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ELLIOTT: The Secret to the WVU Offense Is Its Simplicity

September 20, 2012
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - Don Nehlen is credited with putting West Virginia University football on the map with a 21-year run of unmatched success, the creation of the ''Flying WV'' logo, and a pro style of play that produced pro-style players.

Rich Rodriguez advanced the school's football-playing reputation with a hold-the-rope mentality and a self-made read option offense that produced some mind-boggling rushing numbers, including college football's all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks in Pat White.

These days, Dana Holgorsen, armed with a big-minded athletics director and a tempo-based, pass-heavy spread offense that is re-writing the passing records by the week, has taken over, producing the kind of numbers that demand the national spotlight stay shining on Morgantown.

Article Photos

Geno Smith and the WVU offense look headed toward No. 1.

AP Photo

Holgorsen's offensive background speaks for itself. In the last seven years, each of the offenses he's been in charge of has been nationally ranked in total yards, including one No. 1 and two No. 2s. West Virginia's 6,104 total yards last season were a school record.

Seeing these results, you'd think Holgorsen's a mad scientist concocting things that have never been done.

Not so.

As WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson points out, ''the field's been the same size for a long time.''

The key to this red-bull offense is its simplicity. Everything these guys do is for a reason and nothing is wasted.

''If you look at games during the week, you see guys with these playsheets that are bigger than me with 200 plays on there,'' Dawson said. ''You don't have to be a mathematician to figure it out. Let's say there's 80 plays in a game. When you have over 200 calls on your sheet, if you called all of those one time (in practice), it's over with. Obviously, that's a lot. In our deal, the plays we practice, we're going to run.

''We're up here all day and all night. We can come up with a million things that work against a million coverages. But the bottom line is how much stuff can we come up with that, in this room, 18-22-year-old kids that spend 30-45 minutes a day thinking about it, rather than eight hours a day thinking about it, can execute on the field Saturday when there's live bullets and when there's 75,000 people there?''

So they're doing the same things everybody else is doing; they're just not doing as much of them.

And the players are appreciative.

''I definitely think because the playbook is so simple, it allows us to play a lot faster,'' running back Shawne Alston said. ''With the last system that we ran, there was a whole lot more plays and calls and stuff from week to week.''

There will never be any gameday surprises, Dawson said.

''We try to be as efficient as we can in every aspect of it as far as the way we rep, the way we walkthrough,'' he said. ''Everything is done for an exact reason, for an exact purpose. And we make sure the plays we run during the week are the exact plays we run during the game and there's nothing outside of that.

''In our offense, we're extremely routine, almost to where you can get bored and fall asleep.''

And we thought this was an exciting offense.

Rodriguez is largely credited with inventing the zone read play out of the shotgun and made his name on teaching the importance of studying those defensive ends on every snap. It worked with great success, and frustrated a lot of defensive ends, and defensive coordinators, to no end.

Still, no quarterback ever threw for 300 yards in a game under Rodriguez at WVU.

Geno Smith does that with regularity in this offense. In fact, Smith has averaged 341 passing yards in the 15 games Holgorsen has coached at WVU, and he has five of the top eight single-game passing yardage totals in school history.

When he's not simplifying things, Holgorsen prefers to take advantage of every inch of space the spread offers and everything he wants to do is based on tempo- the faster, the better.

It's easier to do this when the thought process is taken away and talent and repetition take over. Every quick score affords more time down the road for another one. This is a coach who embraces points. With those naturally come big numbers.

This season's snaps have produced the nation's second-best scoring offense - behind only an Oklahoma State team that had the fortune of playing Savannah State.

Stedman Bailey is the nation's leading receiver at 11 catches per game, and is tops at 138.5 receiving yards per game. Tavon Austin is the country's No. 2 receiver at 10.5 catches per game. Smith is ranked second nationally in both pass efficiency (209.81), just behind TCU's Casey Pachall and second in total offense (408.5 yards per game), just behind Marshall's Rakeem Cato.

They've made it all look - and sound - so simple.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: elliott@theintelligencer.net