32 carries for 291 yards and 2 TD. Raise your hand if you saw that coming. I mean, yeah, Dustin Garrison looked like he was starting to figure some things out last week against LSU. The line had protected well, and Garrison hit some holes, but still the WVU attack mostly relied on the arm of Geno Smith to move the chains just as it had in every single game to date. And Bowling Green wasn't exactly billed as a pushover, holding opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense per game coming in and limiting conference opponent Miami (Ohio) to 42 yards rushing. So on a cold, wet day in Morgantown, you had to figure BG would load up to stop the run and make Smith overcome the elements to win through the air, right? Heh.
Garrison ripped off big gain after big gain en route to gashing the Falcons for 291 yards on 32 carries, 233 of which came before halftime. I knew he was having a decent game, but the 233 number really caught me by surprise. Even given how cold, wet and drunk I was during the first half, I was shocked to hear that. 233? That's absurd. The offense didn't appear to be solely relying on him like it did with Avon Cobourne back in 2002, and there were no lengthy touchdown runs like we saw with Noel Devine and Steve Slaton in recent years. Take away the 50 yards he gained on 3 consecutive carries to end the half, and he still had 173 yards, which is more than any other single-game rushing total for WVU this year. And he did it with consistency and little flash, in chunks of 7, 10, 12, and sometimes 25 yards, until before you knew it, he had blown by the 200 yard mark before the half. So, what happened? And what should we expect from here?
I think the performance was the result of a number of factors coming together in a perfect storm:
1. The opponent. Bowling Green is no pushover, but they're no LSU either. And Falcon head coach Dave Clawson admitted after the game that their defense was designed to stop the pass. So after having to deal with LSU's defensive front filled with future NFL players, pushing around BGSU's smallish front must have seemed like going up against the scout team. Nothing against BGSU, but they're no LSU. And that definitely showed on Saturday.
2. Confidence. I mentioned LSU, and any time you can go up against the best team in the country and hold your own, your confidence has to grow by leaps and bounds. I think that happened here, both for Garrison and for the offensive line. It wasn't just that BG's players weren't as good as LSU's, but that our own players finally started to believe in their own ability and Holgorsen's system. You can have all the ability in the world, but if you're not sure of yourself, you won't play like it. Given what we saw on Saturday, that's starting to change.
3. Timing. This was the 5th game of the Holgorsen era, which is about the time that things start to click for his teams. Guys are getting comfortable in their roles and with the coaches, and are starting to get an idea of what it takes to be successful in the system. I think we'll start to see the offense take off now that there is a greater understanding of how to execute the plays. Also, the fact that it's Garrison's 5th collegiate game means he's starting to get accustomed to the speed of the game and thus seeing and hitting holes he was missing before. Reminds me of a similar coming-out party buy another true freshman running back in October 2005.
The combination of these 3 factors, and probably a little bit of the weather forcing our hand a bit to be conservative and go to the ground game, resulted in a huge coming-out party for Garrison and the offense in general. Frankly, I think we would have seen a similar result against almost anyone this week.
So now that we appear to have established a legitimate threat in the running game, what can we expect from here? Even though Garrison has a polished high school career replete with 200-yard games, state rushing records, and a state championship, I'm not anticipating 200-yard games (or even 150-yard games) every week. Geno Smith is still the bell cow that is going to lead this offense, but there is no reason Garrison can't chip in 120-30 yards per game to keep defenses honest. If he can do that, or at least combine with Shawne Alston for that type of rushing total, this offense is going to be exceedingly dangerous in Big East play.
But one monster game hasn't always meant automatic future success for WVU's running backs.
Trying to put this game into some context, Garrison's 291 yards tied with Kerry Marbury's 291 against Temple on 22 carries in 1971 for the second-highest total in WVU history after Kay Jay Harris's 337 yards on 25 carries against ECU in 2004. Next up is Avon Cobourne's 260 yards on 30 carries against ECU in 2002. (Aside: I checked and contrary to popular belief Greg Robinson was not ECU's defensive coordinator in 2002 and 2004.) Harris finished his injury-plagued 2004 campaign with 959 yards rushing. Marbury finished the 1971 season with 890 yards. And Cobourne racked up 1710 yards while splitting carries with Quincy Wilson in 2002. Based on these results, Garrison could either triple his single-game total and finish with 870 yards or explode for almost 7-times that total and end up in the neighborhood of 1800 yards. I'm going to split the difference and guess that in his remaining 8 games (including the bowl) he will amass right around 800 yards, putting him at 1150 for the year, or just about the same total Steve Slaton had his freshman year when he burst onto the scene against Louisville with 188 yards and 5 TD.
It's hard to tell at this point how we will think of Garrison in the future, but it's almost certain his performance against BG won't soon be forgotten. I was talking with my uncle today about Garrison's performance, and the question came up - who does he remind you of? He doesn't seem to have Slaton's straight-line speed, or Avon's vision, or Kay Jay's size, or Quincy's power, or Noel's burst, or Amos's moves. But maybe he has a little of each of those? He showed flashes of each at different times on Saturday, making nice cutbacks, bursting into the open field, sprinting past linebackers, running through arm tackles, dragging players for extra yardage, and showing a nice juke or spin when necessary. But nothing to make you sit up and say, "Wow, he reminds me of...." And maybe that's okay, maybe he doesn't need to remind us of anyone. Maybe he gets to make his own mark on the WVU record books. And maybe in a few years, we'll be asking ourselves whether a young freshman back reminds us at all of Dustin Garrison.