By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
As West Virginia University’s loss total inflated and egos deflated over the past year, changes began to take place in what at one time seemed as if it might be an unstoppable offense.
After winning 10 games in his first season as coach, including a stunning 70-33 annihilation of a good Clemson team, and running through the first five games of his second season by one lopsided score after another, it seemed as though WVU coach Dana Holgorsen found himself as the toast of college football.
Little did he know that soon he and his offense would become burned toast, for it fell apart even before Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey’s eligibility had disappeared, leading to just a 7-6 season a year ago and a bowl no more prestigious than the Pinstripe Bowl.
This season got off equally as well, without the ability to string victories together and to be in the position of needing to win two of the regular season’s final three games to just be bowl qualified, leaving the Mountaineers searching for answers.
Finally, a week ago, as they went on the road to face a disappointing TCU team, Holgorsen and his offensive right-hand man Shannon Dawson put together an offense in mid-stream, coming when down 17-3, that worked.
It was not the wide-open gunslinger Air Raid attack which had brought fame and West Virginia fortune to Holgorsen, but instead a more physical, run-oriented attack emerged and may actually be the answer to save the season.
“Our struggles last year were mainly because we could not run the ball very well,” Holgorsen explained as he readied for Saturday’s 7 p.m. meeting with Texas. “Going back and studying the tape last year against Texas, we ran the ball well. Why that did not carry over to the next couple of games I am not sure. The next week we go to Texas Tech, and we could not run the ball, which was a problem.
“I think this year we are running the ball pretty well. What Texas is trying to do offensively is similar to what we are trying to do offensively. Neither one of us has a quarterback, and the mindset up front, that we can sit in the pocket for four seconds and go through five different reads. Neither of us has the ability to do it if we are not running the ball very well. We are both going to try to establish the run and make plays down field in the pass game.”
Clint Trickett, the quarterback, is not Geno Smith, and this receiver group is not Austin and Bailey.
The best offensive player is Charles Sims, a running back, and in the end the offense rests with him.
“It’s an evolution of probably where we’re going anyway,” Dawson, the offensive coordinator, said. “People are covering pretty good. Football kind of goes in waves, and if you look right now, people are covering pretty good. If you don’t have the ability to run the ball, it limits you in games like that TCU game. When you have teams who smother like that, what are you going to do, throw it 65 times?”
That, it must be acknowledged, would be silly unless you are superior at throwing the ball.
Dawson says there was a time when they still might have attacked through the air.
“We’re getting away from the infatuation with having the leading offense to doing what it takes to win the game,” Dawson said. “I think, in the past, if you look at me in general, there were a lot of reasons I threw the ball so much, and one was probably an ego thing.
“If you look where we came from and the people involved then it will attest to that, but our mindset now is in the present to do what it takes to win the game. Look at last year. We had Geno, Tavon and Stedman, and we ran the ball 57 times in the Iowa State game. There’s times you have to run the ball.”
This is not the first time WVU has had to change its offensive philosophies, in part to fit what West Virginia really is as a state. It is not a state that figures to accept a subtle passing offense ahead of bruising football.
When Rich Rodriguez returned home, he had been running mostly a passing offense under Tommy Bowden, but with Pat White at quarterback, Steve Slaton at tailback and a fullback named Owen Schmitt, WVU became a bruising, run-oriented offense that won over the state and almost drove to a national title game.
Football was meant to be physical, and, with all the injury talk, with all the rules changes, it’s still Alabama playing a physical game at the top … more entrenched it seems the further other schools get away from running and banging.
Maybe because players like playing that kind of game.
“I like a physical game. It brings the best out in me,” admitted 335-pound offensive guard Quinton Spain. “I like playing against competition. I’m more of a competition guy. If it comes to it, I will give my heart.”
Quarterback Clint Trickett noticed a change in the offensive approach in the TCU game.
“To an extent,” he said. “They were doing some different looks we haven’t gotten before, so we ran. We really hadn’t been running the ball very well, but the offensive line came together and Charles (Sims) kept doing what he’s been doing, which is being a phenomenal player.”
Trickett says it’s a reaction to the defenses they are facing.
“Luckily, we have such good offensive linemen and running backs that when they do drop eight guys and rush three we’ll run it. If they only have five or six in the box, we’ll hand off. When they start loading the box, we’ll throw screens and all that,” Trickett continued. “It’s still the same offense, but I’m sure it’s different than it was five years ago or three years ago or even last year.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.