By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Let us first get something important out of the way as a service to Paul Millard.
It came in the postgame glow over a come-from-behind victory over William & Mary in his first collegiate start, a game in which the quarterback conversation around Milan Puskar Stadium went from plural to singular quite quickly.
Millard had started and made the most of it with 19 completions in 25 attempts for 237 yards and a touchdown — a rather impressive touchdown throw of 69 yards to quick-as-a-flash Ronnie Carswell that turned the game from what seemed to become an embarrassing defeat to a tolerable victory.
Anyway, in the afterglow of the postgame media session, someone referred to Millard as a “gunslinger,” which was a label he brought with him from Flower Mound High in Texas.
“I don’t know where the gunslinger comes from,” he snapped. “I threw the ball like 70 times once in high school. I’m not a gunslinger.”
Throw 70 passes in a game once and you get tagged for life. Of course, the gunslinger tag could have come from throwing 500 passes and completing 331 for 4,491 yards and 41 touchdowns in his senior season, but who was counting.
The fact of the matter was that while Coach Dana Holgorsen would be fine with Millard as a gunslinger, he’s totally satisfied with what he saw in Saturday’s game — a cool, level-headed kid who didn’t make a lot of mistakes, save for one “boneheaded play,” as the coach would put it, that cost WVU the ball and a field goal.
“Offensively, we are still trying to find an identity,” Holgorsen said. “I thought Paul managed the game well, minus one boneheaded play where he dropped the ball on a sack.
“Other than that, he managed it well. We will get a lot better and look at the tape, and as guys see themselves in game situations, they will improve.”
This was strange talk considering that less than two weeks earlier Holgorsen’s main complaint with Millard was with his decision making. He would make great decisions, then bad ones, and Holgorsen was looking mainly for a quarterback he could trust not to make mistakes.
But as opening day drew near, the light bulb went off in Millard’s head, and it was a 200-watt bulb at that.
Not that it surprised him that he caught on.
“The same thing happened in high school. It was my sophomore year and I wasn’t playing on the varsity squad, but in the offseason a lot of things just clicked for me,” he said. “I would say I knew the system the last two years, but I think I did a good job this year.”
Being a backup to a quarterback like Geno Smith doesn’t give you the same urgency to learn as does being involved in a competition for the starting job with a quarterback like Clint Trickett, a player who has similar talents to your own.
Certainly, Holgorsen did not put a great deal on Millard in his first start. He knew he had accomplished running backs and used them, running the ball 44 times while passing it just 27.
“I have no idea how many passes I threw,” Millard, the one-time gunslinger, would say after the game. “It’s nice having running backs like we do. It’s nice to catch the ball back there and hand it to them and let them get us first downs. It makes the game a lot easier. It’s going to be nice to have those guys all year.”
It’s nice, too, in making completing passes easier, especially the one to Carswell.
“I knew it was six points right then, the play before,” Millard said. “Because we had them set up.”
Indeed they did.
“Seeing as how we were running the ball like 80 percent of the time,” Holgorsen said, using exaggeration for effect, “if I was them, I would have probably screwed those safeties down as well.”
The safeties had seen that formation over and over and it led to a running play, so when the call came in for play action, they bit, leaving Carswell only a corner to beat and by the time the football settled into his hands en route to the end zone he was in a different ZIP code than the defender.
Holgorsen will look carefully at the game film and see if he didn’t overrate Millard’s performance, see where he needs to improve, and decide if he will start next week over Trickett, but if he doesn’t it will be a bigger upset than it would have been had William & Mary beaten the Mountaineers.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.