The perception of West Virginia's offense is that it's a warp speed, spread attack that chucks the ball all over the lot, eschewing the run and snapping the ball as quickly as possible. However, head coach Dana Holgorsen has, on more than on occasion this spring, noted that pace of play isn't the thing he's most concerned with when evaluating the offense. While he does want to have the ability to play fast, his goal isn't to run every play as quickly as possible, or play at just top-end speed. Instead, he wants the ability to vary his offensive tempo to suit the situation, and use it as another weapon to confuse the defense.
The thinking behind this is logical when examined. An offense that can just play at one speed doesn't present different challenges to the defense, and isn't able to adapt to changing game conditions. Obviously, Holgorsen wants to be able to slow things down if he's holding a solid lead late in the game. He also wants to have the ability to calm things down if he feels his offensive troops are playing at a frenetic pace and aren't executing, or if things haven't gone well in previous series.
That doesn't mean, however, that West Virginia will be huddling between plays or aiming for 65 snaps per game. That was clearly demonstrated on those initial possessions in the spring game, when the first and second offensive units cranked out drives of nine and 13 plays so quickly that the press box play-by-play announcers were having trouble keeping up with the action. The architect of the fast-as-possible pace was WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who will have more input in calling plays and setting the pace of play this fall. While Holgorsen will still retain veto power and have the final say on calls, Dawson will be more involved than ever.
"We were hitting some big chunks, so we just started getting lined up quick," Dawson said of the early onslaught, while indicating it wasn't really in the game plan to come out at top speed.
After those first two drives, though, the success rate dropped. Dawson was quick to point out that the Mountaineers weren't successful because of the play rate, and that, in fact, it might have contributed some to the later woes the offense suffered.
"Inevitably, that happens a lot," the second-year WVU assistant said. "If you have success early, kids think it's easy, so then you have a little lull and it's hard to get back going again. I think it's harder probably on the players to go from fast to slow, and easier to go from slow to fast. It's harder to pull the reins back. Then when you want to get going again, it can be tough."
That's exactly what happened to the Gold offense, which managed only a pair of field goals following the first two scores until late in the game, when they managed two more touchdowns, one in extended time. The offense had a tough time regaining the rhythm it showed on those early possessions, and Dawson tried several different things to get the attack back in sync.
"You have some plays you see executed good that you know the kids feel comfortable with and you feel comfortable with, so you want to call those plays again," Dawson said of the first tactic he tries to get the offense back on track. "When you struggle, you need to have some success, so you go back to those. I think changing tempo helps too. If you are struggling, just change what you are doing, and that can help. Start huddling, or start going faster, but change up what you are doing."
While Dawson isn't averse to playing at any speed, there's no doubt he's more likely to push the pace, and throw the ball, than Holgorsen. Both coaches acknowledged that fact after the game, with Dawson sharing his opinion with a sly laugh.
"I'm definitely less conservative than Dana," he chuckled. "Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know."
Reading too much into the spring game can always be a dangerous thing, but the numbers bear out the observation that Dawson won't hold much back. The Mountaineers threw 65 passes against just 38 runs, and saw 13 different receivers catch at least one pass. Of course, those numbers aren't likely to be so inflated in every game this year, but in the pass-happy Big 12, it wouldn't be a shock to see Geno Smith top 50 pass attempts in a game or two.