Seeking Balance

  • By John Antonik
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  • September 03, 2012 07:42 PM
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Most of us are seeking a little more balance in our lives, be it a balanced diet, more balance between work and recreation, so on and so forth.

Well, offensive football coaches are also constantly striving for balance. How many times have we heard defensive coaches talk about the impossibility of stopping a team that can run and throw the football with equal effectiveness?

When Rich Rodriguez was working the WVU sidelines, he frequently stated that his goal on offense was to pass and run for 200 yards each – the perfect 50-50 balance.

Well, personnel limitations dictated that he skew his attack more heavily toward the run game, and that led to some awesome offenses in the mid-2000s, but also problems whenever the Mountaineers didn’t have an answer in the throw game when teams stacked the box and the offensive line couldn’t get the movement it needed to spring loose explosive playmakers Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Noel Devine (reference crushing USF and Pitt defeats in 2007).

Way back in the 1950s, Art Lewis had some powerful offensive football teams with big, physical guys like Sam Huff, Bruce Bosley, Beef Lamone and Chuck Howley blocking up front, a deceptive and intelligent quarterback in Freddy Wyant, and some bruising ball carriers in Joe Marconi and Larry Krutko running over people, but the Mountaineers had a difficult time throwing the football in big games and they also had trouble adjusting to teams with tremendous speed (especially Georgia Tech in the 1954 Sugar Bowl).

In the early 1970s, Bobby Bowden had one of the most effective passing attacks in the country with quarterback Bernie Galiffa, and perhaps the nation’s fleetest receiver corps in Danny Buggs, Marshall Mills, Nate Stephens and Harry “Snake” Blake, but West Virginia had a tough time running the football against bigger, more physical teams. The Mountaineers had minus-1 yards rushing in a loss to Penn State that season and had less than 100 yards on the ground in a blowout defeat to NC State in the 1972 Peach Bowl.

In 1993, West Virginia had a big, physical offensive line and a power running game that enabled it to sail through its regular season schedule before the ship ran aground against Florida in the 1994 Sugar Bowl. The Gators that night in New Orleans were simply too fast and too athletic for the bigger, and much slower, Mountaineers to handle.

Dana Holgorsen’s offense in 2011 put up some gaudy numbers, the Mountaineers finishing sixth in the country in passing yards per game (348.9 ypg.) and ranking 13th in scoring (37.6 ppg.), but WVU was somewhat limited in what it could do in the running game because of the newness of Holgorsen’s system and the inexperience he had in the backfield.

Well, if last Saturday’s performance against Marshall is any indication of what’s to come, then West Virginia has discovered the answer to the 50-50 balance that all offensive coaches are striving for.

The Mountaineers had 347 yards rushing and 324 yards passing against the Thundering Herd – just the second time in school history that has ever happened. The first time came in 1965 against Pitt in what has long been considered the greatest offensive performance in school history when the Mountaineers passed for 320 yards and ran for 304 in their 65-48 victory over the Panthers in Morgantown.

I remember last spring asking West Virginia co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to list some of the issues defensive coaches have to consider when defending Holgorsen’s offense. If you recall, Patterson did a pretty good job of bottling up West Virginia’s attack last year as Pitt’s defensive coordinator.

Patterson said his No.1 objective was to take away the deep ball to Stedman Bailey, and then, he had to account for Tavon Austin working underneath in the horizontal passing game. But in order to do that, more defenders had to be taken away from the line of scrimmage, meaning a defense is now exposing itself to the running game.

What WVU missed last year was that confident, seasoned, physical runner who could break tackles at the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis to go along with West Virginia’s weapons in the passing game.

Well, it looks like the Mountaineers now have one and that proved to be Marshall’s big conundrum on Saturday. And that is why Shawne Alston’s 123-yard, two-touchdown performance and Andrew Buie’s six-carry, 80-yard effort were such a big deal for the Mountaineers. Now, defenses have to at least account for the running game.

Shawne Alston is an underrated running back,” said Marshall coach Doc Holliday. “I mean he’s a big, physical kid that can break tackles.”

What West Virginia managed to accomplish on the ground Saturday was not lost to Holgorsen, either.

“It’s about as balanced as you can possibly be with about 300-plus yards in rushing and passing,” he said. “We spread the ball around to a lot of people. The balance standpoint is more important to me. If we’re running the ball and we’re not getting any yards then we’ll start throwing the ball more, and that’s what the offense is able to do. It doesn’t just start with the running backs, but with the guys up front, and we’ve played better up front then we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

During his Monday morning teleconference, Holgorsen estimated that “about 65” of Alston’s yards came on his own, or about half his total yardage output for the game.

West Virginia’s undefeated team in 1988 that faced Notre Dame in the national championship game was easily the best offensive football team in school history. That squad averaged 42.9 points per outing and finished fifth in the country in total offense, averaging 482.7 yards per game.

That year, West Virginia had a dynamic quarterback in Major Harris, a big, physical (and intelligent) offensive line, great playmakers in the passing game in Reggie Rembert, Calvin Phillips and Grantis Bell, and two pretty effective runners in A.B. Brown and Undra Johnson.

There wasn’t an area on the football field that offense couldn’t attack and there wasn’t an answer that offense couldn’t come up with for whatever defenses tried to do against it.

Now, with a 70-point performance against Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl, followed up by last Saturday’s 69-point effort against Marshall, one is getting the same feeling about this offense whenever it takes the field.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.