WVU coach Dana Holgorsen
MORGANTOWN - It's pretty much a given that the one thing that concerns college football coaches most about their opening opponents is the element of the unknown.
It's been, after all, at least eight months since anyone has lined up and shown what they have. In the interim there have been 15 spring practices, 29 more in August and all kinds of idle time in meeting rooms with dry erase boards and ideas floating around.
Still, it was at least mildly unexpected the other day when Dana Holgorsen was opining on the skills and the maturity of sophomore Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and threw out this little nugget.
"I guess question No. 1 is, what offense are they going to run?'' Holgorsen said. "There's been some speculation on that, so hopefully he's learning a second offense in as many years.''
Indeed, while there has been little out of the Marshall camp to suggest that there are any wholesale changes in the works to the Herd offense, that is still something Holgorsen and his staff must worry about between now and Saturday's noon kickoff at Mountaineer Field in what could be the final game ever between the two teams.
After all, if a coach is going to dramatically - or even slightly - change his schemes in order to spring a surprise, the last thing he's going to do is advertise it.
Yet it's always something that has to be factored into preparations - that what a team is preparing for might not be what it ultimately faces on game day.
Holgorsen was noncommittal when asked in what grapevine he might have heard of changes being made by Marshall coach Doc Holliday and his staff - "Probably from one of you guys,'' he cracked - but the fact is that preparing for the unknown is imperative, particularly in opening games with so much lead time.
Of course, it works both ways.
"Who knows what we're going to do offensively, right? Nobody knows for sure. We may throw something else out there that they haven't seen before,'' Holgorsen said Tuesday. "Defensively, it's widely known that we're running the 3-4 defense, but what's that mean? There may be some things we do defensively that they haven't prepared for. I'm sure that their defensive coaches have been studying football across the country for the last six or seventh months and came up with some different things that they're going to do against us.
"Nobody knows. Nobody knows going into the first game. You can assume all you want to.''
Assuming anything, though, is dangerous, so Holgorsen tries not to. More importantly, he and his staff have to prepare for the unknown as best they can, which doesn't mean preparing for anything and everything, but having the ability to adjust on the fly.
"The bigger thing for Game 1 is in-game adjustments,'' Holgorsen said. "I'm confident our coaches are going to be very aware of and alert to what is going on on the field to the point where they can see what's going on and then talk about how we need to attack it either offensively or defensively and get it communicated to our players so they can adjust what they're doing.''
Holgorsen has talked in the past of seeing opposing defenses dramatically alter their schemes without warning before playing one of Holgorsen's potent offenses. Specifically he recalls a game in 2010 when he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and defensive coordinator Brent Venables changed their scheme just for the Cowboys. He said it took a quarter or so, but OSU's offense adjusted.
In truth, though, there are only so many tricks out there.
"You can only put 11 guys out there, so there are only so many things you can do,'' Holgorsen said. "Five of them are going to be linemen, one of them is going to be a quarterback, a couple of them are going to be receivers and a couple of them are going to be running backs. There are only so many different things you can do.
"I don't think anybody is reinventing the game. The biggest thing is in-game adjustments after finishing out what the plan is going to be and figuring out what they're doing on all three sides of the ball.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.