CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia's rushing game is stuck on mediocrity.
The Mountaineers have been held under 100 yards rushing in two of the past three games, in part the result of a month-old toe injury that's limited Noel Devine's escapability.
Coach Bill Stewart picked apart game film after a recent sleepless night, looking for possible answers. The problem, he found, wasn't with what the Mountaineers were doing with the ball, but with what they were up against.
Stewart said South Florida's defense was the second-fastest West Virginia has seen this season. The fastest? No. 6 LSU.
No surprise, then, No. 20 West Virginia managed only 58 rushing yards total against the Tigers last month and 79 yards in Thursday's 20-6 win over the Bulls.
"They made great open-field tackles," Stewart said. "We could always improve. I'm not in a panic mode about what we did or did not do on offense."
West Virginia has prided itself on having a formidable rushing attack since the run-based spread system was installed by former coach Rich Rodriguez in 2001.
Stewart was WVU's quarterbacks coach under Rodriguez and he remembered the coaching staff talking in those early years about how close the struggling running game was to making big plays. Eventually, those big plays came.
"We all just to a guy kept saying, it's just an arm tackle here," Stewart said. "If we just stay with it, stay with it. Good things are going to happen because small plays become pretty good plays and pretty good plays become big plays. That's what I'm thinking right now."
So is Syracuse coach Doug Marrone.
Syracuse (4-2, 1-1) is averaging 124 yards allowed on the ground, which is 35th best in the nation. But Marrone isn't counting on the Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East) having another off day running the football.
"Whether it's Devine, whether it's any of their other backs, I look at West Virginia in one word — they're explosive," Marrone said.
Six of West Virginia's top eight single-season rushing performances have come since 2001. But the Mountaineers simply haven't been the same rushing juggernaut since Pat White, the top rushing quarterback in Bowl Subdivision history, graduated in 2008.
Sure, Devine is going after his third straight 1,000-yard season, but he's been the Mountaineers' only productive runner since White left. And when Devine blows a tire, the entire team suffers.
West Virginia ranks next-to-last in the Big East in rushing with a 149-yard average. Devine and his predecessors were accustomed to doing that by themselves.
"I'd love to run for 400-500 yards a game," Stewart said. "It is what it is. We can always do better in every phase, not just the rushing."
Devine, whose top effort this season was 131 yards against Maryland, has been slowly mending since hurting his right big toe when he was tackled out of bounds in the 20-14 loss at LSU.
He returned in a limited role two weeks ago and carried three times for 84 yards and two scores against UNLV.
But the tough times returned against South Florida. Devine was limited to 29 yards on 13 carries — and that led the team. He did show a temporary return to form when he took a pitch from Jock Sanders on a hook-and-lateral play and went 11 yards around right end for a touchdown.