WVU football: Holgorsen aware No. 18 Mountaineers need fast start
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dana Holgorsen encounters his first road game as a head coach Saturday at Maryland, but he already knows what No. 18 West Virginia must do.
"We've got to try to score fast," the Mountaineers coach said. "They'll be rowdy and they have a good crowd. It's a tough place to play. It's hard to get the home crowd out of it. Starting fast is about the only chance you've got."
WVU (2-0) has had trouble with that so far this season. Two of the teams' four punts, a missed field goal and a turnover on downs have come in the first quarter. The Mountaineers have scored none of their 10 touchdowns in the first quarter and have been outscored 10-3 overall.
"I don't know what the yardage is," Holgorsen said, "but I'm sure we're getting slaughtered on it."
The opponent leads there, too, 229-109, and has an edge in time of possession at 17:22-12:38. Maryland (1-0) plays host to the Mountaineers at noon on ESPNU from Byrd Stadium. The Terrapins led Miami 7-0 after one quarter of their season opener.
"I might have to do a little better job of that as far as getting plays that will be positive, plays that put the ball in play and that sort of thing," Holgorsen said. "I don't know. Maybe I didn't do a very good job calling plays the last few weeks."
The Mountaineers ran just 11 plays in last week's first quarter and 18 against Marshall. Quarterback Geno Smith is 9-for-15 for 77 yards with a long gain of 28 yards. Fourteen runs have totaled 32 yards with a long of 9 yards.
Holgorsen and his staff said they've made no adjustments after the first quarter and at halftime. They have instead called the same plays and simply seen better results. Those same plays have worked the rest of the way for 86 points and 715 yards.
"Part of that has to do with you never really know what they're going to do anyway," Holgorsen said of the opposing defense. "That's part of it. I've been in charge of offenses that started really fast and I've been in charge of offenses that started really slow. If I had a magic formula, we'd always start fast. We work real hard at it. We talk about it and try to prepare them as well as we can."
The Mountaineers can't guarantee a fast start, but there are ways to manufacture one. They don't take a strict script into a game and run through the plays in order, but they do have an idea of what the opponent will do and what WVU can run against that with success. They focus on a handful of plays at the beginning and only the ones they trust most.
"For the most part we practice the same plays we're going to run the first couple drives every day and for the most part we stay on that," inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson said. "When you go three-and-out, you tend to get off of it. In my opinion, it's all about getting that first first down.
"We preach positive plays. Getting behind the chain is like the cardinal sin, the worst thing you can ever do. We try to move the ball forward, so all we're trying to do at the beginning of the game is get that first first down. It's inevitable. Once you get that first first down, the ball starts rolling."
Sometimes it works. Other times it does not. Holgorsen's offense at Oklahoma State outscored teams 127-62 in the first quarter last season, but was tied twice and trailing twice entering the second quarter. In five road games, the Cowboys led twice, trailed twice and were tied once, but totaled just 44 points.
The story was similar in two seasons in charge of the offense at Houston. In 2009, the Cougars outscored teams 162-75 in the first quarter, but also trailed twice and were tied four times, all on the road. Houston also trailed 14-0 after the first quarter of the bowl game. A year before, the Cougars trailed six times at the end of the first quarter and only outscored teams 80-72. In five road games, they were tied three times, tied once and in the lead once.
"Our opening plays are normally plays we have success with against what we think well see," said quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who was Holgorsen's graduate assistant at Houston and Oklahoma State. "We look at the success rate of those plays go with those.
"Sometimes the other team brings out a different formation and then we have to take another look at how they play. That opening script, we try to get a feel for how a team plays. Sometimes you have to send some feelers out with how they'll play certain things and then go from there."
The start isn't as important as the finish and Holgorsen's offenses have been better with the conclusion. Oklahoma State ended up No. 3 in scoring offense last season at 44.3 points per game. Houston led the country in scoring with 42.2 points in 2009 and was No. 9 with 40.6 points per game in 2008.
"I'm communicating with Dana as quickly as I can about what the defense is doing," said Dawson, who is in the coach's box above the field with Spavital. "I'm trying to give him a feel for what defense they're playing, what they're doing to us, what plays we have that will be successful against that. We're constantly reevaluating our plays after every series."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142.