BOX SCORES BECKON
His name is Dana Holgorsen. He’s West Virginia’s fun-loving, free-spirited, sky diving head football coach.
Since he was first introduced in December as WVU’s head coach-designate (then field-promoted in early June) the state and national media alike have fleshed out nearly every angle of Holgorsen’s football pedigree. We’ve heard about it all, from his record-breaking tenure at Texas Tech with long-time colleague Mike Leach to his more recent landing spots in Houston and Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The salvo of information fired our way each day about the Mountaineers’ 33rd head coach has left little to the imagination. We seem to know just about everything about him, football related and otherwise. We know Holgorsen hails from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and that Mt. Pleasant is home to his alma mater, Iowa Wesleyan College - the oldest, church-related, degree-granting institution west of the Mississippi. Alright, maybe that last part you didn’t know. But we do know he was a receiver for head coach Hal Mumme at IWC where he finished his career with 145 grabs for more than 1,700 yards.
We know he’s coached in 11 straight bowl games. We know he installs his entire offense in just three days. We know he has surrounded himself with assistants who are well versed in his system. We know he turned 40 years old last week and his twitter handle is @holgorsendana. We know his inaugural recruiting class at West Virginia is off to a banner start. We know that a year ago he helped Oklahoma State to its first ever 11-win season. We know as an OC at the major college level he’s piled up the kind of staggering yardage totals (521 yards per game) that typically beguile sportswriters into converting those figures into a mileage sums. For those scoring at home, the yardage total translates into 23.1 miles amassed in six years. I’ve been trying to shoehorn that one into a conversation for days.
The truth is, in the marketplace of new information it’s getting progressively tougher to unearth anything about Holgorsen that we haven’t already heard. The topic has been held up to the light and examined from every angle. There’s nothing left to uncover.
Or is there?
When in doubt, go to the box scores. And that’s exactly what I did.
Aaron Levenstein once observed that statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. With that in mind, I combed through all 78 games that Holgorsen has coached as a coordinator and/or co-coordinator. I did so in search of the suggestive and the vital, as well as anything in-between. What I discovered might’ve been a little bit of each.
Here are five things excavated from the statistical abyss that you might not know about West Virginia’s high-velocity new head coach:
1.) FAST STARTS.
When Holgorsen installs his system, the early growing pains experienced by his players are often indiscernible to the untrained eye. Unlike most coaches who implement a new scheme, Holgorsen has historically provided a transition so silky smooth that the kinks and rough edges have hardly been visible outside the film room. Through the lens of your average fan in the stands, a week one performance by a Holgorsen offense often appears to have the well oiled look of a team in midseason form. Sure there are things the coach will invariably tell us can be improved on from the outset, but that hasn’t stopped the scheme from providing significant doses of firepower right out of the starting blocks. In the last three years (a time frame which includes two brand new installations of his system) Holgorsen’s offenses averaged 58 points per opener and 44 points in games played in the first month of the season. Moreover, check out the opening day numbers posted by signal callers playing under Holgorsen in his six season openers as a coordinator: 420 yards per game, 27 TD passes and one interception in 295 total attempts. If that’s not evidence of a system that explodes out of the gates I don’t know what is.
These are the types of numbers that prompted me in my March “Hot Reads” column (http://bit.ly/iIagYb) to forecast a breakout year for Geno Smith in 2011. I believe a perfect storm of events could convene for West Virginia’s offense this fall. We’ll see Geno, a gifted passer and avid film rat, pulling the trigger for the crafty Holgorsen, the ideal play caller who won’t shy away from the downfield talents of his quarterback.
One thing Holgorsen believes he has working in his favor in Morgantown as opposed to previous jobs is the offensive staff he’s been able to assemble. In his estimation, that alone might give the Mountaineers a chance to come out early on firing on more cylinders.
“At my two previous stops I had to coach the coaches first. Here I have guys that know my system, and that alleviates a lot of that pressure,” said Holgorsen. “I think it gives us a chance to look better a little quicker.”
As West Virginia works toward its Labor Day weekend matchup with Marshall consider that the fewest yards a Holgorsen-coordinated offense ever churned out at the D1 level on opening day was 501 in 2006.
2.) NEVER COUNT ‘EM OUT.
If Holgorsen ever asserts the Mountaineers are “never out of it” with this offense, listen up. It’s not just the company line. He would have ample evidence to support such a claim, beginning with the most prolific comeback in major college postseason history. In 2006, Holgorsen was co-coordinator of a Texas Tech team that engineered the biggest bowl comeback the college game has ever seen. With five minutes to play in the third quarter of the 2006 Insight Bowl, the Red Raiders trailed Minnesota 38-7. Then Graham Harrelson launched a 43-yard TD strike to Joel Filani to cut the deficit to 38-14. That play marked the first of 37 points Tech would score following the intermission en route to an improbable 44-41 overtime win.
3.) DEFYING CONVENTION.
One of the oldest axioms in football centers on the need to win on third down. If you don’t do so, the numbers are stacked against you and conventional wisdom suggests you might as well pack it in. While the life of any offense is no doubt made more difficult by failing to move the sticks, history suggests it’s not an outright deal breaker for Holgorsen. In 2005 at Texas Tech, he helped the Raiders pull off a 34-31 win at Nebraska despite successfully converting just a single third down attempt (1-10). A year later, Tech repeated the trick in a 31-26 victory at Texas A&M, this time going 1 of 7. In 2009 at Houston, Holgorsen helped the Cougars score 45 points and rack up 512 total yards to knock off Oklahoma State despite successfully converting just three third down tries. The secret in each of the above cases was a steady stream of mid-range gains that helped Holgorsen’s offenses average a combined 6.6 yards per snap.
This segues into …
4.) WHY “POP!” CAN BE AS LETHAL AS “BOOM!”
Sure Holgorsen can beat you with the home run (OSU had eight plays of 60+ yards last year), but what makes his system especially dangerous is that he can also beat you with a steady diet of singles and doubles. Consider this: despite finishing 40th nationally in third down success with a pedestrian conversion rate of just 43%, Oklahoma State ended the season with the No. 3 scoring offense in college football. How? By ripping off a hefty array of plays that picked up 10 to 20 yards. You know the type. Those effective, intermediate strikes that keep the sticks moving without the down marker ever even getting flipped to reveal that orange number “3.” The kind of silent but deadly mid-range gains that make the defense slowly begin to bleed without even realizing they’re cut. Such plays are Dana Holgorsen’s forte. In 2010, OSU finished third in the country in plays of 10 yards or more with a total of 253. That works out to just under 20 such plays per game. When you’re consistently ripping off gains of 10 yards or more, simple math dictates that you’ll face fewer third down situations to begin with.
When confronting an offense that stretches the field both horizontally and vertically the way Holgorsen’s does most defensive coaches will preach the same key points each time out. Play deep as the deepest. Don’t let anything behind you. Cover over top and plaster underneath. No blown assignments or missed tackles. Wrap up. Keep everything in front. Don’t give up the big play!
The problem against Holgorsen, however, is that a defense can often stay true to most of the above principles and still find itself on the business end of a 45-point, 500-yard beat down. Why? Because Holgorsen is too savvy to be lured into forcing the issue. He understands that a couple dozen 10-20 yard pickups can be just as devastating to a defense as two or three 50-yard game breakers can.
5.) GROUND AID FOR THE AIR RAID.
When Holgorsen extols the merits of a solid ground game, it’s not just lip service. Despite his reputation as a pass happy play caller bent on stretching the field through the air, the numbers do actually reveal an interesting trend. The truth is Holgorsen has gradually moved more and more toward running the football each year since departing Lubbock after the 2007 season.
“It’s hard to argue with the success Mike (Leach) had at Texas Tech, but there have been a couple of things I’ve tried to do differently to put my own spin on it,” said Holgorsen. “For example, I wanted to run the ball a little more, which we have.”
During Holgorsen’s stint as co-OC at Tech, the pass-heavy Red Raiders were twice held to negative yards rushing (-13 vs. Texas in 2006 and -9 vs. Missouri in 2007) and finished 119th in the country on the ground in ‘07. Lacking the pretense of a running game did catch up with Texas Tech. In fact, during one eight-game stretch from the end of the 2005 season through the middle of 2006, Tech lost four games in which they averaged a mere 10 points, including a 12-3 setback at TCU. The common thread linking each of those losses was a patent inability to run the football.
Conversely, in the more recent three-year span that saw Holgorsen at Houston and OSU his offenses churned out eight 200-yard team rushing efforts (with a high of 299) while producing a pair of 1,200-yard backs. One of those backs was Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter who racked up a chunky 1,548 yards to finish ninth in the country last season.
During Holgorsen’s three years as co-coordinator under Leach, Tech ran the ball 30 or more times in a game just twice. In the three years since then, Holgorsen’s offenses have done so 26 times. Last year, Holgorsen’s Okey State attack rushed the ball 450 times overall. To lend some perspective, that 2010 total represented more rushing attempts than traditional ground dwellers such as Iowa and Penn State and just 17 fewer than Alabama. So just in case you think the jury is still out, yes, Holgorsen is serious about running the football.
And so ends the curious tale of the box scores. Fast starts, comebacks and jaw-dropping numbers - what more can you ask for? Was it suggestive? Vital? Both? Neither?
I’ll let you be the judge.
Either way Mountaineer fans now at least have a few more things to chew on as we let slip through the dog days of summer and brace ourselves for what figures to be an exciting offensive ride in 2011.
When that happens, we’ll see you at the fifty.
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