The Times West Virginian

September 6, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Plenty of work to do on offense

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Somehow, when your head football coach is considered one of the great offensive minds in the game today, as West Virginia’s brand-new coach Dana Holgorsen is, it is probably not a really good thing when his analysis of the offense’s play in its first game is “I don’t think our offense was terrible.”

On the Hertzel scale of “CoachSpeak” that ranks somewhere down there with shaky, miserable and “I couldn’t bear to watch.”

Holgorsen chose his words carefully when he was treading on the performance given by his offense, not wanting to say to the media what he was saying to those people who made up the offense when they came off the field after one three-and-out series.

If looks could kill at that moment, he’d be holding another tryout for students who could play offense today. His body language was rated X, so his verbalizing probably was somewhere around Triple-X at that moment.

Yet you just can’t sell out your players on the first day, so he looked for something positive and came up with that they weren’t terrible and could improve. The entire quote when asked to evaluate the offense during his press conference is offered here so as to not be accused of taking anything out of context:

“It’s a work in progress. Vernard Roberts came in and gave us a spark in the second quarter. It’s obvious that they were going to take away the run. They put a lot of people up, they blitzed a lot of people and it’s something that we need to handle. I don’t think our offense was terrible, but we are going to watch the tape and try to get better.”

Let us hope so, because right now it is neither very dynamic nor very intimidating. If you don’t believe that, let us compare it to last year’s opener under a coaching staff and offensive coordinator who literally were run out of town for underachieving.

One must keep in mind that the statistics from this year’s offense were built in just three quarters of a game and there is every reason to believe they would have grown quite a bit had they played four quarters ... but they are not nearly the way anyone imagined.

Against Coastal Carolina last year’s team had 18 first downs to 17 for this year’s. The first downs were well balanced last year, 9 by the ground, 8 in the air and one by penalty. This year was 4 on the ground, 11 and 2.

Rushing yardage was 184 last year, 42 this year, down 142 yards and making the offense seem so one-sided that it is vulnerable.

The 42 yards rushing were the fewest in a game since the Mountaineers were to 33 by Virginia Tech in 2001, Rich Rodriguez’s first year, and when you consider it was only over three quarters, it ranks with the 58 WVU managed against LSU and the 79 it gained against South Florida last year.

Passing? Well, Holgorsen’s team won that battle 249 to 216, but Jeff Mullen’s offense won the total yardage battle 400 to 391.

And for those of you who want to bring up the three quarters thing, note that last year’s average play gained 5.6 yards and this year’s 4.8.

The point of this comparison is not to elevate last year’s offense, for it was truly unacceptable, nor to tear down this year’s, which has not had a chance to find its identity. Instead, the point is simply to say that the offense played on Sunday at Mountaineer Field is not good enough to dominate games against top teams and certainly not good enough to beat LSU.

This is true even with Geno Smith having a nearly spectacular game ... perhaps not in the terms of the numbers you are used to seeing out of Holgorsen’s offense in the Southwest, but in terms of his ability to make plays when under duress.

Holgorsen counted two scrambles and a sack for Smith when asked if he was worried, considering the only backup is a true freshman, that Smith was running the ball too often.

What we have here is a difference in the defining of scrambling. Holgorsen is counting only the times Smith had to pull the ball down and run with it or was sacked. He isn’t counting the times he had to run around until he shook off blitzing defenders and found someone to throw to downfield.

Perhaps he wasn’t counting them because those moments were countless, so frequent were they.

If Smith didn’t have bad protection, he had no protection at all.

The facts of the matter are that WVU could not run the ball and threw it far too often on improvised plays when Smith was in trouble to be considered impressive on offense.

And this seemed to be a problem with the offensive line, although Holgorsen was in a generous mood and was more in favor of crediting Marshall for the schemes it had drawn up to stop the run.

“I give Marshall a lot of credit with what they are doing defensively. They put a lot of pressure on us. There were some times we didn’t pick things up and some times when we didn’t run our routes fast enough for Geno (Smith) to get the ball out,” Holgorsen said.

He even admitted that it took him, the coaching staff and the team too long to figure out what Marshall was doing.

“I think we’re paying attention to the wrong thing. Marshall did some good things. Sometimes it takes time to figure out,” he said.

Of course, in the end, you come back to the adage “All’s well that ends well.”

As Pitt Coach Todd Graham said after the Panthers won over Buffalo while impressing no one, “Half the people in the country have a loss right now. We’re one of the ones who don’t.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.