A coach taking blame for a loss isn't anything new, or uncommon. Mentors across the nation make similar statements every week, accepting the onus for not having a team prepared. And while it's become a common component of coach-speak, there are a couple of different ways in which to look at Dana Holgorsen's comments after West Virginia's 44-24 loss to Oklahoma.
"That's on me not having the guys ready to go," Holgorsen said on WVU's poor first half performance, which left it trailing 24-7 at the break. "It turned out that their defense was better than me. I'm the one calling the plays, and I just didn't do a very good job in the fourth quarter of calling the plays that we needed to in order to beat these guys. This one falls on me."
On one level, it's standard coaching verbiage in this day and age, when observers are quick to say coaches "threw the players under the bus" if he criticizes them by name or in anything other than the most general terms. That's unfortunate, because it makes coaches very careful in what they say, and makes it more difficult to get at what a coach is truly thinking.
It's also indicative of Holgorsen's progression as a head coach, though. Three years ago, he likely wouldn't have said anything like this. He's clearly grown into the job of being the boss of the entire program, and understands how things that he says are reflected on the program, and how they can be minsintrepreted at times. So, in sort of a reverse way, his taking the blame shows that growth, even though it reveals less of what he is actually thinking.
His statement also served to deflect criticism of quarterback Skyler Howard, who committed five turnovers and was off-target on several throws that should have resulted in substantial gains. Again, that's understandable, but there was likely more to it that just keeping him from being the subject of post-game questioning. Holgorsen has dealt with QBs for a long time, and knew that the process of getting Howard ready to play this week against Oklahoma State began the moment he came off the field in Norman. Certainly there is video study and analysis of what went wrong, but it was also important to limit reactions immediately following the game.
On yet another level, was Holgorsen right in his self-assessment? He was pleased with WVU's third quarter play, when the Mountaineers rallied to cut the OU lead to 27-24, largely on the strength of the ground game. In that quarter, WVU ran the ball 15 times against just eight passes and scored 17 points. The passing game, which did produce six completions in eight attempts, also yielded three sacks and a fumble that the Sooners turned into a field goal.
Even though trailing, it was clear to Holgorsen, based on his third quarter results, that running the ball, even into a stacked Sooner box, was the only way that West Virginia could win the game. However, he got away from that in the fourth quarter, and it cost the Mountaineers. Starting out with a second and one on its own 46, Holgorsen called three consecutive pass plays. A sack and a hold wiped out a potential third down conversion and led to a Nick O'Toole punt. Clearly he would have liked to have had that second down call over again.
On its next possession, WVU again went to the air on third and two, and only a defensive holding call prevented another Howard interception from being registered, but one play later the game was sealed when Howard fumbled on yet another sack. OU's 41 yard scoop and score pushed the home team's advantage back to 17 points. With just 9:37 left to play, WVU was behind the 8-ball. Was there enough time to produce three scoring drives that were ground based? The decision was no, but unfortunately, that played straight into OU's wheelhouse, as the Sooners produced interceptions on West Virginia's next two drives to remove any hopes of a miracle rally.
The fourth quarter stats bear Holgorsen out. Discounting the final possession of the game, in which WVU ran it twice to run out the final 1:12 of play, the Mountaineers ran the ball just three times in the quarter, with Wendell Smallwood gaining 28 yards. The passing game? Five of the eight passes that Howard got away were completed to teammates, but resulted in just 21 yards. Two others were picked off by the Sooners, and two other pass attempts ended in sacks, including the fumble and resulting score.
While it's no secret that Holgorsen's offense has evolved over his career, it's still good, even in the aftermath of a loss like this, to hear that he's aware of what happened. Of course, it might have been better had he caught himself in the fourth quarter, especially on that mid-quarter drive when he called four consecutive passes (that drive ended in one of the interceptions), but to pick on that one series is to miss the larger point. No matter how you want to parse Holgorsen's post-game comments, they demonstrate, at least from this vantage point, a coach that is continuing to grow. The result of this game obviously wasn't what anyone in or around the program wanted, but the lessons learned here might be ones that lead to better results in the future.