The Times West Virginian

October 25, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Longing for more tough stuff in game

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There are thoughts to creep into one’s mind when it is going in one direction that are as random and unexpected as they are intriguing.

Indeed, in the wake of the problems that West Virginia University’s football team has been experiencing, the mind has been occupied thinking of why this has occurred and how to fix it and that was the way it was until watching Monday Night Football between the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions.

It did not take long to realize that this was football as it was meant to be, that it was rock ’em, sock ’em football, a game where a player like Brian Urlacher is revered above all others, and how much I have missed seeing such play in recent years.

Certainly, in the college game, that style of football is dead or dying. The first thought was that, perhaps, this was, in part, a reason behind the fall of WVU, a lack of toughness even more than a lack of experience or fundamentals.

But it wasn’t long before that thought evaporated into something far more widespread, for as much as you hear coaches talk of toughness, it really is the thing that is disappearing universally from the college game.

Oh, make no doubt it hasn’t disappeared completely, for Kansas State certainly proved that toughness can be incorporated into a modern football team, especially if it is coached by a 73-year-old throwback.

Two plays in particular come to mind. The first was a kickoff return by Jordan Thompson, a WVU freshman who possesses everything that today’s football demands, speed and more speed. That he stands but 5-foot-7 and weighs 171 pounds matters not.

Well, he took this kickoff back through the middle until met by three of those K-State bruisers, who not only stopped him dead in his tracks, but reversed his momentum so that he fell over backwards.

The second play offered the contrast, for the quarterback at K-State, Collin Klein, was moving out of the pocket looking to pass, was according to the scribble on my notepad, “hit hard, still complete to (Tyler) Lockett +35.”

Toughness …

As noted, though, this is not a WVU problem. It is prevalent throughout the game of college football, and there are reasons why.

To begin with, there is the safety issue that has brought on an number of rules that take toughness out of the game, not the least of which is limiting the days in pre-season where pads can be worn, limiting practice hours and changing the style of hitting.

You can’t get tough if you can’t be tough … and that means in practice.

This has led to a different style of play, spread offenses and speed emphasized over toughness.

You think back to the West Virginia games of the past, to Canute Curtis and Grant Wiley and Gary Stills and Gary Thompkins and John Thornton, to name just a few.

Big-time players, big-time hits.

It certainly seemed to make sense to ask WVU coach Dana Holgorsen if he felt all these factors had conspired to take the element of toughness out of the game.

“It can, a little bit,” he admitted, but quickly added, “We don’t like to think so.”

Holgorsen said that they certainly don’t coach that way.

“We talk about being physical, effort and playing hard,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is a spread team, because there are one-on-one matchups that you need to be physical during, in order to win.

“If you bring everything together, people are still leaning on each other. Is it a little less physical than it has been? Probably, but it is, because there is a lot more space between contact. We don’t view it as that. Those matchups can be pretty violent.”

Certainly players are bigger and stronger than ever, the result of advancement in training methods, but the mentality has changed from once upon a time.

There are no Jack Lamberts, Ray Nitschkes or Dick Butkuses in the college game any more, their absence magnified by watching Urlacher on Monday night.

Not being tough has nothing to do with the losing ways that have come over WVU in the past two weeks, but it would be nice if they could just smack someone in the mouth the next time they go out onto the field, just for old time’s sake.

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