A Passing Fancy
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - This fall, Dana Holgorsen is going to give Mountaineer football fans something they have rarely ever seen in these parts: a bona fide, high-octane passing attack.
Since 2006, when Holgorsen first became offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, his quarterbacks have passed for at least 4,000 yards each season he has called the plays. In 2009, while at Houston, his QBs combined to throw for an astonishing 6,072 yards, which adds up to about three years worth of passing around here.
“I wouldn’t want to prepare against his offense,” remarked WVU Director of Athletics Oliver Luck, who hired Holgorsen last December. Luck has a pretty good idea how the passing game works as record-setting quarterback at WVU before playing six years in the NFL with the Houston Oilers.
“I think for our players, they should be very excited about what kind of an offense they will be playing in next season,” said Luck. “It’s a great opportunity for them.”
What Holgorsen will be doing this fall is something entirely foreign to a West Virginia fan base accustomed to watching the football advance down the field on the ground.
When Rich Rodriguez was enjoying his greatest success in the middle of the last decade, West Virginia was a 3-to-1 run-to-throw offensive team. Most of the successful coaches here have operated that way. In fact, Mountaineer football and the passing game have been like two ships passing in the night, rarely sticking together for very long.
Slinging Jimmy Walthall
In 1948, quarterback Jimmy Walthall finished fourth in the country in passing, completing exactly half of his throws for 1,222 yards and 13 touchdowns in leading the Mountaineers to a Sun Bowl victory over Texas-El Paso. That was the first time a WVU quarterback had ever passed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
But two years later, when Art Lewis took over the head coaching reins in 1950, his quarterback Kent Barges threw for half that amount while completing just 40.4 percent of his pass attempts.
For the next seven years, West Virginia quarterbacks Gerry Fisher, Fred Wyant and Mickey Trimarki won football games with completion percentages in the 40s and 30s in Lewis’ Split-T offense. As was the case with most of the successful coaches during that period, when Lewis did chuck the ball it was either for a big play or out of desperation.
And it was more the latter in 1958 when Dick Longfellow threw for 948 yards to rank sixth in the country in passing as West Virginia’s record slipped to 4-5-1. During Lewis’ remaining years and on into the early 1960s with Gene Corum, the Mountaineers experienced great difficulty throwing the football and stopping teams from throwing it.
“We were so used to Eastern football that just ran the ball down your throats,” recalled Tom Woodeshick, a Corum player who later became an all-pro fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1960s. “Penn State always had a quarterback and we couldn’t stop the passing game. We weren’t prepared for it, and we didn’t have the personnel in the secondary (to defend it).”
The two seasons Corum did have passing threats, in 1962 with Jerry Yost and in 1964 with Allen McCune, West Virginia had successful seasons. Yost threw for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the Mountaineers to an 8-2 record in 1962, and then two years later, McCune, a converted safety, took over the quarterbacking duties midway through the year and wound up throwing for 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead West Virginia to the Liberty Bowl.
McCune had another successful year throwing the football in 1965, completing 50 percent of his passes for 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns, but a three-game midseason losing streak to Virginia, Penn State and Kentucky derailed what was expected to be a great season, costing Corum his job.
Carlen: “The ‘throwin’ game is a disease”
Jim Carlen, who succeeded Corum in 1966, had a limited knowledge of the passing game, but when he was running Georgia Tech’s defense he used to sit in Bobby Dodd’s office and listen to Dodd and Alabama coach Bear Bryant talk about how difficult it was for teams to defend the passing game.
“They would talk about throwing like it was a disease,” recalled Carlen. “Well, I knew the game was going to change a little bit if they could ever get to where they could let the offensive line block like they are letting them do now – tackle them – and I said, ‘We’re going to have a throwing attack of some kind.’
“When I was defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech we only played run,” Carlen added. “Throwing was like a foreign element.”
Carlen had met Bobby Bowden a few times when the Georgia Tech and Florida State coaches would get together during the summertime for clinics, and he immediately realized that Bowden was a bright, innovative coach who understood the passing game.
“What I knew about Bobby was I knew he knew the throwin’ game and I knew he was kind of a fool-‘em coach; he ran trick plays and stuff,” said Carlen. “My whole system was run the veer and the wishbone and run the ball all the time. I had just never been around the throwing game.”
That’s the main reason why he hired Bowden to run his offense at West Virginia. Carlen may have hired Bowden to throw the ball, but he rarely let him do it the way Bowden wanted to do it during their four seasons coaching together at West Virginia. During one game WVU was comfortably winning, Bowden wanted to call a halfback pass, but Carlen got on the headsets and ordered no more passes. When Carlen got off, Bowden decided to call the play anyway in open defiance of his head coach, and it was only after objections from the rest of the offensive coaches that Bowden stopped the play from going in.
The one year Carlen let Bowden open up the offense in 1968, quarterback Mike Sherwood threw for 1,998 yards and 12 touchdowns, setting the school single-game passing record with 416 yards in a big 38-15 win at Pitt.
Sherwood’s reward for his brilliant passing in 1968 was fewer throws in 1969 when Carlen went to a veer offense with Jim Braxton, Bob Gresham and Eddie Williams in the backfield. In the 1969 Peach Bowl, after Carlen ordered Bowden to install the wishbone at the end of the season, Sherwood tried just two passes for the entire game, completing one.
“I sent (Bowden) and Jack Fligg out to Oklahoma to get the veer, and then out to Texas to get the wishbone,” said Carlen. “He didn’t want to do it and I said, ‘Bobby we’re going to do it. We’ve got running backs here.’”
When Carlen left to take the Texas Tech job immediately after the ’69 Peach Bowl, it was only then that the shackles were finally removed from Bowden’s offense once he took over as West Virginia’s head coach.
In 1972, Bernie Galiffa became the first quarterback in school history to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season (2,496 yards) to lead the sixth-best passing attack in the country. West Virginia won eight games in ’72, and with exciting players such as Danny Buggs, Marshall Mills, Nate Stephens and Kerry Marbury frequently scoring touchdowns, Mountaineer fans were always on the edge of their seats.
“Because of the offense that we ran, we weren’t out of any game,” explained Galiffa.
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti could sense Bowden’s irritation whenever he called too many running plays in a row.
“He was the kind of guy who liked it wide open,” Cignetti recalled. “Man, if you didn’t have 21 points on the board in the first four or five minutes … I’ll never forget one day we were out there and we were running the ball against Miami and he gets on the phone and he says, ‘Frank, don’t you have faith in your quarterback? Let him throw the football!’”
But when Galiffa graduated and subsequent quarterbacks either didn’t pan out or got hurt, Bowden was forced to become more conservative and his teams weren’t nearly as successful. In 1974, when he was down to his fourth string quarterback, freshman Dan Kendra, West Virginia went 4-7 and Bowden nearly lost his job.
“The year I was at West Virginia and we went 4-7, I lost the first and second team quarterbacks and had to start a pure freshman who wasn’t even close to being ready,” said Bowden. “History loses all of that.”
When Bowden left for Florida State after the 1975 season, West Virginia’s passing game became a practice in self-mutilation, Mountaineer quarterbacks combining to throw a staggering 68 interceptions during a three-year period from 1976-78 before Oliver Luck eventually stabilized the situation when Don Nehlen took over the program in 1980.
'Up-The-Middle Nehlen' Becomes 'Air Nehlen'
In 1981, Luck became the second quarterback in school history to pass for more than 2,000 yards in a season (only eight different players have done it) to lead West Virginia to a surprising Peach Bowl victory over Florida. Luck had revived the Mountaineer passing game that year by completing 54.8 percent of his throws for 2,448 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Nehlen enjoyed continued success with Jeff Hostetler and Kevin White under center during the 1982, 1983 and 1984 campaigns, going to bowl games each year.
“Had Jeff not transferred in (from Penn State) we would have never turned that program because there were no other quarterbacks in the program of that caliber and we couldn’t recruit any,” Nehlen explained. “But Kevin White turned out to be a lot better than we ever thought. He was a kid out of Arizona who happened to play for a high school coach we knew. This guy comes in 5-11 and 155 pounds and I’m saying, ‘Holy mackerel, who are we going to beat with this guy?’”
In the mid-1980s, Nehlen changed his offensive approach with Major Harris, and then again with Jake Kelchner and Darren Studstill in the early 1990s, going to more of an option offense with downfield throws off of it. Eventually, though, Nehlen was criticized for playing it too conservatively when the game was becoming more wide open, Mountaineer fans frequently complaining that he ran too many draw plays.
“We did what we could do with what we had,” Nehlen explained. “When we got there we had a certain kind of player and we recruited certain kinds of players, and then when we had Major he was an option-running, play-action-off-the-option type guy. Then we run into Chad Johnston, who can’t do much of that at all, but he can throw the ball, and we started to recruit a couple of receivers. By then the passing game was coming more into vogue.”
“I think it just took some time for them to figure out that that was where we needed to go,” Johnston said. “It was probably a three-, four-year process to get to that point. We went from pounding the football and playing defense with that ’93 team to my years being the transition to the stuff they were doing when Marc Bulger got there with all those good receivers.”
It was Bulger’s incredible accuracy throwing the football that finally nudged Nehlen toward becoming more of a throw-first, run-second football coach. In 1998, West Virginia was almost 50-50 run-pass – 434 rushing attempts to 433 passing attempts (during Nehlen’s first season at West Virginia in 1980, he ran the ball 602 times and threw it only 282 times).
“I had never seen a kid as accurate as Marc Bulger. He could hit you in either eye,” said Nehlen. “He is an unbelievable quarterback.
“To be honest, (assistant coaches) Billy Legg and Doc Holliday started to sit on that board and stretch them out here and stretch them out there and say, hey, they’ve got to remove this linebacker and if they don’t remove this linebacker … so we started to do a little bit of that. When Rich came here his offense was my third down offense.”
It is Bulger who owns most of the passing records that West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith will be gunning for next fall.
“I get a kick out of people when they introduce me and they say, ‘Don Nehlen, three yards and a cloud of dust.’ We threw more passes than anyone ever here. All of the passing records are held by my quarterbacks,” Nehlen said.
Yet in the same breath, Nehlen also realizes that is about to change with Dana Holgorsen calling the plays this fall.
“The game has changed a little bit today because the kids coming out of high school now throw and catch a lot better than they did when I was coaching,” Nehlen said. “Most of the time, when I was recruiting a quarterback, he would be lucky to throw 25 passes in a year. I played quarterback in high school and threw two, and now they throw for 5,000 yards.
“It’s different. It’s more wide open now,” Nehlen continued. “When we coached you played in a phone booth and now they use the whole field. It’s harder to catch a rabbit in a field than it is in a phone booth.”
And that is why Holgorsen is going to dial up a lot of passes this fall – the likes of which Mountaineer fans have never seen before.
Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia University, Mountaineer football
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