The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

September 13, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Pitt, WVU follow same path to Brawl

MORGANTOWN — Woke up with a start this morning, eyes wide open, sweating a little bit, to be honest.

Apparently, somewhere in that twilight zone that exists just before you open your eyes and stretch the tightness out of your muscles, a flash thought went through my mind.

What if Dana Holgorsen’s team ever gets the hang of the offense he’s been putting in?

It is a scary thought, really. Think about it for a moment.

After watching the films of Saturday’s game, Holgorsen and the coaching staff could find no one good enough to be named their “Offensive Champion of the Week.”

No one!

And all they did was score 55 points.

The week before, in the opener, against Marshall, they scored 34 (OK, 27, Tavon Austin having put a touchdown on the board via a 100-yard kickoff return) in what was generally termed a dismal offensive performance.

They did it in three quarters and there really is no reason to believe they wouldn’t have scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter ... which would have put them beyond 100 points in their first two games.

Imagine, if you will, where they’d be if the blocking was what they wanted it to be, if the running game was clicking, if the coaching staff failed to name an “Offensive Champion of the Game” because they couldn’t get it down to just one deserving player rather than having none.

You ask Holgorsen about it and he drops what has become his catchphrase for everything at this stage of the season.

“It’s a work in progress,” he says.

Once, twice, maybe three or four times in a press conference.

Is it, as a work in progress, where he thought it would be as he put it in this year?

“I had no idea where we would be,” he said. “Each year is different. You have to take what you’ve got and figure out what’s best for you. If you are hitting stride at this time of year you would either be a very experienced team or one that was going to regress as the year went on.”

This is interesting, in part, because it is not much different than what is going on 80 miles north of Morgantown with Pittsburgh and Holgorsen’s dear friend Coach Todd Graham. Like Holgorsen, he is installing a new, uptempo, high-powered offense and not pleased with the results, even though his team has won twice and shown an ability to score.

Asked a similar question, Graham responded:

“I don’t know how explosive it can be yet. We’re taking it one week at a time. Coming to camp we were finding out who the players were, getting a depth chart, figuring out what we can and can’t do and trying to get better at it.

“I still don’t know where we’re at right now. This week will tell a lot, going against a good team on the road.”

It is almost as both West Virginia and Pitt are mirroring each other as they adjust to new coaches who bring in a different style of play and a different style of coaching as they head down the road to what seems certain to be an inevitable showdown in the Backyard Brawl.

West Virginia’s problems are a lot different than Pitt’s. The Mountaineers’ quarterback, Geno Smith, is running the offense exactly the way Holgorsen pictures it and has become the most indispensable player on the roster.

It’s the running game that is lacking.

At Pitt, running back Ray Graham leads the nation in rushing with 161 yards a game but quarterback Tino Sunseri hasn’t yet figured out how to do things the way Graham wants, and that is a problem.

“Offensively, we’re so close. We’re just not executing the system,” Graham said. “We are going to throw the football. We are going to be balanced and have a prolific attack. Our whole deal is we’re a timing passing team. It should be 1-2 and out on a quick passing game, and 1-2-3 and out on our deeper passes.”

The result has been that Pitt has become a grind-it-out team.

“We need some explosive plays from 20 yards or 30 yards. Our scores have wound up with two tight ends and ramming the ball in. That’s not what we want to do,” Graham said.

It is what WVU wishes it could do, for it has had to rely on big plays, six different receivers catching passes of 30 or more yards on Saturday.

So here’s the deal: If these two teams get beyond the work-in-progress stage on the offensive side, if they both operate the way they can ... well, it could be a really entertaining Backyard Brawl with an over-under of 75 or so.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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