Casazza column: Stick/draw could be WVU’s new calling card
MORGANTOWN, W.Va - Once upon a time, when Dana Holgorsen was an assistant at Texas Tech and hadn't even earned the right to hold the reins to the offense, when Rich Rodriguez hadn't gone to Michigan and was instead applying his ingenuity at West Virginia, the Mountaineers had an identity.
They ran option offense from the shotgun and they had a go-to play, an idea to separate their backs from the wall, to get three yards when they needed two. It was the zone read, a little shell game, sleight-of-hand trick Pat White and Steve Slaton used to mystify defenses through the years.
White would take the snap and read the defensive end's first move. A step inside or outside triggered a response from White, who would decide to stick the ball in Slaton's belly or hang on and keep it himself. The beauty was not the play's design or even the deception, but its independence. There wasn't a defensive front or philosophy to stop it.
Defenses could stop it, and they did, but only with stellar tackling. If the defense tried to take away Slaton, White would keep. If the defense tried to contain White, he'd hand to Slaton. The results were fantastic far more often than they were frustrating.
When Rodriguez left for Michigan, he took a lot of WVU's creativity and offensive personality with him. In the three seasons that followed, the most common and understandable gripe aimed at Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen was that they never gave WVU an identity, never developed that play that could be called and could not be stopped when the Mountaineers had to have it.
We're staring at the dawn of the 2012 season, which begins at noon Saturday when the 11th-ranked Mountaineers play host to Marshall at Mountaineer Field, and we see that offense is back. The game will be televised by FX and the audience everywhere will note a play by which the Mountaineers can be recognized.
Get to know the stick/draw.
"I don't know about it being our favorite play, but let's put it this way - last year, it was a very good play for us," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who presides over a lot of plays that were very good last year. "Throughout the course of the season, I don't know how many times we ran it, but that play was successful over 90 percent of the time."
WVU doesn't lean on it every game because WVU can find other ways to move the ball. The stick/draw was called a handful of times against Marshall last season but 15 or so times against Maryland. What the play can accomplish matters more than how often it is signaled in from the sideline.
As the name suggests, the stick/draw is a package play that comes with options, which isn't unusual. You'll watch a lot of games during opening weekend that feature receivers changing their routes based on what the defense does before or after the snap. Many offenses ask their quarterbacks to change from one pass play to another or change from a pass to a run before the snap.
What is unusual about WVU's package play is that it can be a pass or a run. Receivers run quick stick routes. The offensive line blocks for the running back executing a draw play. Only the quarterback knows what will happen. The Mountaineers are extremely fortunate to have a quick thinker in veteran Geno Smith.
Consider that the whole thing happens in about two seconds. The ball is snapped and the offensive line blocks in a way to let the defensive line and the defenders from the second level get up field and approach the offensive backfield. Smith then has to decide if he'll make one of two throws or if he'll make a trickily timed handoff to the running back, who had been loitering in the backfield and acting like he wouldn't be taking a handoff.
If the pass is there, Smith lets it rip, either to a slot receiver who's run a short route inside or to a receiver on the back side of the play who should have blockers on the outside.
If the pass isn't there, Smith knows that's because the defenders in the middle of the field have vacated that space to cover the pass. Smith then hands it to the running back, who can speed through and then past a defense that's been duped into heading in the wrong direction.
"It stresses the linebackers more than anything," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "It's a quick enough play that we can't do anything deep because we're not really blocking it, so you have to have a quarterback who can get it out quick. But he's got three options and it's all his decision. That's why we have a draw scheme. It's a slower run play, so Geno should be able to read the defense before he makes a decision to hand it off."
It's not an explosive play, though WVU's individual talent can produce one from time to time, but it's effective and essential for what the Mountaineers do. They pick up chunks of yards and move the chains with the play. They can use it in any formation. They run it fast because it doesn't require much from the players before the snap, least of all substitutions since it works with just about every personnel package.
It also makes use of WVU's best offensive attributes, which are the smart and sharp quarterback and twitchy receivers who are a handful on the go and in open space, especially against the linebackers the play targets.
Pay too much attention to those marquee types and the Mountaineers will slip a draw in and catch the defenders off guard and likely off balance. Pay too much attention to the run and - well, that's not something you want to do against WVU. Devote equal attention to both and the Mountaineers have what they desire.
"Really and truly, it makes the defenses pretty plain," Dawson said. "Defenses want to disguise, disguise, disguise before the snap, but when we snap the ball, they have to show their hand and eventually you've got to cover who you've got to cover. The beauty of the play is that everything happens after the snap."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.