The Times West Virginian

November 5, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-WVU staff still learning the ropes

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Something had to be done with the West Virginia defense.

They all knew that — the coaches, the players, the fans ... and, yes, even the media, which get about as much respect around the Mountaineer football program as Mitt Romney gets at an Obama rally.

You couldn’t watch it perform through the first seven games of the 2012 season without knowing it. Oh, through the first five games you might have known it but you didn’t have to admit it.

See, scoring 52 points a game covers a whole host of sins.

But just like you might bat .400 for half a baseball season, it is as much of a mirage as is the image of a tall, frosty cold beer after 48 hours lost in the Gobi Desert. In fact, coach Dana Holgorsen’s record of 15-6 through his first 21 games is exactly one game worse than his predecessor’s 16-5 was through his first 21 games ... and if his victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl was monumental, so, too, was that predecessor’s over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

We point this out not to pass judgment in any way, for Holgorsen is no more the coach he seemed to think he was in winning nine in a row than he is the coach many now are accusing him of being in the midst of a three-game losing streak.

What he is, instead, is a young coach still very much learning the ropes of the head-coaching business, and the first lesson there is that you are neither as good as you think you are when you win or as bad as others think you are when you lose.

Holgorsen, to put it in the terms of being a player, is just a sophomore in his development, in his second year of learning the thousands of lessons that come your way each season, lessons that make the job far more complicated than just knowing the X’s and the O’s.

Sometimes, for example, it is best to hire your friends as your assistants, best to hire those who believe in your philosophies both of football and life, but that sometimes it might be equally as important to have an opposing point of view in the locker room, someone to tell you you are wrong on occasion or to bring the viewpoint of what the man in that other locker room may be thinking in countering your moves.

To believe, for example, is such a quarterback-centric offense that lives through the air is not a fault by itself, but it must realize that a running game is necessary to complement that passing game, a lesson that is being driven home this season by the fact that in five victories they have averaged 164 yards rushing and in three defeats they have averaged 99.

The lessons come in all shapes and forms, from convincing your boss you are doing a good job, convincing the donors to up the ante, convincing the players that they can play at a level even they never dreamed they could reach, and, perhaps most important, finding the proper approach to turn what could be a five-game losing streak into three wins and two losses.

The coaching staff, as this staff is wont to do, blamed it on their players. Since Holgorsen assured those who would listen he had not forgotten how to coach and he and his staff were certain there was nothing wrong with the schemes they were running, it had to be the players as the ones falling short.

With that in mind there was something of a coaching victory to come out of the devastating double-overtime 39-38 loss to TCU on Saturday night in that the Mountaineer defense rose up and played its best game.

True, that was 39 points on the scoreboard, hardly a shutout, and there were more than 400 yards given up and at the most crucial time in the game there was a major breakdown, but rather than simply saying, “I’m right and the world is wrong,” Holgorsen made proactive changes in his defensive approach, beginning with moving his hand-picked defensive coordinator Joe DeForest off the sideline and into the coaching box.

That was a tricky move to pull off, for it was in a way pointing a finger, putting blame at least in part on DeForest’s coaching, yet Holgorsen presented it in such a way that he accepted happily.

“We wanted to do something to make a change. I thought it was a great idea,” DeForest said. “I didn’t balk at it at all. I was excited.”

In 23 years of coaching, he said, he had never coached from the luxury of the coaching box ... and now he says he may never leave there.

“When you’re on the field, there’s so much going on, so much noise. It’s a lot easier to call plays from the box. You see the big picture. You know the weaknesses. On the field you don’t see the far-side perimeter,” he said.

“I loved it. I thought I was calm. It’s so surreal up there,” he continued. “I could see what was going on in the secondary. I could see the big picture. I was calm making calls and I think that had a lot to do with the way we played tonight.”

That, mixed in with some personnel changes, led to a game where the Mountaineers would force TCU to punt nine times, grab off an interception and recover two fumbles, five times get three and out while creating three sacks.

Next, Holgorsen has to address an offense that has produced only seven touchdowns in the past 12 quarters plus two overtime periods ... for this coaching thing, see, it never really ends.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.