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August 26, 2012

WVU looks to back up early promise

MORGANTOWN — Welcome to game week.

It took long enough to get here, didn’t it?

What an off-season it was, starting in the sweet smell of orange blossoms and ending with the acrid smell of summer sweat from athletes working to do it again.

Behind West Virginia was the sorry state of the Big East, ahead was the biggest challenge the school had ever taken on, moving into the Big 12, where most games come only in size extra large ... Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU, Kansas State.

No longer pretending Rutgers or Syracuse was a big game for West Virginia, no longer playing in the obscurity of Thursday night ESPN. Now it’ll be Saturday night and Fox-TV, something of an irony in that there is nothing conservative in the way coach Dana Holgorsen coaches Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and the offense.

While the offense, now in Year 2 of the Holgorsen Era, should he remain at the school long enough to term it an era, should be even more effective than a year ago, there are legitimate questions about a defense that lost key players and that is changing its scheme to fit in better with the wild west rodeo that is the Big 12.

From the 3-3-5 stack to a multiple 3-4 goes the defense, installing a more aggressive, more gambling style in an effort to force turnovers and set up easy scores for Smith and his henchmen.

Joe DeForest was brought in from Oklahoma State, where he shared a coaching locker room with Holgorsen, as defensive coordinator and Keith Patterson as co-coordinator, his last stop having been at Pittsburgh.

DeForest has the defense where he wants it as Marshall sits a week away.

“No question, I am satisfied,” he has said. “We are exactly where I thought we would be. There have been some players that have risen to the top.”

There better be, because once they move into Big 12 play it will be like a baseball player moving from Class AA to the major leagues ... a big jump with no time to adjust.

Offensively, the players come in at the top off a 70-point Orange Bowl performance.

They expect that and more.

“We have a better feel for what needs to be done in this offense,” Bailey said. “This is our second year in it, and we just know what coach Holgorsen wants of us and we know what we want out of ourselves.”

That, of course, is perfection.

That Geno Smith was picked the preseason MVP for the Big 12 in the school’s first season in the league is a sign of the respect he has, but it also serves as a sign that enters as a marked man. Make no doubt that schools in this conference, who have been used to facing the type of offense that Holgorsen runs for a few years now, spent their summers looking at ways to slow down Smith, Austin and Bailey.

Can they accomplish that?

They certainly didn’t slow him down much the year he was at Oklahoma State as offensive coordinator, the team averaging 44.5 points a game while throwing for 345.8 yards and 520.2 yards per game.

And with Smith now a senior and well versed in the operation of the offense, there’s no reason that can’t be duplicated unless the defenses have found a new way to approach stopping it.

“I don’t want to put too much pressure on him — he puts enough pressure on himself — but he has improved everything,” Holgorsen said during camp. “His footwork is better, his arm strength is better, his quickness is better, his release is better, his accuracy is better, he’s really improved his game and it shows out there. He’s much more comfortable obviously in the second year of the offense. He is more comfortable from a mental standpoint. From a physical standpoint, he has improved himself.”

The Mountaineers carry a No. 11 ranking into the season, which is one of those rankings that say you are good, not great but can be great. It screams out that the voters consider you a team that could swing either way.

Certainly, no one — not even Holgorsen — can say with any certainty which way the season will play out, but one suspects a week from now, with the final game between instate rivals Marshall and West Virginia in the books, a lot of the opinions will have something to back them up.

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

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