Each week at Football Study Hall, we will take a look at what charting data tells us about two of the game's most interesting offensive coaches: West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and Washington State head coach Mike Leach, Holgorsen's former boss. Both are masters of the Air Raid offense, and it could be interesting to compare the two coaches' approaches with two very different sets of personnel.
The 2012 coaching debuts of two the nation's most thought-of offensive minds could not have gone any more differently. On one hand, the performance of Mike Leach’s Washington State squad looked nothing like any of his dynamic Texas Tech teams of 2000s. On the other hand, Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia offense looked like a well-oiled offensive machine that was still soaring with confidence after its 70-33 beat down of Clemson in last season’s Orange Bowl.
Quick History Lesson: The paths of Leach and Holgorsen have crossed several times in the past. First, the two first worked together under Hal Mumme, godfather of the Air Raid offense, at Valdosta State during the mid-1990. Then, from 2000-07, Holgorsen worked under Leach at Texas Tech; he was eventually promoted to the Offensive Coordinator position of Leach’s high-powered offense. While Leach’s dismissal at Texas Tech was well-publicized, Holgorsen continued to work as an offensive coordinator in successful stops at Houston and Oklahoma State before becoming head coach at West Virginia in the summer of 2011.
Both Leach and Holgorsen are widely regarded for their dynamic offenses. Known for spreading the field and executing short, high percentage pass plays, the two coaches provide an interesting case study between teacher and pupil. While much of what Holgorsen does offensively stems from his background under Leach, subtle tweaks such as the use of the Pistol formation differentiate Holgorsen’s scheme from what you may recall about Leach’s Texas Tech offenses. Interestingly enough (and likely due to Holgorsen’s influence), upon returning to the sidelines, Leach hired assistant coach Jim Mastro, who has heavy experience in Pistol offenses.
But despite similar offensive philosophies, the first games of the 2012 season produced very different results for Leach and Holgorsen’s offenses.
For Washington State, a school that finished ninth in the nation in passing offense last season, the hiring of Leach was supposed to build on a strength. With senior quarterback Jeff Tuel leading the charge, Washington State was looking to get off to a blistering start offensively while on the road against BYU. Unfortunately for Washington State, it was anything but blistering. It was listless.
An offense that averaged 342 passing yards/game in 2011 was only able to throw for 229 yards in the opener, 207 if you include sack yardage. On top of the pedestrian passing numbers, the Cougars rushed the ball 13 times for 17 rushing yards, not including sacks. Ouch.
Throughout the game, it seemed like Washington State’s offense could never sustain drives and get into a smooth offensive rhythm. The third down numbers back up that sentiment. The Cougars went five 5-for-15 on third downs, a conversion rate of just 33.3%. Their inability to extend drives contributed to the watered-down offensive numbers and the eventual lopsided box score. A quick look at the numbers showed BYU ran 17 more plays than Washington State, and controlled the ball for 11 more minutes - not exactly the recipe of success for Washington State.
Most importantly, Washington State was simply unable to get the ball into the hands of its playmakers on the outside. Preseason All-American candidate Marquess Wilson and ‘the talk of preseason camp’, freshman Gabe Marks, combined for just seven receptions for 77 yards. Had those numbers simply been Wilson’s alone, they likely would have been considered so-so by the standard he set in his strong 2011 campaign (82 receptions, 1,388 yards, 12 TD). But to get less than 100 yards receiving out of your top-two threats in a pass-heavy offense means defeat is the likeliest outcome.
In all, Wilson was targeted just seven times on Friday night. He caught four for 61 yards, but on three third-and-long targets, he caught one pass for 23 yards, and another was picked off. Wilson was used mostly as a true wideout -- four of the seven passes targeting him were thrown at least nine yards downfield. This was not particularly effective against a BYU defense that chose mostly to rush only three defenders and drop eight into coverage.
Despite the off-season talk of integrating the Pistol formation into his offense in an attempt to make it more versatile and slightly more balanced, Leach chose to run the formation just three times out of sixty-one plays. Those three plays resulted in three rushing attempts for just seven yards. Leach may have added the Pistol formation, but he sure didn’t ‘buy in’ to it in the opener.
On the other hand, West Virginia’s offense was nearly unstoppable against Marshall. Holgorsen’s offense, bolstered by the return of quarterback Geno Smith and dynamic receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, tallied 655 total yards (second-most in the FBS) and had a remarkably balanced pass/run split of 324 and 331 yards. In contrast to Washington State’s struggles on third downs, the Mountaineers converted five of eight, a strong rate of 62.5%.
Geno Smith led the statistical onslaught with a ridiculously efficient passing line; he went 32-for-36 for 323 yards and four touchdowns. But despite how strong Smith’s stats may appear, as discussed in a previous column, his numbers can be a bit deceiving.
Smith and Tavon Austin continue to provide one of the most misleading stat lines throughout the country. When targeting Austin, Smith went 10-for-10 for 53 yards and a touchdown. On those plays, the distances the passes traveled from the line of scrimmage were -4, -2, -4, -3, 4, -2, 1, 7, -4, and -3. That's an average of -1.1 yards per pass. West Virginia does an incredible job of finding ways to quickly get Austin the ball (shovels, bubbles, crosses) so he can use his remarkable athleticism to create yards after the catch. I guess it’s just a bonus these glorified handoffs drive up Smith’s completion rate and Austin’s reception statistics.
It helps to have a Tavon Austin in uniform, doesn't it? Needless to say, Washington State's slot receivers saw minimal success. Gabe Marks was targeted five times, an average of 4.8 yards downfield; he caught three passes (one was picked off) but managed just seven yards after catch. It was the same for Gino Simone. He was targeted four times an average of 2.5 yards downfield; he caught three of those passes and gained a total of two yards after catch. BYU's defense is absolutely better than Marshall's, but Leach also probably does not have the depth of skill position talent he is going to need.
Besides Austin, West Virginia's Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods combined for 16 catches for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Against Marshall, Holgorsen balanced his lights out passing attack with a strong commitment to the run-heavy Pistol formation. Lining up in the Pistol over fifty times throughout the opener, West Virginia overpowered a poor-tackling Marshall defense to the tune of 35 carries for 331 yards. Such balance may be hard to find against tougher Big 12 conference foes, but it seems Holgorsen may have found something with a commitment the Pistol.
Overall, it is tough to make too many grand assertions about Washington State or West Virginia after just one week. Washington State went into a hostile road environment and played a BYU team that won 10 games in 2011. West Virginia simply overwhelmed an out-manned Marshall squad who couldn’t handle the Mountaineers' speed on the flanks or power in the backfield.
Washington State’s upcoming game against Eastern Washington should allow the Cougars to work out some of the kinks, while West Virginia has a bye week before attempting to once again put up video game numbers against James Madison.