It’s been a tale of three seasons for the Hurricanes this year. Promise, peril, punctuate. These could be the monikers slapped on the Canes’ blocks of four wins, four losses, and four wins. Weird season, but at least one that’s moved towards a positive finish.
And – speaking of threes – somewhere between the peril and punctuate, Mark Richt’s amorphous triumvirate of running backs continued to fluctuate as far as usage. The constant was certainly Mark Walton, who has established himself as one of the best all-around running backs in the conference. Walton – whose “hola, amigos” moment came in Boone, NC where he dusted the entire App State defense for an 80-yard touchdown on the Canes’ first offensive play from scrimmage – equally established himself as the lead dog in the Canes’ backfield, finishing the regular season with 1065 yards on 192 carries (good for 5.5 ypc) and a sterling 14 touchdowns.
But it’s the running back rotation that has fluctuated from the middle and towards the end of the season. What can Cane fans – and the Mountaineer defense – expect to see in Orlando on December 28?
Well, if we can look to anything, it’s the trend of the time share between Joseph Yearby and Gus Edwards, and the production of each.
First, the production. Joe finished with 592 yards on 99 carries (6.0 ypc) with 7 touchdowns. He hit double-digit touches in 4 of the first 6 games, with a season high 23 touches against Florida Atlantic.
However, after the UNC loss, his usage gradually began to decline and has been trending downward since. He topped out at 9 rushing attempts against Virginia Tech and Virginia and caught 1 pass for 7 yards in the entire second half of the season.
Conversely, the Gus Bus made a late pull from the bus station this season and has steadily overtaken Yearby as the second back in the rotation. Gus started the year with a bang, running for 106 yards on only 7 totes against Florida A&M, which was highlighted by a 74-yard touchdown scamper.
But he only carried the ball 9 times over the next 7 games, during which the Canes dropped 4 in a row. Despite the wait, Edwards has proven valuable as of late, bludgeoning the Virginia and Duke defenses and helping the Canes to pull away to comfortable wins during the Canes 4-game winning streak. During that time, Edwards has carried 33 times for 145 yards. Conversely, Yearby has carried 20 times for 98 yards.
The Mountaineer defense has been said to be one of the better units in the Big 12 this year. However, as far as a stats go, West Virginia’s rush defense is ranked 66th in the country, allowing a rather healthy 176 yards per game. That’s about 42 yards per game more than Miami’s defense, which ranks 31st nationally in the same category.
And they’ve been allowing plenty of real estate to opposing ground games in the latter half of the season. With the lone exception of a 37-20 loss at Oklahoma State, WVU’s defense has allowed 150 or more rushing yards in 6 of its final 7 games of the season, including 316 to OU in a 56-28 disrobing on ABC primetime.
And, in there, it’s worth noting that the Mountaineers allowed 37 and 56 points to probably the two best offenses in its conference. So, the opportunity may be there for the Canes to exploit. Miami has the horses at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and certainly at running back to make some noise offensively.
Prediction: more of the same
We as fans all hate the bowl game layoff, as I’m sure the players do to some extent as well. That’s especially true when you’re on a four-game winning streak and looking dominant in the process. If the bowl game were to follow the regular season promptly, the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it axiom would certainly apply as far as the division of carries among Edwards and Yearby behind Walton.
But until proven otherwise, Edwards seems to be considered the hotter hand of late behind Walton by the coaching staff, so I would anticipate seeing him more in the second half to spell Walton, with some Yearby sprinkled in as well.
What do you all think?