Time to zone in
MORGANTOWN - Geno Smith and Dana Holgorsen would love to have the problem again.
Not only would it be a chance for redemption, but it would also mean that West Virginia's offense was having some sort of success against LSU's defense.
Red zone offense? Hey, you've got to get into the red zone first. In three games to date, LSU's opponents have been there just eight times.
West Virginia is likely to get there a few times when the No. 16 Mountaineers (3-0) host No. 2 LSU (3-0) Saturday night. When it happens, the Mountaineers have to be able to take advantage of it.
In WVU's three games, the Mountaineers have been inside their opponents' 20-yard line 18 times. Sixteen times they have scored.
But on eight of those 18 opportunities West Virginia had to settle for field goals. That's not the percentage anyone associated with the offense wants.
"It's just growing pains. We're getting better,'' said Smith, the junior quarterback who has already thrown for 1,008 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. "I can't really pinpoint it. Everyone's had their share of mistakes that we have to learn from and we have to obviously get better from in order to win.
"But we've only played three games and we can't expect to just come out lights-out and on fire. We want to, but you can't be perfect. You just have to take the punches and roll with them.''
Some of the punches, ironically, have come from Holgorsen. The first-year coach and offensive coordinator used the terms "awful'' and "terrible'' Saturday to describe at least one of Smith's throws in the red zone. In a 37-31 win over Maryland, Smith was just 1-for-6 passing for 9 yards in the red zone.
The rest of the game he was 35-of-43 for 379 yards.
While Holgorsen also criticized one of Smith's throws - Smith had a chance to hit Stedman Bailey for what would have been a game-clinching touchdown from the 3-yard line - he seems more concerned with the decisions his quarterback is making near the goal line.
"He's still at the point where he's got to totally understand what the system is and trust the system and not think about having to do too much,'' Holgorsen said. "There's some instances out there that he really didn't trust what we were telling him, and that needs to be a constant. He needs to trust what we tell him and not think that he's got a better way of doing things.
"Not that that's an every-down issue or anything like that. He's very talented. He's a smart football player. He studies the game and studies the opponent. He studies the game plan. But he just gets to a point where he kind of reverts back to sometimes thinking he's got to do a little bit too much. We'll continue to just preach on him playing in the system and trusting his coaches and trusting the people around him.''
The fact is, Smith is the one who makes the decisions about what play to run in almost every situation. Yes, Holgorsen signals in specific plays, but in virtually all of those Smith is tasked with identifying the defense and executing a myriad of options. Those can include something as simple as who to look toward first or as drastic as changing a pass to a run.
"Yeah, that's part of what we do,'' Holgorsen said. "We put a lot on the quarterback from a decision standpoint. That doesn't matter if you're on the goal line or you're in the open field. We coach them and then when game day comes we hope he's making the best decisions.''
Apparently Holgorsen thinks Smith can make better decisions in the red zone.
"Yeah, I've had my share of [bad decisions],'' Smith said. "When you get down on the goal line, the game kind of changes. You have to be protective of the ball, but you also have to make sure you take the best matchup and put the ball in the right guy's hands. A few of those decisions are on me because I control most of that. It's about getting a feel for what Coach Holgorsen wants and just being able to execute it.''
Aside from that, Holgorsen has few complaints with Smith, who if he remains on his three-game pace would complete 355-of-511 passes for 4,368 yards and 30 touchdowns in 13 games. For the record, the school marks in each of those categories (all set by Marc Bulger in 1998) are 274 completions, 419 attempts, 3,607 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Smith did turn the ball over twice against Maryland, but neither his fumble nor the interception was his fault.
"He's done a great job at taking care of the ball,'' Holgorsen said. "He was responsible for two of the turnovers, but the fumble was a bam-bam call where it could have been called [an] incomplete [pass]. They got tremendous pressure around the edge on his blind side, where he didn't see it. And then the interception was in the hands of the receiver. That one could have been prevented.''
Now Smith has to perfect his red-zone technique, both in recognizing what is there and throwing the ball. Holgorsen insists he will get there.
"It's not a mindset at all. He expects to be successful on every play,'' Holgorsen said. "Experience is one [issue]. Understanding when we want to run and when we want to throw it down there is another. And then there's the technique stuff and just understanding what we want him to do on those specific throws. I think he's kind of pressing on that, but we'll get it fixed this week.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.