Dana Holgorsen isn’t used to treading water.
The West Virginia coach is much more accustomed to lapping the field with an innovative offensive attack that consistently sits among the nation’s leaders at this time of year.
This season has been a little different. The Mountaineers rank in the bottom half of the Big 12 in nearly every offensive category as WVU has struggled to find any type of success.
Yet there have been positive signs from WVU’s offense. Holgorsen’s crew is averaging 34.5 points per game and 1.9 points per drive in their last two contests after averaging 20.4 points per game and 1.3 points per drive in their first five games.
The difference? Clarity.
When West Virginia takes the field in Manhattan, Kan., to face Kansas State on Saturday, the Mountaineers will start quarterback Clint Trickett for the fourth straight game, the same offensive line for the third straight game and Holgorsen now has a much better feel for his playmakers at receiver and running back and how to use them.
“We’re at the point that we’re settled,” Holgorsen said. “We know who our guys are, so we’re just focused on getting better every week. We’re moving forward with all the pieces settled.”
The increased success and stability hasn’t resulted in additions to the Mountaineers’ win column. Holgorsen feels good about the direction of his offense yet understands a winning result is all that matters.
“We’re still not at the point where we can function at a high enough level where it will win us a football game,” Holgorsen said. “That last one against Texas Tech, if we were a little better defensively, we would have won, if we were a little better offensively, we would have won. We’re not there yet on both sides of the ball.”
Which has made this one of the most difficult coaching jobs of his career. Making sure his players didn’t lose hope and instilling confidence in the offense was as big an obstacle as any defensive game plan an opposing coordinator devised this season.
“It was a struggle,” Holgorsen said. “You know me, I get fired up, I’m an emotional guy and I get fired up and wear my feelings on my sleeve periodically. It’s been an adjustment for me.”
It’s required the Mountaineers’ third-year coach to take a step back and bite his tongue when he would normally have some choice words after a mistake.
“I haven’t been getting on our guys for lack of success,” Holgorsen said of his change in approach. “I’ve been patient, I’ve been coaching, I’ve been teaching and reminding the assistant coaches to remain positive, remain calm and just keep moving forward and keep getting better. It’s been a little bit of adjustment. I’m used to coaching teams with a little bit more experience and a more solid foundation.”
Having some recent success has made it easier on Holgorsen, particularly coming close to a victory against undefeated Texas Tech last weekend. Facing a Red Raiders defense that sits among the top half of the Big 12 in most categories, WVU recorded season-bests -- against AQ teams -- in percentage of drives resulting in a score after the initial first down (57.1 percent) and points per drive (2.08). Last year’s explosive WVU offense averaged a score on 56.1 percent of its drives after the initial first down and 2.8 points per drive. Those small signs of success has helped increase the overall confidence of the playmakers on WVU’s offense.
“The confidence is higher,” Holgorsen said. “It makes it easier to move forward with that [confidence] because at some point they’ll look at you like, ‘Geez, when is this going to work?’ If it never arrives, people, at some point, just give up. It’s good to get some confidence but it wasn’t a winning effort and that’s what our guys understand.”
Holgorsen is happy with the signs he sees from the Mountaineers’ offense but lamented the final quarter of the 37-27 loss to the Red Raiders. WVU scored on five straight drives in the second and third quarters before four straight punts and a turnover on downs surrendered its 27-16 lead by allowing TTU to score 21 unanswered points to end the game.
“They are learning, they are growing, they are understanding what it takes to be successful,” Holgorsen said of an offense which features newcomers among its top four rushers and receivers. “There’s a level of consistency that needs to exist in order to be successful and right now we haven’t achieved that consistency.”
If Holgorsen’s offense does start to hum, the Mountaineers could find their way an 12th straight bowl appearance, particularly since they’ve already faced Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech this season.
“We knew going in it was going to be a process,” Holgorsen said. “I’m comfortable with where our progress has been. I’m proud of how guys haven’t gotten discouraged and I see our confidence rising each and every week.”