- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Can Texas slow down No. 8 West Virginia's high-paced offense Saturday night?
Can anyone slow down Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith, who seems to be running away with the Heisman Trophy?
We tackle those questions and more in this week's On the Mark Mailbag:
Mark, Fort Worth: Mark, while Mike Leach was at Texas Tech, every quarterback he produced was discounted as a "system quarterback." However, Geno Smith at WVU is running exactly the same offense (from Leach protege Dana Holgorsen), putting up numbers that are similar to anything every recorded by Graham Harrell or Kliff Kingsbury. Yet Geno is the Heisman front-runner. I'm wondering why that's the case?
I think Smith has emerged as the Heisman Trophy front-runner because he's executing Holgorsen's offense at such an efficient rate. In four games, Smith has completed 83.4 percent of his passes for 1,728 yards. He has nearly as many touchdowns (20) as incompletions (28) and hasn't thrown an interception in 169 pass attempts.
That's difficult to do against air.
Let's face it: Smith has also been helped by the fact USC quarterback Matt Barkley struggled early and USC lost to Stanford. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson struggled in losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, and Oregon hasn't had a Heisman Trophy candidate emerge.
Smith is actually playing better than even Harrell did at Texas Tech. Harrell's most efficient season came in 2008, when he completed 71.5 percent of his passes with 41 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 568 pass attempts. Former Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who played in a very similar offense, completed 71 percent of his passes with 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 534 pass attempts in 2011.
I think what makes Smith's performance so special is that he's throwing the ball so much and still isn't turning it over.
Will it continue? We'll find out. West Virginia hasn't played a truly great defense yet. In fact, two of three FBS defenses he faced are ranked among the worst in the country. Baylor is dead last among FBS teams in total defense, allowing 571.2 yards per game. Marshall is ranked No. 115 and just allowed 51 points to Rice and Purdue in back-to-back games. Maryland is eighth in total defense, but those numbers are a little skewed because the Terps have faced William & Mary, Temple and Connecticut.
John in Greensboro, N.C., writes: Mr. Schlabach, why do you consider offenses such as the one WVU runs under Dana Holgorsen a gimmick? I know the term by itself does not carry any negative connotation, but in the sports world it is traditionally used to reduce the merits of those who try something perhaps out of the ordinary. I personally find that disrespectful. Even more when the concept of offenses based on shotgun snaps and receivers spread from sideline to sideline is being used more and more even in the NFL. You being a long-term sports analyst should take into account the amount of work those coaches have and continue to put into the development of their style before labeling their work with term intended to reduce its value. After all people don't call your articles gimmicks, and people actually give value to your work, whether they agree with what you say or not.
Two of the definitions for gimmick are: (1) an ingenious and usually new scheme or angle and (2) a trick or device used to attract business or attention.
I think both definitions aptly describe Holgorsen's offense. His offense is ingenious in that it's really the first spread offense that attempts to throw the ball vertically down the field. And Holgorsen has used his offense to attract attention, as the Mountaineers begin their first season in the Big 12.
West Virginia's offense isn't overly complicated. In fact, the Mountaineers only use a select number of plays, but run them over and over again to perfection. It's why they can operate at such a rapid pace on offense. It's a gimmick because it's different from anything we've ever seen in college football.
I think another definition of gimmick aptly describes West Virginia's defense: an important feature that is not immediately apparent.
Regardless of how good the Mountaineers are on offense, they have to at least try to play a little defense.
Anthony, Iowa City: So why no love yet for the pounding Mark Weisman is doing to defenses? Yes, I am aware that the competition has not been great, but still, three 100-yard outings with a total of seven touchdowns can't be ignored, especially when it's a former fullback that is a walk-on! Seriously, give some love to the guy. The numbers he put up were as good as any running back did last week.
Weisman, a sophomore at Iowa, is one of the best stories in college football this season. When he decided to leave the Air Force Academy after only one semester, he transferred to Iowa because the Hawkeyes were one of the few FBS teams still using a fullback.
Now Weisman, a 6-foot, 225-pound native of Buffalo Grove, Ill., is the Hawkeyes' starting tailback. It took injuries to at least eight other Iowa running backs to move him into the starting lineup, but he's making the most of his opportunity. He ran for 177 yards with one touchdown in Saturday's 31-13 victory over Minnesota, and gained 507 yards with seven touchdowns in the last three games.
"After one game, you're like of like, 'hmmm hope I am seeing it right,'" Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Then after two weeks, you start thinking, 'this guy might not be bad.' After three games, a lot of us are starting to think maybe this guy is a running back. His fullback days may be numbered. He may be retiring from that spot."
Tom, Atlanta: How good is "Gurshall"? Can both of Georgia's freshman running backs run for 1,000 yards this season?
Every Georgia running back seems to be compared to 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by Bulldogs fans, and Gurley and Marshall are no exceptions. UGA fans have dubbed them "Gurshall" after they combined to run for 964 yards with 14 touchdowns through the first five games. Together, they've already exceeded the production of ex-UGA tailback Isaiah Crowell, who ran for 850 yards with five touchdowns on 185 carries in 2011. Crowell was dismissed from the team following his arrest on gun charges this summer.
And, if you're wondering, the duo is ahead of Walker's NCAA-record pace as a freshman in 1980, when he led the Bulldogs to a national championship. Walker had 463 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his first five games before finishing with 1,616 yards rushing.
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said having two freshman running backs helps take pressure off them.
"We've got two guys," Bobo said. "There's not a lot of pressure on one guy. One guy doesn't feel like he has to do it all, and there's good competition every week."
It also helps that Gurley and Marshall, who both grew up in North Carolina, became friends during recruiting and are roommates at Georgia.
"Basically, we're together all the time," Gurley said. "We don't have classes together, but we're in the meeting room together and at home together all the time."
Both Gurley and Marshall are on pace to run for 1,000 yards this season. What impressed me most against Tennessee is that each of them runs so hard. They'll need to combine to run for more than 150 yards if No. 5 Georgia is going to win at No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday.
Ben, Nashville: Denard Robinson hasn't regressed as a passer. Brady Hoke is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. He's never been capable at reading the defense or [throwing] consistently accurate down field. But if you turn the offense into read option, slants, short outs, bubble screens, option passes and the occasional drop-back look from a running down, he'd still be one of the top quarterbacks in college football. What's happened to Denard Robinson is like what would happen if you put Peyton Manning in a triple-option offense. A good coach fits his system to his personnel, rather than trying to fit his personnel to his system. This is why rookie quarterbacks have suddenly become so successful in the NFL. Finally, coaches realize that they should stop designing offenses for ideal players and design the offenses to extenuate the best attributes of the players they have. Michigan's best chance this year was to go to the NFL blitz-style offense Louisiana-Monroe used for a couple of plays against Baylor, which would be unstoppable (with the right personnel, which Michigan has) in college football. Their worst chance was the offense they are running.
I'm disappointed for Denard Robinson. When I spent a week with Michigan's seniors this summer in San Diego, while they were training with Navy SEALs, I was impressed with how much time and effort Robinson was investing into his senior season. He wants to be remembered as one of the Wolverines' great quarterbacks and really wanted to become more than just a running college quarterback. He really worked on improving his passing mechanics during the offseason and seemed ready for a big senior season.
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges turned former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell into an NFL prospect in 2004. Borges is a believer in the West Coast offense, and I'm not sure it's the best system for Robinson. But more than anything else, Michigan lost too much on the offensive line to equal last season's success. I think Robinson tried to do too much in losses against Alabama and Notre Dame and forced too many passes into coverage. The good news: The Wolverines are still undefeated in Big Ten play and can still win the Legends Division.
Hugh, Las Vegas: Mark, you made a terrible assessment on USC in your "what we learned in September" article. Their problem is not their defense. It's the offense (read: offensive line) that has been inconsistent. Barkley's been pressured a lot more than last year, while the defense has put them in position to easily win every game. They're fast, they're tough and they're good. I wonder how far off your other comments are? I mean really, you're off on this one. I've watched and rewatched each USC game.
I don't think either side of the ball has played exceptionally well for USC this season. I was referring mostly to USC's 21-14 loss at Stanford on Sept. 15, when the Trojans defense was unable to slow down Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 153 yards with one touchdown. Stanford lined up and hit USC in the mouth again, and the Trojans never really responded.
USC's defense ranks among the national leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, but it's 36th in total defense (346.5 yards), 27th in scoring defense (17.2 points) and 61st in passing defense (229.5 yards). That's not a championship-caliber defense.
After watching the Trojans knock off Utah 38-28 in Salt Lake City on Thursday night, I would agree with your assessment of USC's offensive line. It's hard to win when you can't even snap the ball to the quarterback.
Friday's On The Mark Mailbag covers Geno Smith's ascendency and Georgia's freshman running back revelations.