Holgorsen And The Evolution Of An Offense

It became clear, in a slap-upside-the-head moment against Baylor, that this West Virginia offense isn’t the Air Raid of Hal Mumme or Mike Leach or, even, Art Briles, Mike Gundy or Kevin Sumlin. This offense is, simply, Dana Holgorsen’s.

Holgorsen has mimicked some of the best – like Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops – in taking the core aspects of an incredible, difficult-to-defend scheme and layering such with solid fundamentals and the versatility to execute in whatever the game situation dictates. Which is case-in-point, and what most will call perhaps the seminal moment when the Mountaineers emerged from even being referred to as an Air Raid style. Ahead 41-27 with 2:36 remaining, WVU gains possession at its nine-yard line. Passing becomes the lesser of the two initial choices – run or pass – because of field position, the fact an incompletion stops the clock, and the thought that no pass is as safe, percentage-wise, as a simple power run with lead blockers.

This facet didn’t exist two years ago. Heck, West Virginia was kneeling the ball out of the shotgun because it took so few snaps from under center. And that led to a problem: When it came time for power, either to score in the red zone, to finish games, to control the ball, and the clock, the Mountaineers were forced into what they were doing via much of the rest of the game. There was only the pass, always dangerous and never a solid clock management tool, or a lighter, more finesse run game that would often times be snuffed to the point of futility.

That mentality has completely changed with Holgorsen and coordinator Shannon Dawson. Asked about the offense early in his coaching career, Dawson called the end-game and power-need situations “awful” and said he would have felt forced into traditional Air Raid thinking in late game situations.

“I’d have thrown it for five yards,” Dawson said. “There were times, and I can remember specific games, where we got beat because we couldn’t run out the clock. You get the ball back and you run it a couple times and then you’re third and eight and you’re thinking ‘Well, I can run it again, but they’re gonna get the ball back. Or I can try and throw it and get the first down. There’s always chances with that, though, so being able to grind the clock out at the end of the game is now just bi-product of what we’re doing offensively.”

That option, now always on the table for West Virginia, became a fully vested part of the offense in what eventually evolved into the final drive of the game in the upset of the No. 4 Bears.

“(Holgorsen) understands the importance of being able to run the football. He understands there are times in a game when you have to line up and say ‘We are gonna run the ball and there’s nothing you can do about it.’"
- WVU OL coach Ron Crook

The Mountaineers, with Wendell Smallwood in the backfield, ran for three yards on first down, then went heavy. Three-back set, Smallwood behind Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman. Smallwood, legs churning, rips off 14 via the left side for a first down. Same three-back set, only this time, a variation. Instead of following both Clay and Wellman to one spot, the blockers split on the play, each attacking behind the tackles. Smith goes right for six.

Now second and four, same formation, same play with 1:10 left. Baylor is down to its final timeout, and it can’t stop the onslaught. The run nets WVU five yards, a first down and the victory. And then West Virginia takes the final play of the game under center, a simple kneel down with Trickett surrounded by two backs. Ball game, via the most basic of football principles – i.e. our blockers, and our backs, can combine to reach the line to gain before a defense can stop it. Pop-pop, first down. Pop-pop, first down. Have a nice flight.

“I think what it says is that (Holgorsen) understands the importance of being able to run the football,” said offensive line coach Ron Crook, a Parkersburg, W.Va. native who brought from Stanford a more man-to-man, power-blocking mindset. “We are going to throw the football a lot. We’ve got a group of talented receivers, we’ve got a good quarterback. We’d be stupid not to throw the ball. But I think he also understands there are times in a game when you have to line up and say we are gonna run the ball and there’s nothing you can do about it. When you can do that as an offense, you’ve got some good things going.”

There was a reason Holgorsen left Leach’s staff at Texas Tech to take the same position under Sumlin at Houston: More play calling freedom and a desire to develop the run game within the same basic scheme. Leach still hasn’t bought into that aspect of play, and it cost him a bowl game, and a winning season, when his Cougars lost a 45-37 lead in the final minute because of three fumbles, two offensively, which led to 11 Colorado State points in a 48-45 final.

“It allows us to not have so much anxiety at the end of games when we need to run four minutes off the clock,” Dawson said. “We feel like we can get in these heavier sets and go forward and get three or four yards. We do it so much. The problem with people is when they try to do that and they never work on it. And that’s probably been our biggest issues in the past is we’ve had those type sets but we didn’t necessarily focus on it as much as we do now. The only way you can be physical, and the only way you can run the ball, is to work on it. Same way throwing the football, but where’s the balance? You have to work on both of them to get good at. Keep it simple, and do things you’re good at and you’ve been working on.”

Which brings up a forgotten case-in-point: In the second quarter, with six minutes left, West Virginia assumed possession at its own 34 and, two plays in, called a draw out of a two back set. It then chased that call (which in fairness was often used at Oklahoma State) with Dreamius Smith’s power run off the right side behind a block from Clay, who came across the handoff exchange to take out the linebacker coming from the field side. WVU then stayed in offset two back and handed to the opposite side on a stretch zone read behind Clay, who got into the second level and eliminated another linebacker.

Next play, same call to the other side with a flipped formation, and Smith strolls in from the nine for a 21-20 lead after the PAT. Four runs, chunks of yardage on each, and Baylor behind the eight ball that has become West Virginia’s power run game. The drive went five plays, 66 yards, and every single non-penalty yard was picked up on the ground. That doesn’t read like a statistical line from any true Air Raid, because it’s not. And WVU is not.

“With the addition of coach Crook and what he brings, we became a little more physical, a little more come-right-at-you offense,” Dawson said. “We have incorporated a little more tight ends and fullbacks to take care of edges. That’s basically what defenses are doing today, is mucking up the edges to get people off to make plays. So you gotta do one of two things, you either gotta go lighter, or go heavier, and I think we have done a good job doing both.

“There are times we are going to go light, and go empty (backfield), and there are times need to get heavy and get a couple yards, like at the end of the Baylor game. They know you are going to run it, you know you are going to run it, and you are able to get two first downs and run out the clock.”

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