WVU football: Holgorsen needs Mountaineers to be smarter
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- From the time Dana Holgorsen was promoted and permitted to put his stamp on West Virginia football, the first-time head coach has asked just three things of the Mountaineers.
Play smart. Play hard. Play fast.
Two were in place when WVU played host to unbeaten LSU Saturday night. The exception was the difference.
"We've got to become a smarter football team," Holgorsen said. "The stuff we've been talking about, it matters when we play that good of an opponent that understands that facet of the game."
The 22nd-ranked Mountaineers (3-1), who host the Mid-American Conference's Bowling Green (3-1) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday (ROOT telecast), displayed the other parts against the Tigers.
The plays came from the sideline to the offense quickly and the offense played with a pace that was effective and at times bothersome for LSU.
WVU's offensive line more than managed against LSU's defensive line and didn't allow a sack in 65 pass attempts. The receivers went one-on-one with cornerbacks and even drew Holgorsen's praise for the way they "elevated their game" against players who are now the reigning and the previous national defensive players of the week.
The defense ran and hit from the start. On the first play, linebacker Najee Goode ran over a fullback and let safety Terence Garvin fly in to tackle the running back. Both had been penalized a week earlier for unnecessary roughness and both vowed afterward not to change the way they played.
"I thought our effort was good," Holgorsen said. "Our effort and energy were as good as they could be. Our physicality was really good and we knew it had to be in order to compete against those guys. From an effort and a playing hard standpoint, it was good, but from the smarts side it was tough with the penalties and the turnovers."
Some of the errors could be attributed to the Tigers, now ranked No. 1.
Cornerback Tyran Mathieu stripped a ball from a receiver for a fumble recovery and then hopped out of a blitz and tipped a pass to himself for an interception. Yet it was Brad Starks who battled for yardage against a pack of defenders and let Mathieu grab the ball.
It was quarterback Geno Smith who first switched from a run play to a pass and then threw too low and let Mathieu deflect it.
Holding penalties will happen against the speed and the size of LSU's defense, but five of WVU's 10 penalties happened before the snap. Two were for a delay of game and three were for a false start - two by receivers who simply have to look at the ball and move when it's snapped.
"It was probably because of the tempo we had going and guys got a little anxious," Smith said.
Holgorsen said LSU's Brad Wing had "as good a punting performance as I have seen in all my years of coaching." Wing missed the previous two games, but the lefty averaged 48.7 yards per punt against the Mountaineers with all six ending up inside the 11-yard line.
WVU helped, though, as returner Tavon Austin opted not to catch four of the punts and instead let them roll to the 3, 4, 5 and 9.
On a decisive 99-yard kickoff return touchdown, WVU had Morris Claiborne on the left side and was encouraging him toward the sideline, but Claiborne shook Avery Williams and brushed off a flailing attempt by J.D. Woods on the left sideline.
"We didn't tackle anybody," Holgorsen said. "We've got to do a better job on special teams. They completely beat us in special teams, in all phases. We've just got to work hard and get better at that."
The Falcons are sound on special teams and lead the nation in punting average and net punting. They've committed 25 penalties - the same number as WVU - and 11 turnovers (seven fumbles and four interceptions). Bowling Green has forced nine and is one of just 25 teams with a turnover margin of minus-2 or worse. The Mountaineers are minus-4 and one of 19 teams without a fumble recovery.
Holgorsen said he'll speak throughout this week about being more aware on special teams, more conscious of penalties, more careful about protecting the ball and more aggressive about taking it. It's no different than any other time Holgorsen and the coaches reinforce habits.
"When guys do things well, we say they did them well and try to build on it and when guys do things wrong we say, 'You've got to do it this way or do it that way,'" he said. "That's why we watch tape and move on and focus on the things we feel like we need to get better at."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.