The Times West Virginian

September 6, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Experience should fix early miscues

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — You will get no argument if you were to believe that West Virginia University’s Dana Holgorsen is one of the brightest shining lights in the football coaching profession, possessing a great offensive mind, a knack for organizing and getting through to his players and now carrying an Orange Bowl trophy and book full of records on his resume.

But he is a young coach, just in his second season as a head coach, and as such there are some rough edges that come along with being young and inexperienced.

He does not hold the market on it. Geno Smith, for example, was a better quarterback his third season than during his second and is expected to be better in this, his fourth.

It’s no different with coaches than it is with players, for the greatest teacher is experience, and the mistakes you make or the misguided approach you have today will lead to corrections as you go along. Some coaches can do this without suffering from it in the terms of losses, but it happens to all of them and Holgorsen openly expressed a couple of his following the opening victory over Marshall.

True, from the outside, it was difficult to find fault with a 69-34 victory, but there were a couple of problems exposed that experience will probably correct.

The first occurred when the game was still undecided — which means early. It was the end of the first quarter, WVU holding a 13-0 advantage but now at the end of a nifty drive that had taken the ball to the Marshall 1 on third down.

Prior to the game, Holgorsen had told his team that he was looking for physical football, and he was hell bent on getting it, mixing in enough runs that featured Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie inside that Marshall didn’t quite know what to do.

Well, on this third-down play from the 1, he gave the ball to his 236-pound running back Alston and he was stuffed, losing two yards.

Everyone expected the field goal unit, which would have given WVU a three-possession lead, or if Holgorsen felt like gambling a rollout pass or fade to Stedman Bailey.

Imagine the surprise when they came out in a conventional under-center formation and Smith tried to sneak the ball three yards into the end zone.

“Terrible call,” Holgorsen would say later in his press conference.

That’s allowed. Coaches make bad calls all the time. The problem wasn’t really with the call, but the reason behind it, which showed inexperience and youth.

“That was me being stupid and stubborn,” Holgorsen continued. “It was (third-and-goal) and we tempoed them because they subbed and we caught them and we tried to punch it in (on the Alston play), which is what we’re always going to do. We lost a yard and I got mad and became stubborn and took three points away from the team, which was not very smart.”

Certainly, Smith was stunned when he looked over at the sideline and saw the call.

“Oh, man, that was tough,” the quarterback said. “Coach told me it was a bad call, and he probably should have kicked. I like that he trusted us, and he trusted in me and put the ball in my hands.”

The troublesome part of all this, of course, isn’t the call and it isn’t the result.

Instead, it is that he let his emotions overwhelm his thinking. He was stubborn and mad, and a coach can’t allow himself to let either influence his coaching decisions.

To this day no one can say that Pitt didn’t beat WVU when it was on the doorstep of the national championship game in 2007 because then-coach Rich Rodriguez wasn’t being stubborn and going to beat the 24-point underdog Panthers by running the ball rather than taking advantage of a huge opening deep down the middle for passes.

Rodriguez was, like Holgorsen, an offensive genius, but he absolutely refused to adjust that day and play to the circumstances, just as Holgorsen wanted to prove a point rather than score one in this situation.

And speaking of points, Marshall made 34 of them in the game, along with 545 yards, 413 of them through the air.

Following the game, Holgorsen’s statement to the media was somewhat startling, coming from a coach’s mouth.

“As far as how many yards we gave up is something we’re not going to be too concerned with at this point,” he said.

The statement was in keeping with the idea the coaching staff had expressed that the defense was new, the players not experienced in it and that the goal was to cause turnovers rather than stop the opponent.

“At the end of the game, as long as we have more points than they do — then we’ve done our job,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said during camp. “We may win ugly at times, but ultimately if you come out on top that means you made a stop to win the game.”

While true, it is hardly a way to drive a defensive team toward playing at the top of its game, and it’s the kind of statement that you probably won’t hear out of a coach with experience who wants his defense to play at its best always.

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