Offense shows little in opener
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps by the end of the season, West Virginia's offense will look much different than it did Saturday against William & Mary.
Certainly the hope is that it's more productive.
Yes, on Saturday the Mountaineers managed to gain a fairly robust 409 yards and did so without opening the playbook. That's a plus.
But West Virginia also needed 17 second-half points to rally from a 10-point deficit and survive what could have been one of those embarrassing upsets at the hands of an FCS opponent that seem so prevalent these days.
West Virginia got the scores it needed via a 69-yard pass-and-run play from junior quarterback Paul Millard to junior college wide receiver Ronald Carswell, then a short touchdown run from freshman Wendell Smallwood with just 3:22 remaining that broke a 17-all tie and gave the Mountaineers a 24-17 win.
But the bottom line was that this didn't look anything at all like the offenses Dana Holgorsen has made famous over the years.
Yes, a defense that played pretty well but was still victimized by two spectacular catches by NFL-caliber wide receiver Tre McBride had something to do with making the game more competitive than most believed it would be. But an offense that was largely vanilla and could generate neither consistency nor big plays was what stood out.
It will get better, Holgorsen said after the opening win in front of a crowd of 56,350 at Mountaineer Field. But it might also take some time.
"We'll get a lot better,'' Holgorsen insisted. "Offensively we're still obviously trying to find an identity.''
Well, here's the identity West Virginia has after one game: It's a running football team.
After a month of competition and a week of secrecy about his quarterbacks, Holgorsen started Millard, the backup to Geno Smith the last two years, over Florida State transfer Clint Trickett. Trickett had his shot for just two series in the second quarter and went 0-for-2 passing with a sack in two three-and-out series. He didn't get another chance.
But for the most part, Millard was merely asked to manage the game. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 237 yards and the touchdown to Carswell, but those are very unlikely numbers for a Holgorsen quarterback. Last year the only time Smith threw 25 or fewer passes was when he completed 23 of 24 in a comical rout of Kansas.
Meanwhile, West Virginia ran the ball 44 times, 23 of them by Houston transfer Charles Sims, who gained 120 yards. There were precious few big plays, save the long pass to Carswell. No other play the Mountaineers ran gained 20 yards. Only two others gained more than 15.
To put that in perspective, last season the Mountaineers had 70 offensive plays of 20 yards or more. Including defense and special teams they had nearly 100. Saturday they had one.
Two things, of course, could change that in the future. First, Holgorsen could - and no doubt will - open up the offense. Right now he just wants Millard to get comfortable. Ditto Trickett, who is certain to get another chance the first time Millard puts together a few rough series in a row. That seems almost certain to happen Saturday night when WVU plays at Oklahoma. And taking more chances means making more big plays.
"They were playing off most of the game,'' Millard said of William & Mary's defense Saturday. "They wanted us to run the ball.''
Of course, when the Tribe realized West Virginia was actually going to run it, those safeties starting inching closer to the line of scrimmage and the result was Carswell's 69-yard TD catch against single coverage with no safety help.
Then again, there is always the second possibility for creating big plays, which is to keep running the ball like the Mountaineers did Saturday. WVU has run the ball more than 44 times only two other times in Holgorsen's tenure, but only once was the run-pass ratio more skewed toward the run. And again, that was the rout of Kansas when everything worked.
One of the reasons Holgorsen did it so much against William & Mary was because he was convinced that eventually Sims or someone else would get loose. No one really ever did, but it does seem the possibility exists.
"I'm disappointed we didn't get loose,'' Holgorsen said. "We ran the ball probably more than any time in my coaching history. But they were dropping a lot of people and I thought that was the thing to do.''
It might remain the thing to do. West Virginia's offense will no doubt evolve in the coming weeks, but it's hard to tell in what direction it will go.
All that's certain is that is has to evolve pretty quickly.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1