Staying The Course

Two years ago, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen might not showed the patience he did in the Mountaineers' 37-34 win on Saturday. His willingness to stick to a game plan that produced middling results in the first half was a testament to his continued growth as a head coach.

During preparations for Texas Tech, Holgorsen and his staff obviously zeroed in on the Red Raiders' deficient run defense, which was among the worst in the nation. It didn't take a great deal of analysis to determine that WVU should be able to run the ball, so formulating that part of the game plan was mostly an exercise of identifying the best looks and schemes to match against Tech's front seven. WVU ran a number of “heavy” sets, with Cody Clay, Elijah Wellman and Russell Haughton-James all on the field at the same time, and also committed to running the ball in what are usually passing situations.

The only problem with the well-laid scheme as that Tech seized control of the the game in the second quarter and didn't let go. The Red Raiders scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives to take a 21-10 lead into the locker room at the half. While the Mountaineers were gaining some yardage on the ground (24 carries for 108 yards), they weren't able to put together or finish drives and put points on the board. Holgorsen admitted he was frustrated with the overall production of the running game in the first half.

At this point, it would have been easy for WVU to revert to a pass first philosophy. The temptation had to be strong, especially when Tech took two touchdown leads twice in the second half – the latest coming with just 7:32 remaining in the game. Again, though, the Mountaineers kept the ground attack at the fore, and the results were spectacular. WVU scored 17 points in the final 5:55 of the game, and on its final three drives ran a total of plays. The run-pass distribution on those drives was a perfectly even 50%.

While running the ball with the clock ticking down seems counterintuitive to some, Holgorsen hasn't been afraid to do so against teams playing cover two or cover three or some other deep-help set. He was even more adamant about attacking the defense at its weakest spots in this game, and it paid off.

“We didn't abandon it. We stuck with it,” Holgorsen said of his patient approach. “Coach Crook and Coach Dawson did a good job on the sidelines of kind of adjusting a few things where we could get the ball out in the open.”

Right to the end, Holgorsen stayed with the plan, as Texas Tech didn't modify its deep safeties approach. The Mountaineers gained 20 rushing yards on three carries in its final possession, which began with just 52 seconds remaining on the clock. The final carry, an eight-yard Wendell Smallwood bull rush, positioned the ball on Tech's 38, giving Josh Lambert enough field position to nail his 55-yarder for the win. That carry pushed the Mountaineer ground total to 249 on the day, and upheld Holgorsen's faith in the plan.

Obviously, every such decision isn't going to work out so well. There were several other aspects of the game that loomed large, including WVU holding Tech to a field goal after a Clint Trickett fumble on WVU's side of the field, and crucial stops on four of the Red Raiders' final five drives. The passing game (and Kevin White) were obviously huge, and Lambert's zero worries approach was the capper. However, this game may well be remembered as a milestone in Holgorsen's journey as a head coach.

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