MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://www.thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller
They may be more similar than either cares to admit.
Despite the highly publicized bad blood between Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen, the two actually share a lot in common. For example, both enjoyed standout small college careers and both have coached alongside some of the most respected offensive minds in college football - Holgorsen with Mike Leach and Hal Mumme, Graham with Gus Malzahn and Rich Rodriguez. Both hail from blue collar towns west of the Mississippi and both have used high powered offenses as an instrument of choice in helping their defenses become opportunistic.
We’ll get back to that last point later.
Our story begins on the open plains of Oklahoma. The date was Dec. 11, 1993. The venue was Norris Field, planted in the heart of East Central University’s not-so-sprawling campus in the small, dust bowl community of Ada, Okla. The event was the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship game.
Glenville State College was pitted against ECU for all the NAIA marbles.
This was my introduction to the name Todd Graham – 17 years and one month to the day before he stepped to the podium in Pittsburgh to be formally introduced as the 35th head football coach in Pitt history. In 1993, long before he forged a rivalry with Holgorsen, Graham was in his third year as the defensive coordinator on Hank Walbrick’s staff at East Central.
Against our pass-dominated Glenville offense that afternoon in the national title game, Graham took a sit-and-wait approach with his game plan. For most of the day he parked two safeties high while plastering underneath with man coverage. Once every series or so, however, he would throw a wrinkle at us – usually in the form of a disguised edge blitz designed to catch me sleeping and outnumber our protection.
So what was the result of 60 full minutes of this give and take? In the end we had thrown the football 60-plus times for more than 400 yards and I was never touched, much less sacked.
But we lost the game 49-35.
Graham might have come up short in several battles, but he won the war. Despite surrendering a laundry list of big plays and never reaching me with any of his blitz schemes, Graham managed to disrupt our timing enough to force me into throwing a pair of costly interceptions. Those turnovers were all it took to help East Central separate from us in the second half.
That in a nutshell was – and is - Todd Graham’s defensive modus operandi. Take a few chances, yield some big plays, sometimes even surrender unwieldy chunks of yardage, but along the way force a key turnover or two to shift the balance of the outcome.
As a head coach, Graham’s offensive unit has played a role in this strategy too. It’s a simple formula I call “score and steal.” Score fast and put your defense in position to take risks and force turnovers. It worked to perfection for Graham at Tulsa last year as he guided the Golden Hurricane to a 10-3 record, despite finishing 111th nationally in total defense, yielding a gaudy 451 yards per game. Tulsa pulled this off in large measure by scoring furiously (sixth in the nation in points/game) and by forcing 36 turnovers – the third highest total in the country. In fact, the Golden Hurricane defense picked off a pass in 12 out of 13 games and ended the year with a national-best 24 interceptions.
“Our No. 1 thing is to create turnovers. I think if you look, we're first or second in the country in getting takeaways and right up there in turnover ratio,” Graham said shortly after arriving from Tulsa to take over at Pitt.
“The key to winning football games 50 years ago is the same as it is now. Take care of the football and turnover ratio is the No. 1 indicator, and then explosive plays.”
Sometimes those explosive plays come from the other team’s offense. Three times under Graham last year Tulsa surrendered more than 525 yards of offense and still found a way to win the football game.
You guessed it: turnovers. This tactic was showcased nationally in the Golden Hurricane’s stunning win in South Bend last October. Notre Dame racked up 458 yards – including 334 through the air - but Graham’s defense stole the day with four takeaways in a 28-27 thriller that was called the biggest victory in Tulsa’s 115-year football history.
Through Graham’s first 10 games in Pittsburgh, though, this plan has encountered a hiccup. Even before losing standout running back Ray Graham the Panthers struggled to score this year – much less score in bunches – and consequently they aren’t forcing many turnovers either.
At times this fall, the first-year head coach has used words like “terrible” and “embarrassing” to describe a Pittsburgh offense that seems stuck with the parking brake on. That’s quite an about-face from Graham’s comments in January, when he ambitiously promised: “We’ll be the most explosive team in the country.”
Things haven’t worked out that way just yet.
Pitt is 70th in the country in points per game (25.6) and has to its credit just seven offensive plays of 30-plus yards. Only five teams in college football have fewer. In short, there’s been no high octane in the tank of Graham’s attack in Pittsburgh so far, just a modest can of kerosene with an additive or two mixed in. By no coincidence, the Panthers defense – rarely playing with a considerable lead - has managed a mere 11 takeaways, the fewest in the Big East. Despite the benefit of a pass rush that ranks among the nation’s best (sixth in sacks), Pitt has picked off just six balls (also the fewest in the league) in 359 opponent’s pass attempts.
At least part of the reason for this turnover drought has been Pittsburgh’s habit this season of limping out of the gates. That wasn’t the case with Todd Graham’s Tulsa teams. Fast starts have always been a pivotal part of Graham’s approach. A quick start gives his team an early lead and puts the opposition on notice that they better keep up. That alone is sometimes enough to plant a seed of desperation in the mind of the guys occupying the other sidelines. By my (unofficial) count, 25 of the 36 turnovers that Tulsa forced under Graham last year came when the Golden Hurricane had the lead. Why? Because Tulsa was good at jumping on you early. A fast start has the dual effect of knocking the opponent out of their comfort zone and putting the defense in position to start taking the type of chances that help generate turnovers.
Such a style is obviously high risk/high reward. Sure, taking more gambles defensively might mean you give up a few splash plays through the course of a game, but that’s the beauty of jumping out to an early advantage on the scoreboard: you can afford a couple slip ups. The proof is in the numbers. Last year, Graham’s Tulsa teams scored 20-plus points in the first half nine times in 13 games. They averaged 3.1 turnovers in those nine games, as opposed to just 2.0 turnovers in the four games they failed to score 20 by the intermission.
By comparison, Pitt so far this season has scored 20-plus points in the first half just three times. Are you starting to see why the Panthers haven’t been able to buy a turnover this year? Without the luxury of a quick strike offense handing the defense multiple leads, this strategy starts to unravel. When the offense sputters, leads on the scoreboard dry up and the defense is no longer in position to take as many turnover-inducing chances. Such has been the case with the takeaway-challenged Pitt defense this season.
With this line of attack, it’s all interconnected. The sonic ability of the offense to provide a lead is tied directly to the defense’s capacity to get the ball back. Consider any number of examples and it makes sense. A defensive coordinator is more inclined to dial up pressure at midfield and risk man coverage with a 17-7 lead than he would be if the game was tied at 10. This trickles down to the player level as well. For instance, a cornerback backpedaling into a deep-zone coverage might be more apt to take a chance on jumping up to rob a short route if his team is up by a few scores. He might not be so daring if the game is knotted up. These are the types of calls and decisions on the defensive side that often generate turnovers.
If this approach is starting to sound familiar to West Virginia fans, it should. It’s the Holgorsen way: quick leads on the scoreboard paving the way for takeaways by the bucketful. Graham might use it, but Dana Holgorsen has perfected it.
With Holgorsen as the offensive coordinator at Houston two years ago, the Cougars defense finished 111th in the country but still forced 30 turnovers (11th in the nation).
With an offense averaging 42 points per game, the Houston defense was often playing from out in front and could afford to take risks. The same held true last season with Holgorsen as the OC at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys scored 20 points or more in the first half 10 times in 13 games. Those fast starts proved beneficial to an otherwise marginal defense as OSU (88th in yards allowed) forced 34 turnovers – 24 of which came when the Cowboys had the lead. The 34 takeaways were the fifth most nationally. Conventional wisdom suggests that seeing Justin Blackmon and the Cowboys’ 44-points-per-game offense on the sidelines eager to get back on the field might have had something to do with the opposition feeling pressed enough to cough it up that many times, particularly with Oklahoma State so often in the lead.
And how has this tactic translated in Morgantown this year? It’s worked like a charm – but only when WVU has gotten off to the aforementioned fast start. Through 10 games, West Virginia is averaging 37 points per outing and ranks 16th nationally in scoring – but it’s hardly the finished offensive product Holgorsen is striving for. Nevertheless, West Virginia has managed to score 20-plus points in the first half of five of its 10 games. Not surprisingly, 13 of the Mountaineers’ 16 takeaways have come in those five games. Moreover, 12 of the 16 turnovers WVU has forced have come when the Mountaineers were playing with a lead.
One final thing Holgorsen and Graham share in common is a burning desire to win this game. Factor in West Virginia’s 5-0 record when leading at the half and Pitt’s 0-2 mark when trailing at that point and you get the sense that a quick start by the Mountaineers Friday could lead to a long night for the Panthers.
The similarities between the two abruptly stop there. Then the vast differences kick in. Those are a lot easier to spot.
For instance, one dons a buzzcut and conducts himself like a motivational speaker. The other wears black, chugs Red Bull and jumps from airplanes.
What’s my gut tell me? One will win the press conference … but the other will win the football game.
See you at the Fifty.