West Virginia Head Coach Dana Holgorsen Details Challenges As The Mountaineers Ready For Missouri

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia's opener against Missouri will be much ado about something - but exactly what remains an unknown.

As the now infamous military quote goes, there are knowns, and there are known unknowns. That is, there are things West Virginia understands about Missouri - like player personnel, skill sets, the defensive basics adhered to by coordinator-turned-head coach Barry Odom. And then there are the aspects the Mountaineers know they don't fully comprehend, like how new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel will utilize tempo and talent, and the more precise tendencies of playcalling with such.

Season openers always have some portions of the above, but the addition of Heupel, and his experience with features of the spread at Oklahoma (Co-OC 2011-14) and Utah State (AHC/OC/QB in '15) and Odom bringing in former TCU co-defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and his familiarity with a 4-2-5 set had made the scout among the more difficult ones for the opening game. 

"I think the first games of the year are always guessing games, but this is a little bit irregular because of the coaching turnover," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. "I have known Josh for a long time. He is a quality coach who puts a good product out there wherever he has been. I looked back at what he did at Oklahoma, then last year at Utah State, but it's still a guessing game. We have to be ready for anything, but that's just game one stuff. We are playing a guessing game with them on defense as well. I know Barry is a defensive guy, but bringing in somebody familiar with a four down scheme from TCU (creates issues). The first game is a guessing game, more than any."

Missouri's defense might touch up some areas, but it figures to remain largely the same. The Tigers (5-7) bring four of their front seven back after allowing just 16.2 points and 302 yards per game in ranking sixth and ninth nationally; the returning personnel total was six of seven before linemen Harold Brantley and Walter Brady were ruled academically ineligible and dismissed, respectively. 

The 4-3 base is set, but how they mix new players into the back end remains a question. Missouri could be even better this season than it was last, when they ranked just 96th in turnovers forced, and could be the lone foe in the first four to truly challenge West Virginia's offensive line.

"They are really good," Holgorsen said. "Looking at what they were able to accomplish last year, the number speak for themselves. I have tremendous respect for Barry and what he did at Missouri last year and what he did at Memphis (as DC from 2012-14). He was one of the key ingredients to why Memphis got things turned around. It's not surprising. They have great players and are coached extremely well. They are extremely competitive and I don't anticipate that being different this year."


The Tiger offense, however, struggled through a horrendous season in which it managed just 13.6 points per game, second to last in the FBS behind Kent State (13.1). Mizzou started 4-1 - including a win over South Carolina - before losing six of the last seven. The production down the stretch was literally offensive, as the Tigers scored 3, 6, 3, 13, 20, 8 and 3 points, the 20 coming in the lone win against BYU. But Heupel gets a second-year starter in sophomore quarterback Drew Lock (6-4, 221 lbs.) who showed promise despite completing just 44 percent of his passes during the losing skid. The physical tools are there for Lock, along with a couple transfers in former Alabama wide receiver Chris Black (11.6 ypc), a graduate transfer, and OU running back Alex Ross who rushed for 786 yards in three seasons in Norman. The big question is a completely new offensive line which lost its lone returning starter when left guard Nate Crawford retired from the game after a slow recovery from a second back surgery. 

"(Lock) got thrown in there under fire, but did a good job," Holgorsen said. "He was a young kid. Anytime you have to play a freshman (it's difficult). They expect him to be a lot better this year."

West Virginia, meanwhile, returns the majority of its offense intact, which has made additions to the playbook a bit easier. That could be key against a defense with experience and speed.

"I'd like to think there's always a few wrinkles that come up with the offseason," Holgorsen said. "It's easier this year than it has been in the recent past because of the number of guys we have coming back. That starts with (center) Tyler Orlosky because he can handle anything up front. Then having a quarterback going into his third year in the system has enabled us to expand the playbook a little. You can't be great at everything. You'd be naive to think that. But we can expand upon what we did last year and get better at what we did.

"We gotta get better at the routine plays in the pass game. We were as good as anybody on the country in being able to big-play people in the pass game, and we have all those components back. But we have get be better at the routine pass plays. That starts with protection and having (offensive coordinator Joe) Wickline as part of the staff has helped us and the tackles. Then Skyler (Howard) having the rapport with receivers. You still gotta be able to run the ball, and I think we can do that. Then you gotta be able to big-play people when they stack the box. But you also gotta be able to make the routine plays."

Holgorsen noted that Howard, 221-of-403 last season for 3,145 yards (241.9 per game), has developed better situation understanding, and the ability to rein himself in enough to take the check down or the routine play and not force passes. The senior started his career going an incredible 177 passes, with 17 touchdowns, before his first interception. But Howard ended last season with 14 picks, the second most of any starter in the Big 12. That number has to drop, and should with the timing and chemistry off the receivers, along with better protection up front.

"He's more experienced with what we are asking him to do," Holgorsen said of Howard. "What makes him go is having a chip on his shoulder and being able to manage the offense. He's a smart player who knows what we are asking of him. He has such expectations, but its OK to make routine plays. I have noticed him being more comfortable in just being willing to move the chains."

The opener marks the first time in 54 years that West Virginia plays host to an SEC team; The Mountaineers beat Vanderbilt 26-0 in 1962. WVU opened against Alabama in Atlanta in 2014.

"I'm pretty excited about being able to line up against the SEC and play a Missouri team who has won the SEC East two of the last four years," Holgorsen said. "It's a high profile game. That's where college football is headed, and we will continue to do that kind of scheduling here and hope others do the same as well. I'm a big fan of lining up against our peers and hope others follow suit on that."


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