One of the linchpins of the new offense has been its simplicity – a factor that has aided the Mountaineer coaches and players in learning the new system and installing it in a short period of time. Offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen proclaimed that the entire offense was installed in the first three days of the spring, and from that point on it was only a matter of continued repetition. Improvement was certainly seen throughout the spring, and the progress from the first practice to the 15th was apparent to even the most callow observers. However, what if, at the end of the spring, West Virginia was scheduled to play a real game? How efficient would the offense have been going against live, first-team defenders from another school, not the second team defense that provided the opposition during the Gold – Blue game? That was the situation facing another Mountaineer squad more than 40 years ago, and it came through with flying colors.
The year was 1969, and West Virginia had just completed a 9-1 regular season, losing only to second-ranked Penn State. The Mountaineers would face South Carolina in the Peach Bowl just 39 days after wrapping up the season with a win over Syracuse, so it seemed an inopportune time to make any changes to an offense that had been successful for most of the year. However, faced with the loss of receiver Oscar Patrick, Carlen decided to change gears. He sent a pair of assistant coaches to Texas to learn the intricacies of the wishbone offense, and by the time they returned, the offensive staff had fewer than four weeks to install and teach it to their charges.
That hurdle might have looked high at the outset of bowl practices, but by the day of the game (Dec. 30), it had been easily cleared. West Virginia rushed for 360 yards, with bowl MVP Eddie Williams accounting for 208. In a driving rain and a field that resembled a hog wallow, the Mountaineers dominated play on the way to a 14-3 win. In a little more than three weeks, WVU changed its offensive identity and executed it to near perfection.
Carlen, who was back at West Virginia during this year's Gold – Blue game, didn't brag about it or take credit for a genius maneuver. Instead, he cited talented players and his own offensive leanings as reasons for the move.
"I was not a throwing coach," he told BlueGoldNews.com in an exclusive interview. "If you throw a lot, the weather can affect you. If you play defense and run the ball, which we did, it doesn't affect you as much."
Truth be told, the switch wasn't quite as wide-ranging as the one which West Virginia is now undergoing. The Mountaineers of 1969 ran the veer, which has a lot of option principles in it. Still, the move from two to three backs in the backfield, the changes in footwork, steps and paths for everyone in the running game, and the blocking assignments added up to a great deal of change for the offense. Carlen credited the close-knit nature of the team, along with the talent of the roster, as the real keys to success.
"Where you win games are with players," he said. "If you get the players you can run anything. If you don't have the players you might as well not run anything. These players played hard. If you talk to them now, they are still very close."
Fast forward 40-plus years, and the story is the same. Although Dana Holgorsen and Carlen use different idioms, their thoughts on changing an offense, and on running what they know, are nearly identical. Carlen, a running proponent, never missed a chance to pound the ball into the line with big backs or spring speedier ones with some version of the veer or option. Holgorsen, who sets up the run via the pass, is likewise set on the best way to attack a defense – one that is diametrically opposed to Carlen's view. Where the paths of both merge, however, is in using the talents of the players they have.
In Carlen's case, it was a roster full of runners that brimmed with ability. Williams, the Peach Bowl MVP, was the third option in a crowded WVU backfield that included Bob Gresham and Jim Braxton, but he still piled up 589 yards on the season, giving Carlen the idea of loading up a wishbone set to take advantage of the depth. Holgorsen's adaptability is still to be judged at West Virginia, but he showed in the spring that he is capable of making changes to the offense to take advantage of talent. His use of Tyler Urban in the slot, and a switch to shorter passing routes and quicker releases when faced with the rampaging pass rush of the first team defense, are just a couple of examples.
Of course, there are a lot of differences to consider in the installations the two teams went through. As noted, Carlen's switch wasn't a drastic departure from his run-first scheme, and he wasn't a new kid on the scene. But he didn't have access to all of the advanced teaching tools, such as video cutups, that Holgorsen can employ. Whether those factors play a large part in the success of an installation is tough to say, but they certainly can't be discounted.
So, how would West Virginia have played if it had to face, say, Maryland or USF after just four weeks of preparation? We'll never know the answer to that question, but Carlen showed that it could be done – at least in 1969. Four decades later, Mountaineer fans hope to see history repeat itself.