Holgorsen dials down WVU offense
MORGANTOWN - The overriding reason Coach Dana Holgorsen was brought to West Virginia was because Athletic Director Oliver Luck saw the offenses Holgorsen conducted at Houston and Oklahoma State, and wanted the same for the Mountaineers.
And Luck knew Holgorsen could do it fast. It just hasn't been as fast at WVU.
In two seasons at Houston, Holgorsen helped the Cougars rank Nos. 10 and 1 in scoring offense, Nos. 2 and 1 in passing offense and Nos. 2 and 1 in total offense. In 2010, his only season at Oklahoma State, Holgorsen coordinated an offense that was No. 3 in scoring, No. 2 in passing and No. 3 in total offense.
He's done it again at WVU, where things are different and better for the WVU offense, but where the success hasn't been as immediate or as emphatic.
Oh, the Mountaineers were No. 67 in total offense last season (367.27 yards per game) and No. 78 in scoring offense (25.2 points per game). They're now No. 13 in total offense (479.4) and No. 16 in scoring (36.5). Holgorsen has done for Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin what he did for quarterbacks and receivers before them.
Yet Holgorsen coaches the 11th game of his first season with the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) here at 7 p.m. Friday against Pitt (5-5, 3-2) and says things haven't gone quite as expected because things haven't gone as fast as expected.
"I've changed quite a bit in what the play calling is and how fast it gets done and the amount of plays that we're running," he said. "All that stuff is a little different than what I've been used to."
He said his first season with the Mountaineers is not like what it was with the Cougars and Cowboys, but like it was when he joined the Texas Tech staff in 2000.
Houston Coach Kevin Sumlin wanted Holgorsen to run his offense, but to hurry it up as much as possible. Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy then wanted to have what Holgorsen did at Houston.
"The (previous) philosophies offensively at Houston and Oklahoma State were similar," Holgorsen said. "There were guys that were used to doing things similar to how we run them. The personnel was in place to where we could handle that.
"We're not there offensively. It goes back to Texas Tech when we were changing a lot of philosophies and changing the way things were done offensively."
Holgorsen and Coach Mike Leach were just beginning with the Red Raiders in 2000 and needed time to find the players that would allow them to hit their stride. To the end, they never played as consistently quick as Holgorsen's offenses did at Houston and Oklahoma State.
The players Holgorsen and his staff inherited at WVU played a spread offense, but one that was very different, and they never played with sustained pace. That change was one the players struggled with in spring and preseason practice and then into the season.
"We didn't know what our identity was to start the year off," said quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who was Holgorsen's graduate assistant at Houston and Oklahoma State. "We didn't really know how guys were going to operate and whether we'd be better in heavy sets or speeding the game up.
"Sometimes each quarterback is different. At Oklahoma State, we couldn't tempo very fast. At Houston, we could. Here we can do a mix of both, but I think we did do more tempo stuff at the beginning of year to try and find out who was where on offense."
What the staff discovered was the offense couldn't manage the demands that come with playing fast. The Mountaineers bothered teams early and thought they were affecting teams like LSU and Bowling Green to the point those defenses had players fake injuries to slow down the tempo.
Things have changed since then, though, and Holgorsen said he hasn't asked for the tempo. When he does now, it's usually at the end of a half or to surprise the opponent. The calls are then limited to what the players know.
"I've slimmed it down a little bit to the things that we can handle," Holgorsen said. "The amount of plays that we go into a game with is relatively the same. The rate of how fast we're calling it, how challenging the things are, it comes down to being able to block people up front and being able to make accurate reads or running the ball with numbers."
The season has not been without one pleasant surprise on offense and one that has to do with speed. Holgorsen and Spavital have been able to install, practice and feature a lot of their quick passes this season.
That usually has to wait because quarterbacks have to develop their instincts and then learn to trust them. Smith, close to breaking all of the single-season WVU passing records, picked it up early and has been able to get the ball out of his hand fast.
That's helped greatly and kept WVU from running into another obstacle. The Mountaineers haven't always trusted pass protection to call more play-action and dropback passes.
"Normally in the first year in the quick game isn't there because you have to make decisions so fast and sometimes people are hesitant to throw the ball," Spavial said. "Guys don't want to throw an interception, obviously.
"(Quarterback) Brandon Weeden couldn't do it last year at Oklahoma State. Now he can. Normally guys can evolve into it because they get repetitions, but we've always been able to do a lot more of the quick game with Geno."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.