Pressure on Holgorsen to get offense back on track
MORGANTOWN - OK, so now Dana Holgorsen has one month to figure it out.
His West Virginia offense got better and better as the season wore on. Well, at least it did right up until the end.
After an eight-game stretch to start the season (excluding the shortened Marshall game) in which the Mountaineers averaged 512 yards and 39 points, over the final three games the numbers slid off to 375 yards and 25 points.
Guess what. Those are virtually the same numbers West Virginia averaged last season when the coaching staff was shown the door because of them. For the record, last year's 13-game averages were 372.7 yards and 25.2 points.
All right, so the drop-off this season didn't matter. West Virginia won each of those last three games to put itself in position to get the Orange Bowl berth against Clemson the team received Sunday night.
Then again, the Mountaineers sure didn't win any of those three games because of overpowering offensive numbers - 24 points (seven on a defensive touchdown) and 404 yards against Cincinnati, 21 points and 357 yards against Pitt, and 30 points (14 on non-offensive TDs) and 364 yards at South Florida.
And things hit rock bottom last Thursday in that 30-27 win over South Florida in Tampa. Not only did West Virginia fail to move the ball through more than three quarters of the game, the Mountaineers even turned it over and gave the Bulls points - 10 of them to be exact. The offense couldn't take advantage of a blocked punt that put the ball five yards away from the end zone.
It was ugly. And this offense is not supposed to be ugly.
Of course, when it counted the Mountaineers got the job done, driving for the tying touchdown and the winning field goal in the final nine minutes, right after Geno Smith had thrown that awful pick six that put his team down 27-20.
And, to his credit, Holgorsen was able to keep his sense of humor when asked how his offense could look so bad for 51 minutes and then come up so clutch in the last nine.
"Well, we threw that interception to get them to relax a little bit,'' Holgorsen deadpanned. "Once they pick-sixed us and went up by seven, we figured they would relax and we would be able to call some plays that worked.''
"It's a struggle. I don't know,'' Holgorsen said of the issues his offense has faced of late. "It's all about blocking, obviously, and we do a very average job of that. And I think our confidence has taken a little bit of a hit the last three weeks.
"But give South Florida credit. They've got a good defense. Defensive line-wise, they spent a lot of time in our backfield. It really changes how I call things compared to the way I've done it in the past. But give our guys credit for hanging in there and no folding.''
Between now and that Jan. 4 Orange Bowl, Holgorsen has to try and put this thing back together. West Virginia's defense has improved as the season progressed - not steadily, but there were more good performances at the end than at the beginning. Specials teams are still erratic, but the really good plays now outnumber the really bad ones and that's a start.
It was supposed to be the offense that would help overcome all of those defensive and special teams issues, but lately it's been the other way around. No one thinks that's alarming because Holgorsen's track record is such that even if his offenses struggle, it's only momentary.
Still, there are problems that have to be addressed and even Holgorsen is probably glad to have a month to address them.
Take tempo, for instance, which is at the heart of the offense.
"When we [increased the tempo] and started going faster, we limited what they could do [as far as making defensive adjustments],'' Holgorsen said of the USF game. "But then the problem is if you're not getting yards and you three-and-out, you put your defense out there a lot. And we put our defense out there a lot in the second half.
"It's really risky to start [trying to play faster]. But that's what we should have been doing to get them to where they were kind of base.''
And so now for the next month, Holgorsen can slow things down and figure out how to speed them up and make it work.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.