- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Dana Holgorsen goes way back with Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham.
The West Virginia coach worked with Meacham when they were offensive assistants at Oklahoma State. Holgorsen was an assistant at Texas Tech when Cumbie was a quarterback for the Red Raiders.
So Holgorsen is not surprised the way Cumbie and Meacham have transformed the TCU offense from pedestrian to powerhouse.
“I'm really proud of Doug and Sonny for getting that thing turned around,” Holgorsen said. “Those guys are doing a great job.”
On Saturday in a Big 12 showdown that will carry major Big 12 title implications, Holgorsen will be reunited with his two understudies, who have employed their interpretation of the “Air Raid” offense to smashing success at TCU.
Behind Meacham and Cumbie, the Horned Frogs have the No. 1 scoring offense in the country, after finishing 88th nationally in points last year. Last weekend, TCU set a Big 12 conference game record with 82 points in its pasting of Texas Tech.
“I'm pretty familiar with the style of their ball is, and what plays they're calling and what their personnel is,” Holgorsen said. “It's working out pretty well for them and it's our job to slow them down.”
Fortunately for Holgorsen, he, like TCU head coach Gary Patterson, made a pair of home run hires during the offseason on the other side of the ball.
In its first year in the Big 12, West Virginia had the league’s worst scoring defense, and last season the Mountaineers finished ninth. As a result, West Virginia went just 6-12 in conference games, capped by embarrassing defeats to Kansas and Iowa State to end last season, when the Mountaineers surrendered a combined 82 points to the conference’s two lowest-scoring offenses.
Those struggles also brought turmoil on the coaching staff. Holgorsen demoted Joe DeForest after 2012 and replaced him with Keith Patterson. After Patterson bolted for Arizona State in the offseason, Holgorsen was looking for the program’s fourth defensive coordinator in as many years.
But the vacancy gave Holgorsen the opportunity to get it right. And did he ever.
He promoted the energetic and popular Tony Gibson from safeties coach to coordinator. Then, to add experience to the defensive staff, Holgorsen brought in longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley.
Together, Gibson and Bradley have infused the West Virginia defense with an aggressive attitude and cool confidence.
“Those guys brought the mindset we needed,” said linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who leads the Mountaineers in tackles. “They stress being relentless, no matter what happens. The mentality has been the biggest difference.”
In addition to transforming the mentality, Gibson has tweaked West Virginia’s 3-3-5 scheme to be more proactive in putting speed on the field and getting to the passer. Two weeks ago, the Mountaineers sacked Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty four times, shutting down the nation’s highest-scoring offense in a 41-27 landmark victory for the program.
“They’ve done a great job,” Patterson said of Gibson and Bradley. “Just watching them, just watching how they defended Baylor, it’s made a difference. You have to have a defense that can slow people down, and they have that now, and it started in that first game with Alabama.”
West Virginia lost to No. 6 Alabama in the opener despite a valiant defensive effort. Since then, the defense has improved every week. Last Saturday, the Mountaineers gave up just one offensive touchdown in a suffocating 34-10 victory at Oklahoma State.
“We’re a pretty confident bunch defensively right now,” Holgorsen said. “I can’t express what coach Gibson has been able to do with the guys. It’s been fun to watch. It’s been awesome.”
But as awesome as the West Virginia defense has been, the TCU offense has been even better. The Horned Frogs are averaging 55 points a game in Big 12 play; Baylor is the only other team averaging more than 35.
Under Cumbie’s tutelage, Trevone Boykin, who finished last year as a wide receiver, has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. And the Horned Frogs, who languished for a go-to receiver last year, have three this season in Josh Doctson, Kolby Listenbee and Deante’ Gray, who rank sixth, 10th and 12th in the league in receiving.
“We trust them and they trust us,” Gray said of the TCU co-coordinators. “They're the smart ones that know what plays to call. We just go out, trust the play and play hard.”
The TCU offense, however, will have one tough test in Morgantown, West Virginia, because of Gibson and Bradley, who have earned the trust of their players, too.
“It’s been fun for both [programs],” Patterson said. “We both have shown that we have the ability to compete.”
Thanks to Cumbie and Meacham. And Gibson and Bradley. In one year, they have helped turn two struggling programs into conference title contenders.