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WVU football: Three-back packages back in play

NORMAN, Okla. - Even with the losing streak in the middle and the record at the end, it would be hard to take a step back, look at West Virginia's 2012 football season and say Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense was missing much.

The truth, even according to Holgorsen, is the Mountaineers were missing something. Rarely could he use the three-running back set he crafted at Oklahoma State in 2010 and used with great success there and in his first season with WVU.

"It adds a lot," Holgorsen said. "I wish we could go back in time."

He nevertheless moves forward in Saturday's game at No. 16 Oklahoma. The 7 p.m. game at Memorial Stadium will be televised by FOX. The three-back formation figures to be part of an evolving game plan after it was used so often and so effectively last week.

The Mountaineers used the set nine times in a win against William & Mary. Five carries worked for 14 yards - and that includes a nine-yard gain and freshman Wendell Smallwood's game-winning two-yard touchdown. A sixth carry, which was a short gain by junior Dustin Garrison, was wiped out by a chop block penalty against fullback/tight end Cody Clay.

WVU only used three or more running backs in seven games last season. Three of those games featured Tavon Austin at running back, something he didn't do until the Oklahoma game, which was the 10th of the season. Another game, that being the blowout loss at Texas Tech, saw fullback Ryan Clarke get his only two carries of the season.

Holgorsen gave Smallwood, Garrison, Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith carries against the Tribe, which basically dared the Mountaineers to pass deep against three safeties and agreed to concede the run. The Mountaineers complied and made use of the set with the quarterback in a shotgun set, one back to either side of him and one back behind him.

Garrison is familiar with the package because he ran well with it as a freshman in 2011, when he led the team in rushing. Sims played in the three-back set at the University of Houston, where offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury taught what he learned from Holgorsen. Smith ran out of it in his two years at Butler (Kan.) Community College. Smallwood is new to it, but one of his strengths is picking things up quickly.

Each carried at least once out of the formation - the "diamond" or the "trey" in more conversational terms.

"We're going to need all four," Holgorsen said. "It's a tough position. You can't continually take that kind of pounding and play with that kind of effort at that position. I feel good with where we're at right now."

The formation is good for the run game because, more often than not, Clay is included. He's not on the line of scrimmage as a tight end, which removes some clues for the defense, but also creates different gaps and angles for running backs against a defense that has to position itself a little differently.

Clay is then in the backfield with two other running backs, and though defenses could guess the play will go to Clay's side and follow him, WVU is adept at using Clay as a decoy and running away from him.

"It gets them guessing," Sims said. "It makes the defense uncomfortable because they never know which way we're going with it."

The Mountaineers had fun with the Tribe by using a heavy formation six times where a back on one side of the quarterback would motion to join the back on the other side of the quarterback. WVU ran that way, but also ran counter plays in the other direction.

Yet WVU also passed out of the three-back formation. Quarterback Paul Millard was 3-for-3 for 83 yards and a touchdown, that score being a trap the Mountaineers were waiting to spring all game. In the first quarter, WVU's fourth use of the three-back set saw them motion into a heavy set. Millard threw quickly outside to Ivan McCartney for a 10-yard gain.

In the third quarter, WVU went to the three-back set for a sixth time and again motioned into a heavy set. Millard threw outside to Ronald Carswell for a four-yard gain. The Mountaineers hurried, but stayed with the same personnel and formation with the same motion. The Tribe defenders stayed close to the play, expecting either a run or maybe another quick pass, but Millard's play action gave Carswell an opportunity to get behind the defensive backs for a 69-yard touchdown.

"We'd started running the ball effectively and their safeties started creeping up," Millard said. "You get tired of four-, five-, six-, seven-, eight- and nine-yard gains and the safeties come up. That's' when you attack over the top, but you've got to know when to attack."

The trick of the formation is that it helps the passing game as well. When WVU uses three backs, it encourages the defense to match numbers against the Mountaineers or risk a disadvantage. If a defense doesn't match up, WVU will run with a numbers advantage. If the defense matches, then WVU's receivers are one-on-one outside.

It's critical against the Sooners because they prefer to play one-on-one outside under normal circumstances.

"The thing about the trey is you can see exactly what the defense is doing and you can make up your mind because you can see how they're going to play it," offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson said.

For kicks, both Sims and Smith said WVU is able to use three true running backs and a unique set of plays in the same formation, which can help against a defense like Oklahoma's that puts so much speed on the field.  

"I don't think (defenses) think when the main running backs come out that the next one can do the same things," Smith said. "All four of us are capable of doing the same things. It just throws them off. We've got a big package and a little package. If you see the big one, you assume we're going to run it, but that's what we want because when (defenders) come down, it opens the passing game. When they try to stop that, we can check into a run. It's the best way for us to take what the defense gives us."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at



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