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Leach v. Holgorsen: A look back

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Rewind seven months. We thought we had charting gold on our hands. The hiring of Air Raid guru Mike Leach at Washington State meant a variation of the vaunted offensive philosophy West Virginia had just used to blitz Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl would now be showcased on the West Coast. Sure, the two systems would not identical, but the idea of Leach leading a “more aggressive version of Sonny Dykes’” Air Raid attack in the traditionally wide-open Pac-12 Conference was mouth-watering to college football fans everywhere. But then the games started.

Mike Ehrmann

From very early on, you could tell Washington State’s offense was not going to be one of Leach’s old Texas Tech juggernauts. Inconsistency at quarterback, a porous offensive line, a blatant refusal to call run plays, and ongoing drama throughout the receiving core led to one of the most disappointing offensive performances in recent history.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, Leach’s pupil, Dana Holgorsen, rode a rollercoaster of momentum, first positive then negative, to an overall unimpressive record of 7-6. After opening the season with five consecutive victories, the Mountaineers lost five in a row before scrapping together two victories to close out a mediocre 7-5 regular season. Then, amid a blizzard at Yankee Stadium, the Syracuse Orangemen pounded West Virginia to the tune of 38-14.

In all, each team’s season was relatively disappointing considering their lofty preseason expectations. Washington State was hoping that a big-name coach would lift them out of the cellar of the Pac-12, while West Virginia hoped to carry the momentum gained from a 10-3 season into their first tour of the Big XII. Neither happened.

Despite the mutual disappointment of their seasons, the statistics show it there were two very different reasons for each team’s struggles. For West Virginia, numbers show that despite having a potent offensive attack, an atrocious defense was the main culprit for their up and down season. As for Washington State, surprisingly it was Leach’s offense that was the main cause of the Cougars’ underperformance.

Telling offensive stats from the 2012-13 seasons: West Virginia averaged 39.5 points per game, and Washington State averaged 20.4.

For two coaches defined by their offensive acumen, Leach and Holgorsen’s units put up very differing point productions. The last time Leach coached, back in 2009, his Texas Tech squad averaged 37.0 points per game. This year’s floundering Cougars averaged nearly 17 points less per game. You could possibly chalked it up to first year adjustments, but even Leach’s 2000 Red Raiders (his first year at Texas Tech) averaged 24.6 points per contest.

On the other hand, one year after West Virginia’s offense averaged 37.6 points per game on its way to a 10-3 season, Holgorsen’s Mountaineers actually increased their point production. But despite increasing their offensive production, the Mountaineers’ record fell dramatically to just 7-6. For those (very few) of you who wish to defend the Big East, consider that 37 points per game (and a bad defense) got West Virginia into a BCS bowl game while in the Big East, but 39 points per game (and a bad defense) barely got the Moutaineers above .500 in the superior Big XII.

Yards Per Game WSU WVU
Passing 330.4 330.2
Rushing 29.1 171.9
TOTAL 359.5 502.0

Both teams were successful racking up yards through the air, a staple of the Air Raid offense. But the 140+ yard difference on the ground between the two teams is what separated them this past season. Leach, notorious for refusing to call run plays, was at it again this past season. In one two game stretch against Stanford and Utah, the Cougars called 139 passes while calling just 11 runs. How’s that for balance?

Holgorsen on the other hand, had no such stubbornness in his play calling. Willing to beat a defense anyway he could, West Virginia had an extremely varied attack. A prime example of Holgorsen’s willingness to change up his philosophy week to week was when the Mountaineers gashed the Texas Longhorns on the ground, just one week after quarterback Geno Smith’s mind blowing aerial performance against the Baylor Bears. Later in the season, Holgorsen even changed the position of his most dynamic playmaker, Tavon Austin, from wide receiver to running back and found great success (and an unreal highlight reel).

Play Type WSU WVU
Total Plays Charted 492 593
Runs 104 (21.1%) 257 (43.3%)
Passes (and Sacks) 388 (78.9%) 336 (56.7%)

This season, we charted seven on Washington State’s games and eight of West Virginia’s games. If you include sacks as pass play calls, Washington State called pass plays on nearly 80% of the plays charted. West Virginia only called passes about 55% of the time. The refusal to run the ball, or even threatening to run the ball, caused a ripple effect of negativity throughout the Cougars’ offense.

As seen in the chart below, the threat of the run forced Mountaineers’ opponents to bring four rushers and drop seven defenders in coverage the majority of the time in order to maintain soundness against the run. This opened up passing lanes for Smith to exploit. In contrast, Cougars’ opponents relied much more heavily on a three-man rush with eight defenders in coverage because there was a little threat of the ground attack hurting them. The additional defender in coverage, often times dropped into the low hole, wreaked havoc on Washington State’s short crossing game, which is traditionally a staple of Leach’s Air Raid offense.

Pass Rushers (Passes and Sacks) WSU WVU
3 or fewer 43.6% 17.6%
4 39.4% 64.3%
5 or more 17.0% 18.2%

The lack of a ground attack from the Cougars not only made it more difficult to pass, but also hurt their chances to convert third downs and sustain drives. Without the ability to consistently put themselves in third and short situations, the Cougars often found themselves in third and long situations. Those situations generally ended with Washington State punting the ball away.

  • First Downs Per Game: WVU 25.4, WSU 20.8
  • Third Down Conversion Rate: WVU 44.0%, WSU 31.7%

As you can see in the chart below, throwing the ball downfield with accuracy was not one of the Cougars’ specialties in 2012. Consistently putting their offense in third and longs was essentially setting them up for failure.

Plays with PYD* 10+ Yards WSU WVU
Attempts 132 93
Completions 53 49
Completion Rate 40.2% 52.7%

*PYD is the distance the ball traveled from the line of scrimmage in the air.

When attempting to throw the ball at least ten yards downfield, Washington State quarterbacks only completed 40% of their attempts. For a team that consistently found themselves in third and long situations, it is easy to see why the Cougars converted less than one-third of their third down attempts on the season. On the flip side, West Virginia’s 53% completion rate on balls thrown at least ten yards downfield helps explain why the Mountaineers were in the upper echelon of teams in regards to first downs per game as well as third down conversion rates.

Big Play Breakdown WSU WVU
Total Plays Charted 492 593
40+ Yards 5 (1.0%) 18 (3.0%)
30-39 Yards 5 (1.0%) 10 (1.7%)
20-29 Yards 22 (4.5%) 15 (2.5%)
10-19 Yards 68 (13.8%) 87 (14.5%)
Total Big Plays 100 (20.3%) 130 (21.9%)

The accuracy issue spills over into the teams’ big play breakdown. Granted, we charted one more game of West Virginia than we did of Washington State, but the Mountaineers had an astounding 30 more plays of ten yards or more than the Cougars in those games. Most notably, the Mountaineers had 18 plays of forty or more yards while the Cougars had just five. While each of these offenses are referred to as versions of the Air Raid attack, this season it was clear that one version was much more explosive than the other.

As we repeatedly stated throughout the season, the difference between the two offenses was expected. After all, Holgorsen was returning a top quarterback and two of the most dynamic receivers in the country while Leach was inheriting a squad that just got their previous coach fired. That being said, we didn’t expect the difference between the two offenses to be this dramatic.

Next season, we would expect to see this gap close considerably. By then, Leach will have another class of his recruits on board while Holgorsen will be trying to replace two potential first-round draft picks - Smith and Austin. But given Holgorsen’s willingness to tailor his scheme according to personnel and opposing defensive philosophies, while Leach seems to have an eternal stubbornness about his game plans, smart money would seem to be on Holgorsen’s Air Raid going forward.