Offense keeping Holgorsen up at night
MORGANTOWN - It wasn't that long ago - late July at the Big 12 annual football media days, to be exact - that Dana Holgorsen seemed anything but concerned over the state of the reconstruction process through which his offense was going.
Losing Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to the NFL? A mere bump in the road.
"I haven't lost any sleep over Tavon and Stedman moving to the NFL,'' the West Virginia coach said at the time. "It's not the first time we've lost receivers to the NFL and been able to line up next year and execute our offense. It gets me excited, being able to get out there and face the challenge.''
That was late July and WVU was 0-0. Now it's nearly November and the Mountaineers are 3-5. The difference?
"I'm losing sleep now,'' Holgorsen said.
Indeed, after Saturday's 35-12 collapse at Kansas State, there is plenty to lose sleep over for Holgorsen. His football team has lost three straight and, with just four games remaining, must win at least three of those in order to extend WVU's bowl-game streak to a dozen years.
The Mountaineers have a lineup of TCU, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State against which to accomplish the goal. Next up is Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game against TCU, which lost 30-7 at home to Texas over the weekend.
But in order to have a chance to get those needed three wins - or four - Holgorsen has to finally figure out some solutions for his sputtering offense. The reason he wasn't losing any sleep over the reconstruction prior to the season was because he had always been able to find answers. The reason he's losing sleep now is because this time he hasn't.
Did he underestimate the difficulty involved with this task?
"Yeah, I probably gave ourselves a little bit too much credit,'' Holgorsen said. "I thought we could coach them up a little bit better. I thought our continuity would take care of itself just by playing together and practicing.
"Leading into [Kansas State] we did show improvement. We have shown improvement. But it's not winning football. And then your confidence takes a hit, you get discouraged. It's tough. They're trying. It's just not clicking.''
There are, of course, all sorts of reasons for West Virginia's worst record this late in a season since Rich Rodriguez's first team was also 3-5 on the way to 3-8. It's impossible, however, not to pin most of the blame on the offense. The defense might not be great, but it is unquestionably improved over last season. Special teams have been average overall and sometimes poor, but with only one possible exception (Oklahoma) haven't caused any losses.
The offense, however, has consistently done only one thing this season - underperform.
"It's the same old deal. We're not doing a very good job offensively,'' Holgorsen said. "We're not scoring. We're not finishing drives. We're not finishing blocks. We're not making people miss in the open. We're not catching the ball downfield.
"You guys see it. It keeps me up at night. We're not playing winning offensive football.''
In the past few weeks, things have improved slightly. Against both Texas Tech and Kansas State, the offense sputtered at the start, had a stretch of drives as good as any all season, then was shut down when it mattered most.
That there were moments of success is a good sign only to a point. It shows what the offense is capable of doing, but also illustrates its inability to do so when it matters most.
"Are we improving? Does it look better at times? Yes,'' Holgorsen said. "Is it good enough to win a Big 12 football game? Absolutely not.''
In some ways, perhaps, the problems of the offense should have been predictable. Not only are the wide receivers new, so are the running backs, the middle of the offensive line and every available quarterback. And when it took Holgorsen half a season to settle on Clint Trickett as his quarterback, it just further delayed any hope of cohesion in the offense.
"The frustration level is high. I'm frustrated with myself,'' Trickett said. "I've got to play better. I'm tired of [the excuse that], 'Oh, well, he's hurt.' There's no excuse. You have to play better.''
Holgorsen seems to have no doubt that Trickett is his best option at quarterback. Paul Millard has been healthy all year and has been consistently passed over, presumably because while he has the best grasp of the offense, he doesn't seem able to provide any spark. Ford Childress hasn't played since the fourth game because of an injury that could keep him out the rest of the season.
But Trickett pretty much exemplifies everything that plagues this offense in so many areas - he's talented and even has some experience, but he hasn't been in the program long enough that everything is second nature.
"I don't even really want to say it, but he just hasn't been playing in this offense very much, so the execution's not what you want,'' Holgorsen said. "He's playing with a bunch of guys that haven't been here very long.''
Holgorsen and that group have little time left to figure it out, which will probably mean a few more sleepless nights.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.