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WVU football: Holgorsen won't give up on screen passes

BALTIMORE -- Dana Holgorsen has a pretty simple offense framed by a perhaps simpler philosophy.

If something works, the West Virginia coach believes in doing it again. That makes the opposite true as well, and he'll abandon something if it doesn't work, though with one exception.

Screen passes.

When prescribed properly against an opponent with aggressive tendencies to blitz the quarterback and send defenders storming up the field, Holgorsen is willing to try screens and fail because, if he tries enough, he'll succeed.

"You've got to stick with it if it doesn't work," he said. "It's just like running the ball. If you get two yards, are you going to quit running the ball? No. Run it again, you might get eight yards. Run it again, you might get two yards. Run it again, you might get 20."

The Mountaineers (2-1) have thrown screen passes to running backs and wide receivers in every game this season -which is not at all newsworthy in Holgorsen's offense - but never more than they did in the loss at Oklahoma.

"My opinion on screens is that when you get teams that charge up the field, and Oklahoma did, you have a chance to hit screens on them," Holgorsen said.

WVU plays Maryland (3-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. It will be televised by ESPNU.

The Terrapins lead the nation in sacks and WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook, who is in charge of stopping the blitz, allowed for a comparison to the Sooners defense.

"They're definitely similar as far as scheme goes," he said. "Their players look pretty similar to the players we saw there."

What the Mountaineers saw at Oklahoma was a speedy defense that crowded the line of scrimmage, constantly pressured WVU's blocking and tried to find a way to send players freely through the line or around the ends.

WVU countered by occasionally letting the defense get through and thus out of position before quarterback Paul Millard would flick a pass over or around the defense to a running back or a receiver.

"You have to do it against a defense that's going to run up the field," Holgorsen said. "Prime example: We're at Houston playing Marshall in the game our kid broke his leg (a 37-23 loss in 2008). We're struggling on offense. I called the running back screen - not the receiver screen; the running back screen - 10 times that game.

"They stopped it. They stopped it. They stopped it. It went for 40 yards. They stopped it. It went for 50 yards. They stopped it. It went for 60 yards. That's why you've got to keep calling it."

The Mountaineers had some healthy gains against the Sooners, and the Sooners made some good plays to disrupt the blocking and spoil the plan. There were also a few outcomes that left WVU bewildered, including one pass to receiver Ivan McCartney that forced him to jump on the run in a crowd.

The ball slipped through his fingers, but the Mountaineers believe an accurate throw could have triggered a touchdown. They called it again later, and though WVU didn't score, the play did move the ball.

"We were close on a few where the throw or the blocking was just a little bit off," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "There were some situations where the defense rushed hard and there were certain situations where the defensive line played read-and-react.

"It's a guessing game really. A couple of them were good and a couple of them they got redirected and stopped it. It's a guessing game for when they're going to rush and when they're not going to rush."

WVU should be used to the rush and how to handle it now. Holgorsen was upset with the way the Mountaineers dealt with Georgia State's blitzes last week, in particular the zero blitzes - plays when the Panthers blitzed everyone except the players left covering receivers one-on-one.

"They probably did it six times to us," Holgorsen said. "They got us twice, they hit us twice and we did the right thing twice. That's not good enough. Maryland did that against us last year. They will zero blitz us. They will pressure us. I'm not so sure they won't come out and do it on every snap. If they do, we've got to be able to handle it."

The Mountaineers know no better way to discourage a determined defense than with screen passes. Deep balls, some off of play-action fakes, can tame an attacking defense, but they're risky. The route, or the route and the fake, requires more time. The quarterback can be pressured and make a bad decision or get hit and lose the football.

Even if it's one-on-one coverage, the receiver still has to beat a cornerback and then catch the ball, which isn't a guaranteed event with WVU this season.

Screen passes are different.

"They're safe," Holgorsen said.

They're quick, short throws - or long handoffs - and it's also easy for a quarterback to make a good decision and trash a play with a throw at a target's feet to avoid danger.

Yet they're tricky, too, because there's so much involved. Rocket screens go to a running back floating out into the flat and trying to hide behind linemen who are lumbering to the side. Tunnel screens go to a wide receiver who's running into traffic as he cuts toward the middle of the field.

"It's going to look different every single time," Holgorsen said. "We have our play, but they have their play. That's why if it doesn't work, you should do it again. You might get the right play the next time."

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


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