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August 29, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-Don’t bother assuming in this game

MORGANTOWN — The other day, cleverly placed in the midst of a longer answer on what his film study of Marshall from last year had divulged, West Virginia University coach Dana Holgorsen put forth a rather cryptic statement that begged for some further interpretation.

“I guess the question is, ‘Which offense are they going to run?’” Holgorsen said. “There’s been some speculation on that. Hopefully he’s learning a second offense in as many years.”

Did he know something no one knew, something could be gained only via — how shall we put this, knowing the history between these in-state rivals who open their seasons at noon Saturday — ESP or some cleverly placed intelligence agent?

So it was that early on in his press conference he was asked a version of one of history’s greatest inquiries — “What did he know and when did he know it?” — the question Sen. Sam Irvin made famous in the Watergate hearings.

In this case, Holgorsen was asked where he might have heard the Herd might show a new offensive scheme.

 “Probably one of you guys,” he wisecracked. “I don’t remember where we heard it.”

Maybe it was from the person who tipped him off that the Marshall staff had visited Oregon and would probably install some of their high tempo offense.

All of this, of course, sounds rather trivial until you give it some context, that being the idea that this is a new season and that makes it a journey into the unknown in so many ways, especially the way the modern game is played.

In years past, you could count on John McKay to run “student body left” and “student body right” at USC right out of the gate, and Woody Hayes wasn’t going to surprise anyone with an offense that would abandon “four yards and a cloud of dust” by throwing 35 passes in the opener.

Today, though?

Who knows, which was the point Holgorsen was about to make.

“Who knows what we’re going to do offensively? We’re liable to throw something out there that they haven’t seen before,” he said.

And defensively they have done everything but rent billboards to tell the world they were changing schemes.

“Defensively, it’s been widely known we’re running the 3-4 defense, but what does that mean? There may be some things we do defensively that they haven’t prepared for.”

It is really a guessing game.

“Nobody knows. Nobody knows going into the first game,” Holgorsen said. “You can assume. You can assume all you want to.”

It went unspoken at the press conference, but everyone knows the oft-quoted phrase in popular culture about what you do when you assume.

“The bigger thing for Game 1 is in-game adjustments,” Holgorsen said. “I’m very confident our coaches will be aware and alert of what’s going on down on the field to the point where they can assess what’s going on and talk about how we can attack it either offensively or defensively and communicate it to the players to the point we can adjust so they know what they are doing.”

Think of it this way. Marshall comes into the game knowing that WVU is starting a true freshman at safety in Karl Joseph. Naturally, they will game plan to pick on him.

But they have no film of how he plays, nothing to judge on. Say he comes out and turns out to be the best player on the field defensively?

Marshall better recognize that and find an alternate plan.

In many ways, the opening game is like a bowl game in that there is a long period in which a team can prepare and put in new things.

Had Holgorsen, for example, come up with some new wrinkles that fooled Clemson into giving up 70 points?

“We gave it to No. 1 more,” he said, smiling at the thought of Tavon Austin taking it four times into the end zone.

In reality, usually the changes are subtle and within each team’s system.

“You can only put 11 people out there,” Holgorsen said. “There are only so many things you can do. Five of them are going to be linemen, one is going to be a quarterback and a couple are going to be receivers.”

In other words, “I don’t think anybody is reinventing the game,” Holgorsen said. “Like I said, the biggest thing is in-game adjustments after figuring out what they are doing on all three sides of the ball, relaying it to the players so they can adjust and be successful.”

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

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