Not so fast, says Holgorsen to West Virginia offense

Up-tempo attack hitting some snags

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Turns out installing a new offense is more of an art than a science -- even considering the success West Virginia has had passing this year.

Coach Dana Holgorsen said it has taken a bit longer to implement his spread scheme, explaining he has had to limit play selection, relax the frequency of signal-calling and slow the tempo when necessary for the Mountaineers (7-3).

"Yes, I've slimmed it down a little bit to the things that we can handle," Holgorsen said this week. "The amount of plays that we go into a game with is relatively the same. At the rate of how fast we're calling it, how challenging the things are, it comes down to being able to block people up front and being able to make accurate reads or running the ball with numbers."

Holgorsen and his assistant coaches have installed this offense before -- a pass-first, up-tempo scheme -- at Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State.

Houston and Oklahoma State played quick tempo offenses before his arrival, making the transition faster.

He likened his situation to what coach Todd Graham has gone through trying to install his offense at Pitt.

"I've changed a lot about how we call plays and how fast we call them," Holgorsen said. "There are times that we try to change it up and try to catch people off guard."

Saturday at Cincinnati, the offense played with a fast tempo only part of the time. In the opening series, quarterback Geno Smith was sacked for a loss of 8 yards and hurried into two incomplete passes.

As the game wore on, the offensive line was dominated, not allowing traction for the run game.

"Probably the most discouraging thing that I dealt with last Saturday was we had numbers to run the ball, and we couldn't do it, which changes a whole lot of things that I do offensively."

Play-calling decisions are made within games, he said, based on how effective the offense has been in relation to what the opposing defense is doing.

"It comes down to moving the ball. If you're moving the ball at a good rate, then you can move a little faster. If not, then you'd better be careful with it," he said.

"It's always been if you're feeling good about what you're calling, if you're moving the ball, if you're getting first downs, then it's easier to do it. But, if you're not feeling good about it, then it makes it hard to push the envelope on it."

West Virginia was the 113th-ranked team in Division I-A in possession time heading into the Cincinnati game and moved up five places after holding the ball for 36 minutes.

The play-calling philosophy, said quarterback coach Jake Spavital, is to run a mix of plays using the quick passing game, dropback plays, screens and rushing plays.

Smith's athletic ability to move comfortably in the pocket and his mental ability to make reads helps keep that balance, Spavital said.

"He has great pocket presence. We will call our dropback game a little more because he can just maneuver around that pocket a lot better than a lot of quarterbacks," Spavital said. "When we want to take a shot downfield, we can be comfortable calling them. If we get pressure on the quarterback, he can step up, find a hole."

West Virginia leads the Big East Conference in total offense with 479.4 yards a game. The offense has shown the ability to put up passing yards consistently this season -- in the loss to LSU, Smith threw for 463 yards. .

Four times Smith has thrown for upward of 400 yards.

Receivers Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin regularly have 100-plus yards receiving in games.

"We'll keep trying to get better and keep trying to figure out how to put our guys in position to win, which is ultimately the only thing that matters," Holgorsen said. "Things will get easier and easier the longer we're here."


Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1959.


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