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Leach V. Holgorsen, Week 5: A Tale of Two Seasons

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In which Mike Nixon becomes a Geno Smith believer.

Rob Christy-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

For a column focusing on offensive football, I feel it is almost insulting to dedicate too words to any team other than the West Virginia Mountaineers. Sure, we’ll touch a bit on Mike Leach’s Washington State Cougars, but this piece is simply going to praise Dana Holgorsen’s offense and the Geno Smith-led onslaught that took place this past Saturday in Morgantown, WV.

I have been one of Geno Smith’s harshest critics throughout the off-season and early part of this season. I often cite how his completion rate, yardage, and touchdowns are inflated by Holgorsen’s version of the Air Raid offense. After Saturday, I am now a full-blown believer. Simply put, there was nothing cheap about Smith’s performance against the Baylor Bears. He did it all: short tosses, intermediate passes, and long bombs. Smith executed it all with great precision. Sure, he got help from the most dynamic receiving corps in the nation, but Smith’s performance set the standard of excellence very, very high.

The underlying stats back up everything you would imagine they would when looking at Smith’s ridiculous box score: 45-for-51 for 656 yards and eight touchdowns. Many basketball players talk about being in the zone, where no matter where they shoot from, the ball simply finds the bottom on the net. On Saturday, if the zone ever has existed in football, Smith was in it.

I’m not sure we’ll ever see another deep passing game as dominant as we saw from Smith on Saturday. Just how good was he? On passes traveling 12 or more yards downfield in the air, Smith went 12 of 14 for 380 yards and five touchdowns. That’s a completion rate of 85.7%. The craziest part? It should have been even better: Tavon Austin seemed to be held badly on one of Smith’s two deep incomplete passes. Going forward, if Smith continues throw downfield with this accuracy, it begs to question whether any team will be able to slow this dynamic Mountaineer attack.

Against Baylor, the Mountaineers seemed to answer the last remaining question about their Air Raid offense. We already knew West Virginia had a steady running attack (151 yards after sacks on Saturday) that was supplemented by a lethal fly-sweep package (which they brought back this past weekend after shelving it against Maryland). What we were unsure of was how many big plays this Pistol-heavy offense could make vertically. If Saturday was any indication of things to come, the Mountaineers are flexible enough to beat teams multiple ways, not simply relying on gaudy run-after-the-catch numbers from their great playmakers on the outside.

One particular play on Saturday showed how just dangerous Holgorsen’s offense can be. While everyone knows the fly-sweep shovel pass to Tavon Austin is one of the staples of the West Virginia attack, Baylor defended it more aggressively and effectively than most opponents. After several fly-sweep shovels went for limited gains, Holgorsen adjusted and threw a new wrinkle at the Baylor defense. It resulted in an 87-yard touchdown.

The play can be seen at the 0:55 mark in the clip below.

On this particular play, everything before the snap looked just like the Mountaineer’s typical fly-sweep shovel. Austin came across the formation in a speed motion, but instead of receiving a shovel pass once the ball was snapped, Smith quickly faked the shovel to him. With the Baylor secondary over-committing to the threat of Austin, Stedman Bailey, West Virginia’s other dynamic receiver, simply went unnoticed right down the sideline. As locked in as Smith was, an 87-yard touchdown was just a simple pitch and catch. And so it went for the Mountaineers on Saturday.

On the other side of the country, Washington State showed everyone that the Cougars are exactly who we thought they were. In typical Mike Leech-fashion, the Cougars finished the 51-26 loss to Oregon with 410 passing yards and minus-8 rushing yards (including sack yardage). While the sack yardage can manipulate the rushing numbers a bit, consider Washington State running backs received just 13 carries compared to 72 drop-back attempts by the Cougars’ offense. After five games, the Washington State running game is ranked 123rd in the nation.

In the past, though, Leach has been able to overcome a lack of running game because his dynamic passing attack found ways to put lots of points on the board. Not so much this season. Even when the Cougars' passing attack has found a bit of rhythm, stalling out in the red zone has been a common occurrence. Whether due to shoddy protection, poor throws, dropped passes, lack of a running game, or questionable play-calling, there have been many culprits behind the continuous offensive sputtering.

One bright spot for the Cougars was the play of receiver Marquess Wilson, although it was a Jekyll and Hyde-type of game for him. Wilson started the game with five straight incomplete passes when he was targeted. After that, though, Wilson caught twelve of his next thirteen targets to finish the game with 182 yards and a touchdown. But if the Cougars are going to have a shot at winning one of their next three games (at Oregon State, vs. Cal, at Stanford), they are going to need Wilson to get off to a stronger start and not just pick up meaningless statistics in garbage time.

One take-away from the film of this game was the frustration that seemed to be setting in for the Cougars. Several times late in the game, television cameras zoomed in on quarterback Connor Halliday and he seemed to be yelling angrily in the direction of receivers who had failed to reel in catchable balls. While frustration is natural when a hyped offense is in the midst of prolonged struggles, it is far too early in Leach’s tenure for things to come apart at the seams.

It’s been a tale of two seasons thus far for Holgorsen and Leach. Holgorsen’s Mountaineers, coming off one of the most dynamic offensive performances in recent memory, are soaring with confidence as they head into a monster showdown against the Texas Longhorns in Austin. On the other hand, Leach’s Cougars hope to right the ship against a red-hot Oregon State Beavers squad. If this week’s games can come anywhere close to matching last week’s offensive explosions, then we’ll have a great weekend of football ahead.