By Jim Weber
When Dana Holgorsen became West Virginia’s head coach in June of 2011 after then-head coach Bill Stewart allegedly asked a reporter to “dig up dirt” on his new offensive coordinator, I said the whole fiasco would be a blessing in disguise.
And so far, it has been. Instead of constant 9-4 seasons, “Holgo” has brought excitement, won the Orange Bowl and climbed to No. 5 in the AP poll just two weeks ago until the wheels came flying off the team vs. Texas Tech and Kansas State. Athletic director Oliver Luck was so enamored with Year One that he gave Holgorsen a contract extension through 2017 in the offseason.
After all, many great offensive minds fail as head coaches.
And this is the same laid-back guy who didn’t like coming in to work before 9:00 AM and was always wearing flip flops in Stillwater. Those two things in and of themselves aren’t a problem, but his whole “Chill, dude” personality is.
Sure, it worked fine under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. And Holgorsen excelled when he was the offensive coordinator at places like Houston and Oklahoma State, where he coached under intense head men like Kevin Sumlin and Mike Gundy that handled running the team. Holgorsen’s main responsibilities were being a film junkie during the week and calling a great game with his “Air Raid” offense each Saturday, both of which he excels at.
Being a head coach requires so much more than that. There’s assembling a coaching staff, overseeing all three phases of the game, instilling discipline in players and motivating them – to name a few. Holgorsen’s weaknesses as a head coach weren’t exposed last year while facing a meager Big East schedule and a defenseless Clemson team in last January’s Orange Bowl.
But now West Virginia is playing with the big boys of the Big 12. And after losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 104-28, it’s clear that Holgorsen is a long way from being a successful head coach. Here’s the three most glaring examples of why.
#1: Defensive Coordinator Hires
During the offseason, Holgorsen let longtime West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and other assistants head to the desert and rejoin Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Mountaineer fans weren’t exactly shedding tears over their departure after the WVU “D” finished 61st in scoring defense (26.8 PPG) last fall.
So what did Holgorsen do? He turned around and hired friend and Oklahoma State special teams and safeties coach Joe DeForest to be his new co-defensive coordinator and kickers coach. This was despite the fact the Cowboys finished 107th in passing defense last season. The other co-defensive coordinator? The old right hand man of Todd Graham, Keith Patterson, whose defenses at Pitt and Tulsa were nothing special, to say the least. Before being scooped up by Holgorsen, Patterson had landed a job as the defensive coordinator at lowly Arkansas State.
Even at the time, the hires appeared to be a lateral move at best.
Now? The experiment has blown up in Holgorsen’s face as the Mountaineers are 118th out of 124 teams in scoring defense (39.9 PPG). In the last four games combined (Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State), West Virginia’s defense has given up a combined 212 points. Sure, there are reasons. Stewart left the defensive cupboard bare because of poor recruiting, injuries have piled up and WVU changed defensive schemes in the offseason.
But for defensive performances that bad, there are no excuses.
Want proof? Michigan head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison took a unit that finished 108th (35.2 PPG) in total defense under Rich Rodriguez in 2010 and finished 6th in the same category last season (17.4 PPG) with virtually the exact same players through coaching, toughness and execution.
Holgorsen’s hires of DeForest and Patterson has taken the defense the opposite direction, turning a bad unit into a nightmare.
#2: Lack of Physical Toughness
No matter how many genius play calls Holgorsen draws up, football will always come down to a game won in the trenches. Offensively, the “Air Raid” offense has gone in the tank because the Mountaineers can’t block anyone. That has forced Geno Smith to dump the ball off instead of getting it into the hands of his play makers like WRs Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Kansas State didn’t even have to blitz often to harass Smith all day and force four sacks last Saturday.
As for the defense: Where to begin? The defensive line can’t get any push and the unit looks like a high school team trying to tackle Big 12 offensive players.
Holgorsen has now openly come out and questioned his team’s toughness. My question is: Whose fault is that?
And this is where I worry about Holgorsen. Most of the best college football coaches are tough guys who demand the same out of their players like Alabama’s Nick Saban, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and LSU’s Les Miles. Needless to say, toughness isn’t an adjustment you make between games; it’s something you drill into players. I have yet to see a free-spirited coach like Holgorsen with a hard-nosed football team and doubt I ever will.
And if Holgorsen isn’t the one instilling toughness into his players, who will?
#3: No Mental Toughness
The most shocking part of West Virginia’s last two games is the lack of fight the Mountaineers have shown after falling behind. Well-coached teams take their game to another level when their backs are against the wall. Just look at Ohio State, which trailed lowly Purdue by eight points at home last week before backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the Buckeyes 61 yards in 44 seconds to tie the game with three ticks left in the eventual overtime victory.
When West Virginia falls behind, they’ve just gone in the tank. Two weeks ago WVU trailed Texas Tech 28-7 with under a minute left in the half. Instead of making a defensive stop to regroup at halftime, Tech RB SaDale Foster ran up the middle for a 53-yard, soul-crushing touchdown with 35 seconds left. WVU barely even bothered to show up in the second half.
At home in Morgantown last Saturday, West Virginia got a spark late in the second quarter when Tavon Austin returned a kick 100 yards to make the score 24-7. That should have been a point where the entire team got re-energized. Instead, West Virginia allowed K-State to immediately march all the way down the field and score a touchdown with 17 seconds left before the break. Throw in another touchdown three plays into the second half and West Virginia once again looked ready to board the bus rather than play out the game.
Holgorsen can still win seven or eight games a year by just beating up on nonconference opponents and teams like Baylor that also don’t have a defense. But in order for West Virginia to become a national title contender like AD Oliver Luck expected when he hired Holgorsen, Holgo must first figure out how to transform himself from a glorified offensive coordinator into a real head coach. I don’t know how you do that, but Holgorsen better figure it out soon.
Because if he doesn’t, Holgorsen certainly won’t be around Morgantown five more years.
Photos: Tim Heitman, Kim Klement & Charles LeClaire/US Presswire