WVU football: Millard will start vs. Oklahoma
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The comment that sent the quarterback competition spinning at West Virginia also seemed to dismiss the eventual winner.
It was a little more than two weeks before junior Paul Millard took the first and last snaps in Saturday's season-opening win against William & Mary when his coach, Dana Holgorsen, said Millard "makes the best decisions and the worst decisions" among the three candidates.
Considering that Holgorsen was seeking reliability and consistency to replace the talent and productivity lost when Geno Smith graduated, those words didn't do Millard many favors and served to boost junior Clint Trickett and redshirt freshman Ford Childress.
Yet in the very next breath that day in the middle of preseason camp, Holgorsen added something many chose to forget.
"He's got the most reps and is pretty comfortable," Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers went dark when camp ended Aug. 17 and Holgorsen had one teleconference and one news conference between then and the 24-17 win against the Tribe. Outsiders spent the idle time deciphering whispers about Millard's rumored rise and the formation of a two-man race that would include Trickett and cast aside Childress.
Last Monday, Holgorsen said he hadn't picked between Millard and Trickett and that he was preparing to play both. He followed through, but Millard played 65 of the game's 71 snaps and set up and executed a 69-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to tie the score.
"I knew it was six points the play before," he said. "We'd set it up. All I had to do was make sure I didn't overthrow it."
When Holgorsen explained his preference afterward for the person who once made the worst and best decisions, he revisited the words that followed that odd description and ultimately proved to be decisive.
"The closer it got, the more comfortable we were with the communication, with his experience, with the non-verbal communication with me and him and his experience seeing the signals and communicating them," Holgorsen said.
Millard eased Holgorsen's mind during the game, first completing four passes to three receivers to begin with a touchdown drive and starting 8-for-8 for 88 yards. He misfired on three of the next four attempts and had a costly fumble at the end of the first half to set up a William & Mary field goal and a 17-7 halftime deficit, but Millard finished 19-for-26 for 237 yards and the touchdown.
It was a very different experience for the former walk-on from Flower Mound, Texas. He was Smith's backup the last two seasons and would only get in if Smith lost his helmet or was hit hard, or if the game was out of hand and no longer needed Smith's services.
It was frequently short duty and Millard sometimes knew he was coming out of the game quickly, or that he could be removed if he didn't function properly. It could weigh on his play.
"You get in more of a rhythm when you know you're playing," he said. "And it's hard coming in a game when you're cold."
Trickett was 0-for-2 - one pass was dropped by receiver Mario Alford - and took a sack. The Mountaineers didn't get a first down with him in the game, but Millard also struggled when he came in to relieve Trickett. He held onto the ball for too long and lost the fumble when he was sacked.
Holgorsen was otherwise satisfied with Millard and said he'll start Saturday's 7 p.m. game at No. 16 Oklahoma (1-0). The game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium will be televised by Fox.
"He did a good job managing game," Holgorsen said. "I thought he got us into several really good run checks. Other than the one sack he took that was really on him - and he had good ball security with two hands on the ball, but they still got it out - he did a good job running the offense and he completed 80 percent of his passes."
Holgorsen and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson felt good about how fast Millard played on the first few drives and how well he handled changing from shotgun, pistol and under-center formations. Dawson said Millard made good decisions changing from run to pass and pass to run at the line of scrimmage and only went the wrong way with a throw a few times.
He had one close call on an interception on a screen pass into a crowd in the fourth quarter that was nearly caught and returned for a touchdown, but Dawson liked how Millard stayed out of trouble.
"He did throw a ball out of bounds," Dawson said, somewhat sarcastically. "Huge. You can do that?"
Millard's overall performance served as the continuation of a trend that led him to the starting role. As the coaches grew to favor Millard's familiarity with the offense and his advanced ability to take Holgorsen's signals and turn them into directions for the offense, Millard settled in and addressed weaknesses while making the most of his strengths.
"The same thing happened for me in high school," he said. "It was my sophomore year in high school and I wasn't playing on the varsity squad and then in one offseason things clicked for me.
"I would say I knew the system the past few years by seeing it all the time and knowing what the coaches want, but I think I've done a better job with that now - and it's definitely something I need to improve on."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.