By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Sometimes, perhaps even to say many times would not be an exaggeration, what you see in football isn’t really what you think you see.
We all know, of course, about the trickery that goes on in the backfield where the quarterback becomes a sleight-of-hand expert, slipping the football into the belly of a running back and pulling it out. We know, too, of punters who will line up in punt formation only as a ruse to take the ball around left end or right as defenders peel back to defend a punt that never comes.
But we are not talking about that today. Instead, we are talking about the way there is a certain inbreeding within the game that produces offenses or defenses that may not look the same on the surface but that possess many of the same characteristics to be considered of the genre, if not gender.
And that is exactly the case this weekend when West Virginia University travels to Norman, Okla., to play the Oklahoma Sooners in a game that may become a measuring stick of where each team belongs in this season’s Big 12.
On the surface, people do not seem to compare what WVU’s Dana Holgorsen does with what Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops does offensively, yet they have plucked much of what’s fruitful in their offenses from the same tree.
That, you see, is what makes what Holgorsen pulled off last year so startling a coaching move, as he moved Tavon Austin to running back for the first time in his collegiate career and rushed him for a school-record 344 yards.
It would have been a strategy move of historic proportions, maybe even matching Tom Osborne’s long-ago “Fumblerooski” play if WVU had been able to come out on top in the 50-49 game, but the Mountaineers could not.
Most interesting out of it today, however, is that tape of the game is totally useless to both coaches, for so much has changed since a year ago, WVU going away from its Air Raid attack and Austin being gone and the Sooners looking far more like Barry Switzer’s old wishbone triple-option than the wide-open passing game last year that allowed Landry Jones to throw for six scores against the Mountaineers.
The conversation about all this began Tuesday in Holgorsen’s weekly press conference when it was brought up that Holgorsen’s former offensive line coach, Bill Bedenbaugh, now serves in the same capacity at Oklahoma.
Did that not give Stoops and Co. the advantage of added insight into what Holgorsen likes to do?
Not at all, said Holgorsen.
“It goes way deeper than that. It goes back to Bob Stoops’ first year, 2000, I believe, and Mike Leach was his offensive coordinator,” Holgorsen said.
Leach, of course, is the inventor of Holgorsen’s uptempo, spread offense and of the passing game that often produces 50 to 70 passes in an afternoon ... the one Geno Smith ran at WVU a year ago.
So it is that Stoops was into this more than a decade ago, and because of that he has Josh Huepel as his offensive coordinator, as well as his brother, Mike Stoops, on the defensive side, all involved in ways with Holgorsen and his offense.
“I’ve known Josh Huepel for a long time; I’ve known Mike Stoops,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve competed against each other for 15 years, and we’ve been to clinics together. We’ve been hanging out together.”
The result of that is that they didn’t need Bedenbaugh for his input on that.
“They know our offense better than anybody else that’s out there,” Holgorsen said. “Adding Bill, I don’t know what that will do for them because they already know the offense.”
They know it so well that Holgorsen is almost paranoid.
“You have to be careful with your signals; you have to be careful with your tendencies; you have to be careful with your specific route combinations, and they are as good as anyone in the country defending it,” he said.
Things, however, get really interesting now because neither coach has the ideal quarterback to be throwing the ball all over the lot, so they have had to change their approach, but not their philosophies.
“You see gradual changes,” Holgorsen said. “You’ve seen gradual changes with our offense in the three years I’ve been here. I went from Texas Tech to Houston, Houston to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma State to West Virginia, and there were changes. Changes will happen.
“The base structure of the offenses are still similar. I think some of the formations are still called the same. You look at their offense last week against Louisiana-Monroe; there were a lot of sets that were the same. Some of the plays were the same. Some are altogether different, so while it’s the same, it’s different.”
But Oklahoma is running the ball more with Trevor Knight at quarterback, just as WVU is running it more, the difference being that Knight may be Oklahoma’s best runner while Millard is saved that wear tear.
“They’re asking Knight to do some different things than we’re asking Paul to do. He is more involved in the running game than Paul is. I don’t think anyone is going to get a kick out of watching Paul Millard run the triple-option or speed-option or zone-read,” Holgorsen said.
“There’s obvious differences (between the quarterbacks), but easing them into it and not putting too much on the quarterback is obviously important.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.