The Times West Virginian

October 3, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU finds balance it had lacked

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It wasn’t about what went on Saturday, not about scoring 55 points or rushing for 360 yards, Geno Smith, the West Virginia University quarterback, was telling the mob of 30 or so microphones and tape recorders that were being pressed closer and closer to his face.

Winning that game and getting rid of the sour aftertaste the season’s first loss to LSU had left was only the immediate goal, not the long-term goal. It was simply a step along the way, this discovery of a running game to complement the Mountaineers’ passing game.

See, there is an ultimate goal in Smith’s mind, one he undoubtedly has gotten form his head coach, Dana Holgorsen.

“We’re working toward becoming one of the best offenses ever,” Smith finally said.

You have to remember that the 55 points and 643 total yards came about in the fifth game in which this radical new offense has been employed. Some players, like Dustin Garrison, the overnight sensation of a running back who rushed for 291 yards against Bowling Green, have not yet started their second game in the offense.

Holgorsen is still playing mostly with players recruited by another coach for another reason in another season.

Yet there they were, one week breaking the school record for passing yards, the next week putting on display a true freshman who would rush for more yards than anyone but one player in the storied history of WVU football, a history that had been written mostly on the ground.

Suddenly, Dustin Garrison’s name was right there with Amos Zereoue and Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson and Steve Slaton and Patrick White and Kerry Marbury, whose 291-yard effort against Temple 40 years earlier he had matched, and Kay-Jay Harris, whose 337 yards against East Carolina may never be matched.

Until this unexpected outburst of running the football, WVU had been putting up big numbers through the air while the ground game was virtually non-existent with a maligned line and a group of faceless, nameless running backs.

You would never be able to beat a good team being so pass-heavy, as proven in the LSU defeat, when all the yards added up to nothing beyond statistics, certainly not points.

But now, all of a sudden, you couldn’t put just three in the box and dare WVU to run, dropping eight to cover the pass. Now there is thunder to go with the lightning, and it was a huge step forward toward the ultimate goal.

“It gives us another dimension,” Smith admitted to the faceless microphones and cameras. “We’re going to continue to work on that running game. We’re never going to give up on it. Today showed what we’re capable of. It’s a building block toward the future.”

It is difficult to understand that the running game is far more complicated than the passing game and takes longer to install. Quarterbacks and receivers work together endlessly on a daily basis. They work on route running, which is intricate, and timing, which must be precise.

They can do it without the offensive line. They can even do it one-on-one, just quarterback and wide receiver off on some grassy field between classes, if they want.

They become as one, the quarterback knowing where the receiver will be at any moment and where he will be three seconds later.

The running game, though, is far harder to coordinate, so different are the skills the backs work on and the linemen in their separate time. A center can work on snapping the ball to a quarterback, but he can’t work on blocking for that quarterback until it becomes team drills and it’s all put together.

So it’s no surprise that this pass-first team took almost half a season to get the coordination and the timing into the running game, nor is it a surprise that it took this long to shake loose a starter and define roles for the running backs because, in truth, they had not had much of a chance to show what they had.

The more WVU passes, the less they carried, and without precision blocking and holes opening, the less chance they had of gaining yards or earning the confidence of the coach.

Now it seems to have come together and the ultimate offense becomes visible, a team that can throw and run, a team with a breakaway threat at running back while Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney offer steady receivers on the outside and Tavon Austin scampers across the middle as a slot receiver.

How many now do you put in the box? Three or five or eight? Do you stop the run and hope the passing game doesn’t work? Do you sell out to stop the pass, running exotic blitzes that are vulnerable to breakaway runs?

It’s like boxing a fighter who can knock you out equally with his left or right hand. The knockout punch can come from anywhere.

And when you have that, perhaps Smith and Holgorsen will have collaborated on creating “one of the best offenses ever.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.