By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Other than when standing before my bathroom mirror, seldom does the word genius come from these lips, yet this morning the time has come to turn the word loose for the first time in connection with West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen.
But even before we get into heaping the praise upon Holgorsen for the offense he has devised and implemented, there was another bit of genius displayed in another area that made it possible.
That was the genius displayed by athletic director Oliver Luck in plucking him out of the ranks of a thousand or so assistant coaches in the college and who knows how many NFL coaches who may have been interested in a plum of a job.
There was no luck that Luck came upon Holgorsen, just as there was no luck in the timing, for an opening did not fall into Luck’s lap that forced his hand to go get a coach. He would have been fine with Bill Stewart, a loyal Mountaineer whose only really big mistake was taking the word of Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe and turning his offense over to Jeff Mullen.
But Luck had the fortitude to make what had to be an unpopular move and, to be honest, a terribly chancy move by hiring Holgorsen when he didn’t even have an opening for him. Talk about betting on the come, this was the ultimate, for Holgorsen had never run a team before and isn’t exactly an engaging character like a Lou Holtz or Lee Corso — thank goodness.
This, though, did not start off to be a treatise on Luck and the art of hiring, but instead on Holgorsen and the genius of his offense, from its basic tenets to its realistic application in game-planning and calling a game.
If, in the long run, it is proven he’s equally good at recruiting players to his offense as he has been in fitting in the pieces he inherited when he came here, there is no limit to what the future brings … if he is coerced away at the height of his career, as was Rich Rodriguez.
The genius of what Holgorsen has managed to do may best be seen in the way he prepared for and ran the Texas game.
This, it will be recalled, was dubbed long ago the “Air Raid” offense, merging into what I prefer to refer to as the MountainAir Raid offense here, but no matter the emphasis is on an aerial assault. But for this game, even though he was short on running backs and had no one ready to play that had fully proven himself, he studied the Texas defense and became convinced the way to beat them was to run the ball.
Their defensive ends would be too disruptive to the passing game to have to be as effective as normal, so he turned matters over to the run game ... but, wait, he did not have his prime runner, a bruising fullback type in Shawne Alston.
All there really was on hand was a fullback in a tailback’s body in Andrew Buie, who did not seem capable of being a workhorse and who had never really put up any gaudy numbers.
What’s more, studying film, Holgorsen quickly came to realize that Texas’ speed would make getting to the outside highly unlikely as an enduring offensive technique.
This had to be an old-fashioned, head-knocking, run at ’em offense ... one that Marion Motley or Jim Brown or Jim Taylor would love.
Andrew Buie would be cast as Jim Brown, which was like casting Betty White as Angelina Jolie.
But Buie played the role perfectly.
“What surprised me was he carried it 31 times. But we committed to the run. That’s something we talked about early in the week and there weren’t any tricks either. We lined up and ran right at them and we felt like that was going to be a difference so we could alleviate some of the pressure on Geno,” Holgorsen explained.
In a way, he was doing just what Texas wanted him to do ... or so their defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.
“We were going to try to force them to run the ball,” Diaz said. “We turned them into a running football team, and a lot of that was by design.”
Some design. They ran for more yards than they passed for and Buie rushed for 207 yards on his 31 carries.
That represented the highest rushing total in a conference game by a Mountaineer since Pat White rushed for 220 yards and Steve Slaton 215 against Pitt in 2006. And you read that right ... they both surpassed 200 yards rushing.
But while Holgorsen designed plays for Buie to run inside, he also found a way to allow Smith to continue his march to the Heisman Trophy with 25 of 35 for 269 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, many of those completions not only under pressure but being thrown with laser-like precision.
“There weren’t a lot of times where we weren’t draped all over the guy he was trying to throw the football to,” Diaz said. “You have to give him a lot of credit, his receivers a lot of credit. When the play was there to be made, they made it.”
This was best seen in Holgorsen going for it five times on fourth down and making it every time, having a play he was confident enough to call and players he was confident enough to call it for. And these were no gimmes, averaging 4th and 4.4 yards to go.
The results were 72 yards on fourth down, an average of 14 yards a play, one of them a 40-yard touchdown pass to Austin and one an 8-yard quarterback sneak by Smith.
Think coaching an 8-yard quarterback ain’t genius?
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.