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Sea Change in Morgantown

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Dana Holgorsen was on the hottest of hot seats before the start of the 2014 season. The West Virginia Mountaineers were coming off a 4-8 season and missed a bowl game for the first time 2001. Holgorsen’s team had dropped 14 of their last 20 games.

The Mountaineers got off to a good start this fall, dropping close games to highly-ranked Alabama, Oklahoma and TCU, while knocking off Texas Tech and Oklahoma State on the road, and upsetting No. 4 Baylor during the month of October. WVU even entered the national rankings.

The dramatic improvement of the defense was an obvious key to the Mountaineers success, but it was the offense that had undergone perhaps an even bigger change.

When Holgorsen was first hired in late 2010, the young hot-shot offensive coordinator carried with him a reputation as a pass-first coach in the mold of then-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. In Holgorsen’s first three seasons as a full-time offensive coordinator—one at Texas Tech and two at Houston—his teams threw 2,118 passes, an average of 706 per season.

That perception has been replaced with a true 50-50 balance between running and passing. Over the past two seasons combined, Holgorsen’s Mountaineers have actually run the ball more than they’ve thrown it (958 rushes to 954 passes).

“I don’t think outside pressures impacted his change,” said Tony Caridi, longtime Mountaineers broadcaster. “His evolution to embrace the run began at Houston when he worked with Kevin Sumlin, who had worked previously at Oklahoma and wanted to maintain the Sooners ability to run the ball at Houston. Dana accepted that request, which was further enhanced upon his arrival at Oklahoma State.”

When Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach promoted Holgorsen to full-time offensive coordinator in 2007, the Red Raiders threw 762 passes and ran just 242 times.

Working as Sumlin’s offensive coordinator at Houston, Holgorsen’s offense still threw the ball significantly more than they ran it (1,356 passes to 791 runs). His offense under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State in 2010 was far more balanced, as the Cowboys ran 438 times and passed 532.

“Since arriving at WVU,” said Caridi, “Dana has continued to strengthen his commitment to the running game.”

The Mountaineers called 125 more passes than runs in 2011, Holgorsen’s first season at the helm. The 2012 team passed just 76 more times than they ran. In 2013, the numbers dropped to 465 passes and 427 runs.

Things evened out this season, as WVU ran (531) more than they passed (489) for the first time under Holgorsen.

“The hiring of Ron Crook from Stanford as offensive line coach was the final piece to Dana’s desire to run power football and the spread,” said Caridi.

The offense and defense both benefitted.

A healthy Clint Trickett appeared to be more comfortable at the reigns of the Mountaineers offense. Receiver Kevin White was putting up All-American numbers. A rushing attack behind Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood provided the perfect balance. The defense, able to catch its breath on the sidelines while the team controlled the football, improved as well.

After a last-second 31-30 loss to No. 7 TCU on Nov. 4, however, the season took a turn for the worse for the Mountaineers and their high powered offense. The team scored just 16 points in a loss at Texas, and they were plagued with turnovers in a 26-20 loss to No. 12 Kansas State.

Despite the three game losing streak, Holgorsen has reinvented himself as a head coach.West Virginia Dana Holgorsen

“If you told most any Mountaineers fan before the season that West Virginia would finish 7-5 this year, he or she would probably take it,” said ESPN analyst Jake Trotter. “Still, with three straight losses, this season has a bittersweet tinge.”

For the first time since the end of the 2011 season, however, there will be tangible momentum in Morgantown entering an offseason.

“Dana Holgorsen has saved his job and has plenty to build on for 2015,” said Trotter. “The Mountaineers can also still rebound to finish strong with a victory in a bowl game.”

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