wins against Cincinnati and Louisville.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bill Stewart certainly won’t tip his hand, but he will admit that this year’s Backyard Brawl being played Friday afternoon at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh could require a mudder to plow through less than ideal conditions.
The extended forecast for Friday’s game is calling for possible snow showers and temperatures in the high 30s. That’s not exactly ideal for a West Virginia offense built on speed and quickness. It’s also not ideal for a notoriously bad playing surface that has drawn the ire of the last two NFL teams to play on it.
This week, reporters have asked Stewart and his offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen several different times and several different ways how they plan on dealing with possible poor conditions. Both said they will wait and see what happens when they get there. In the meantime, Stewart said he hasn't brought that subject up with his team.
“I don’t talk about it,” Stewart said. “The Oakland Raiders talked about it – that’s what I told the team. I’ll look at it when I get there.”
Playing in bad weather is to be expected in this part of the country around this time of the year and Stewart said his team frequently works on wet ball drills anyway.
“We put balls in buckets during summertime. It rains. It happens,” he said. “If it’s cold, it’s cold. That’s fine.
“When you play on a wet field what do you have to do? You keep your feet under you – you have to narrow your base,” Stewart said.
It’s also nice to have someone big enough to get a pile moving forward every now and again when things get a little sloppy out there. The good news is West Virginia has someone capable of doing that in 5-foot-10-inch, 222-pound sophomore tailback Shawne Alston.
After getting just six carries in WVU’s first eight games (all in a mop up roll during a blowout win against UNLV), Alston has been brought in to salt away the Mountaineers’ last two wins against Cincinnati and Louisville.
Against the Bearcats, Alston carried the football 17 times for 75 yards – most of his attempts coming on a 6 ½ minute drive to kill the third quarter. Last week against Louisville, he ran seven times for 36 yards, making a pair of chain-moving runs to keep the clock running in the fourth quarter.
Alston isn’t going to fake anyone out of their shoes, but he might knock someone out of them - and that just might be what the doctor ordered against a Pitt defense that has pushed West Virginia around some in recent games.
“When we get a lead one of our thought processes is to keep the defense off the field, grind out first downs, and eat the clock,” said Mullen. “I think those are the situations where you’ve seen Shawne be successful.”
Alston actually has the best yards-per-carry average on the team (4.8), albeit on just 30 attempts. And he did rip off a 23-yard run against Cincinnati, as well as a pair of 12-yard runs against UNLV and Louisville.
The 23-yard jaunt is the longest by any WVU running back since the Syracuse game when Noel Devine took one carry 32 yards. The Syracuse game was also the last time Devine has topped the 100-yard mark on the ground. It’s no secret the toe injury Devine sustained on an out-of-bounds hit at LSU is still affecting him. In his last five games, Devine has rushed for just 353 yards and is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry - almost half of his career yards-per-carry average coming into the season.
If Devine can’t get his tires moving against the Panthers, perhaps Alston is the guy Stewart and Mullen can turn to a little bit earlier on Friday?
“He might (get more touches),” said Stewart, quickly adding that he’s earned the opportunity regardless of the circumstances. “He’s played hard and he’s played well. Heck, (fullback) Ryan Clarke … it’s second and 17 (last week against Louisville) and, bang, there goes the big guy for 18 yards. (Others) have asked, ‘Are you going to get in that power formation and go at them?’ I don’t know. I’m going to look it over and get a feel and go.”
Whatever Stewart chooses to do, Alston said he will approach Friday’s game the same way he has approached the previous 10.
“Even before when I wasn’t playing too much I came into every game with the mindset that I’ve just got to be ready in case anything happens,” Alston said. “Now, there is a bigger chance that I’m probably going to get the ball, but my mindset hasn’t changed. I still go through my preparation the same way. As long as you do a good job of preparing through the week then you should be confident in what you do.”
If anything else, Alston believes he offers a little something different for Pitt to prepare for if/when he gets into the game.
“When you’ve got Noel in there dancing and making moves … I mean he’s pretty quick so I think it can be a problem for them to adjust from me to him,” Alston said. “A different change of pace is always a good thing.”
Keep in mind, too, that it was Devine’s 88-yard touchdown run that broke open last year’s game in Morgantown. Injured or healthy, good playing conditions or bad, Noel Devine is still a weapon that teams have to contend with.
Stewart and Mullen certainly know that, and that’s why they aren’t about to tip their hands before Friday’s game.