Chuck McGill: WVU run game was on display Saturday
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Maybe it was Saturday's heat. Perhaps he knocked his noggin in that fender-bender in downtown Morgantown last week.
The most likely explanation might be that third-year West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen would just rather forget the last half of 2012 altogether.
But after his Mountaineers pulled off a come-from-behind 24-17 win over William & Mary at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, Holgorsen stood behind the podium and commented on his team's 44-to-27 run-pass ratio in the season opener.
The man with more than a few maverick hairs had gone for a simple, conservative comb-over of an offense against the Football Championship Subdivision visitors from Virginia.
"We ran the ball probably more than any time in the history of my coaching career," Holgorsen said in the postgame session with the media, "but I felt like it was the right thing to do."
It seems the black shirt ball coach might have let it slip his mind that he started this offensive play-calling trend late last season.
Holgorsen became the sole offensive coordinator at Texas Tech in 2007. He held the same role at Houston the following two years, then had a one-year stint as the OC at Oklahoma State in 2010 before arriving at WVU.
In that seven-year span, Holgorsen has grown increasingly fond of the run game. WVU's 44 attempts Saturday was the fourth-highest total in the past seven seasons for a Holgorsen offense. Three of those four have come in the past five games.
In fact, at Texas Tech in 2007, Holgorsen's offense passed more than it ran in all 13 games - and it was seldom even close. At Houston in '08 and '09, the Cougars opted for the pass over the run just twice in 27 games. In Holgorsen's quick pitstop at OSU, the Cowboys' offense ran more than it chucked the ball around in three of 13 games.
At WVU? The Mountaineers have favored the run over the pass in nine of 27 games - exactly 1/3 of the time. It happened in four of Holgorsen's first 22 games as a head coach.
Saturday's 44 rushes in 71 plays from scrimmage marked the fifth consecutive game the runs have outnumbered pass attempts for the Mountaineers, perhaps a harbinger of what fans - and opponents - can expect the rest of the 2013 season.
Five games ago - in the midst of a five-game losing streak - Holgorsen started to lean on the run. Not coincidentally, the first game that ushered in the change of philosophy was when Tavon Austin was shifted to the backfield and rushed for a school-record 344 yards against Oklahoma.
In the final four games of the 2012 season, Holgorsen's best offensive player was a running back. Austin has since graduated to the National Football League, but WVU's best offensive skill player this season is, arguably, graduate transfer Charles Sims. He dazzled in his debut Saturday, going for game-high 119 rushing yards on 22 carries.
Sims leads a deep and talented backfield in a time of uncertainty at quarterback. In the past six seasons, Holgorsen's four quarterbacks - Graham Harrell, Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith - have averaged 4,868 yards per season. Harrell, Keenum and Smith all had previous starting experience before Holgorsen became their sole offensive coordinator, and Weeden was a 27-year-old during Holgorsen's one season at Oklahoma State.
He had known commodities, veterans and returning starters.
Paul Millard's initiation Saturday was a new experience for the 42-year-old head coach. He leaned on the offense's strength and let his quarterback get acclimated. Holgorsen kept the offense vanilla and Millard checked out of passing plays and into runs when the William & Mary defense fanned out.
"They were really taking the top off the coverage," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "They had what I call an umbrella coverage; they had three (defensive backs) back there. The corners were tighter; they really had five DBs playing.
"We got to run the ball at some point when they're playing off like that ... We weren't going to sit there and throw it 70 times when they have an eight-man coverage."
Even so, the numbers show a shift in philosophy.
The Mountaineers threw the ball 62 percent of the time against William & Mary. Only once in Holgorsen's previous two seasons at WVU did the offense lean more heavily on the run: last season's 59-10 win over Kansas in the penultimate game of the regular season. The Mountaineers ran 46 times against 25 throws - 64.8 percent in the run game's favor.
The 25 pass attempts represented an all-time low since Holgorsen's 2007 season at Texas Tech. The fewest passes his Red Raiders offense attempted that season was 37. His Houston teams never threw it fewer than 33 times.
He'd never had an offense pass fewer than 30 times - ever - until the 2012 Kansas game, when Geno Smith went 23-for-25. Millard went 19-for-25 against William & Mary - Clint Trickett had two incompletions in his two series of work - to mark the third consecutive game WVU has passed fewer the 30 times.
Not once did that happen in the previous 77 games of a Holgorsen offense.
The 2007 Texas Tech team only ran 32.6 percent of the time. Holgorsen's pass-happy Houston teams rushed 39.9 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in '09. That figure ticked up to 46.2 percent at Oklahoma State and is at 45.5 percent since Holgorsen arrived at WVU.
In the past five games, WVU has attempted 145 passes and rushed 215 times - that's nearly a 3-to-2 ratio of run to pass.
"I don't care; it doesn't matter to me," Holgorsen said about the team's sudden reliance on the run game. "Whatever we're good at is what we're going to do. It doesn't matter if we win by 1 or by 40, or if we throw 50 passes and win or rush the ball 50 times and win. We got to figure out what we do well."
Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.