Holgorsen's offenses are physical
MORGANTOWN -- Early in the preseason, West Virginia football Coach Dana Holgorsen was informed his offense doesn't run the ball inside much and doesn't do many drills in practice to reinforce such physical plays.
Holgorsen reacted like a man who had heard such claims.
"Sure we do," he said. "If you look back through all the years at Texas Tech, for eight years we were considered one of the most physical offenses in the Big XII. From an offensive line perspective, it's a street fight, as physical as you can get. And because our offense is perimeter oriented, we have to be physical blocking out in an open area."
That direct and determined style of play is something Holgorsen figures to mention early and often this week as No. 24 WVU prepares for Sunday's 3:30 p.m. season opener against Marshall, which will be televised by ESPN.
The Mountaineers are a three-touchdown favorite for the game at Mountaineer Field, though a question lingers about the way they'll play: Can this offense that spreads the field and prefers to pass be physical?
"Being a physical team means you better be physical every week," Holgorsen said. "It's part of the challenge of getting your guys ready to play every week. We've talked about parity in the Big East. You better get used to it because once you get to the Big East, you've got seven straight games where the level is going to be the same. You better get used to how you coach it and how you do it as players so it's to the point where you can do it each week."
From what can be ascertained after a month of discussing and dissecting the offense while never really seeing it, WVU won't really contest that what it does can sometimes be described as finesse football.
That's not an insult. It's true. The players rely on precision and timing and similar subtleties that require a skill to conquer the forces attempting to stop them.
Just don't confuse finesse with soft. That's the insult. What the Mountaineers really, really hate is to be told what they do on offense is not physical. That, they say, is a lie.
"When we coached at Texas Tech and we threw it about 70 percent of the time, you could still be physical and wear people down," said offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, who was at Texas Tech for the first seven of Holgorsen's eight seasons there. "We were a physical offensive line there. Whoever was uncovered was going to knock the crap out of somebody."
Holgorsen's offenses pass more than they run, even if the ratio can be closer to even than what the perception may suggest. Defenses know the trend, though, and will use more defensive backs or ask the players up front to play the pass rather than attack the run or pursue the passer. That gives the offense more blockers than there are people to block.
"With what we do, you're going to have the uncovered defensive lineman," Bedenbaugh said. "You go back and watch the Texas Tech film and for years we'd get that three-man front and the nose never rushed because he knew one of the guards was going to come down and take him out. Then that freed up one of the guards to go help the tackle. Trust me, the way we played there, the way we're going to play here, we're going to be physical, even if we throw the ball."
The Mountaineers won't use a tight end and will rely on five offensive linemen. Because of that, they'll try to use speed at running back to get outside and attack the perimeter. They've devised ways to make that work. The Mountaineers will throw swing passes to running backs and screen passes to receivers and then ask the receivers to block and the offensive linemen to attack outside.
These are passes, but they mimic a running play and get the ball outside faster than a handoff and before the defense can outnumber the blockers.
That's nothing new, though, and defenses have adjusted through the years to stop what was happening at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and even WVU. The coaches with the Mountaineers have come up with new ways to do the same things.
"The more that our offense has adjusted to running the football the more we've become a physical football team," said inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson, who played for Holgorsen at Wingate and used Holgorsen's offense as the coordinator for two seasons at Millsaps and three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. "We have the three-back sets and the two-back sets and you're not going to see any of that stuff early in the Texas Tech days. That switch in the offense has given us a greater ability to be more physical and to be more successful."
The two-back sets became more popular when Holgorsen had a bigger back he could use with the more traditional running back in the offense. The three-back sets were introduced last year at Oklahoma State when Holgorsen realized he had the personnel to put them together. No one had seen that diamond formation, but it helped make Kendall Hunter an All-American.
Hunter was a running back, not a receiver, and he finished with 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns. The team's fullback, Bryant Ward, was an All-Big XII player. He had five touches all season, but was an undeniably effective blocker. With two or three backs, Holgorsen can use the extra blockers as fullbacks, tight ends or wingbacks and ask them block and create gaps for the running back.
"It's a mentality," Dawson said. "When you give the offensive guys the ability to be on the attack, which is what we do, then that's what makes them physical. That's running the ball or when we're throwing screens, but even when you're pass blocking, you can be nasty. I've seen guards get set and have nobody to block and then go ear-hole the nose guard. I guarantee you the nose guard after that play thought it was a pretty damn physical play when he was picking himself up off the ground."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.