"The old adage is true: Offense sells tickets. And these days there is more pressure than ever on athletic directors to sell football game tickets to fund their programs." -- Ralph D. Russo, Associated Press.
Earlier this week, Nick Saban made headlines by refuting the above sentiment during the SEC's weekly conference call: "[At] some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety [...] I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
This spurred two immediate thoughts: Someone (namely, this blog) needs to stage a revival of Footloose that features Saban banning dancing in a small backwater town, but lacking a surplus of felt from which to make poodle skirts, someone needs to get a response from West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen, the season's most dastardly perpetrator of crimes against placid-paced football. Does he think his players suffer unduly from effects of the up-tempo pace?
"Nick’s a great defensive coordinator and obviously wants to slow things down because he’s got great players and coaches defense," said Holgorsen. "Every defensive coordinator across the country wants it to be like it used to where it’s just slow and you can figure it out. ... Texas high school football has been doing the same thing for the last 10 years and they’re starting to get really good at it, which means they’re starting to score a lot points. Ironically enough, the NFL is starting to do it a little bit. ... It’s what people want to see."
So this is, in fact, "what we want college football to be?"
"I’ve been doing the same thing for quite a while." said Holgorsen. "I think based on popularity and TV, this is what people want it to be. As long as it’s good, sound, smart football, I think that’s the key."
There's fast-paced, never-say-die football, and there's video-game football with every cheat code plugged in. Then, way out near the edge of the known universe, there's the show Holgorsen, quarterback Geno Smith and the rest of the West Virginia Mountaineers put on against Baylor in Week 5. Holgorsen has in the past expressed polite disgust at folks who are surprised his system is working so seamlessly, but even he came away a little flabbergasted.
"You can't draw up those stats," Holgorsen said. "I mean, that's near perfection. Which is impossible to achieve in football. I don't care what position it is; nobody's ever gonna grade out a hundred percent and not have any mistakes or miscues. And obviously Geno, a couple of the miscues that he had were pretty obvious. I mean, like a couple of screen passes were incomplete. It's pretty phenomenal what he was able to accomplish. ...You're talking about 19 touchdowns [in that game]. That's just crazy."
This, from the guy who strolled into his Orange Bowl postgame press conference after hanging 70 points on Clemson and greeted the assembled audience with: "Yeah, that's exactly how we draw it up, right?"
Choose the form of the destructor
Smith is the captain of the nation's top-ranked aerial offense and the most efficient passer in the FBS through five games. He's breaking program records with the flicks of his wrist, not even halfway through his senior season. In his first Big 12 game, he put up passing numbers similar to those recorded by Andrew Luck -- only Luck did it on his pro day, against imaginary defenders. When asked to name the best components of Smith's performance against Baylor, Holgorsen replied, "Probably everything."
So how did Smith assess his performance following Saturday's game?
"I could've completed those five or six passes that I had incomplete," Smith said. "We didn't score that first drive; we had a couple drives that stalled, a couple situations where I forced some balls and I could've scrambled and picked up three or four yards."
Smith's study habits are the stuff of local legend. By the time we sat down Sunday morning, he'd already been through a Saturday night film session breaking down his afternoon performance and had watched West Virginia's Week 6 opponent, Texas, edge out his coach's former offense, Oklahoma State. Smith confessed Sunday that he's harder on himself on days when a handful of incompletions are the only strikes against him. "I'm picky," Smith said. The little things bug him more than they used to, now that they're all he has to worry about.
"A really good quarterback, a Hall-of-Famer told me, 'Be picky,'" Smith said. "I want to make sure that every ball is exactly where I want it to be. I want to make sure it's the right read, and I want to make sure it's coming out on time. And when that doesn't happen, that's when I get pissed off at myself."
Holgorsen thinks Smith's perfectionism stops short of being detrimental, which is a fine line to walk at Smith's position. But apparently it's familiar territory for WVU's quarterback: "I've worried about it at times, as far as 'Is he worrying too much about it, is he too hard on himself?'" said Holgorsen. "He's a competitive kid. But he's also got a really good demeanor as far as being able to shake things off. Just a fantastic demeanor when it comes to shaking stuff off and playing the next play."
Smith is also careful to point out that -- particularly in a game like last Saturday's -- those comparatively minuscule inconsistencies he's so dogged about identifying are the difference between winning and losing. One more stalled drive on his part and Baylor quarterback Nick Florence might have been the star of Week 5. "I feel for him," Smith said. "I talked to him after the game, and he's a great guy, he played a great game [Saturday]. But in a case like that where you play so well and you still come out with a loss, you gotta look at the little things that I always look at. The little things that maybe could've shifted the game. Even when you play well, there's always something to improve upon."
Smith also credits Holgorsen's commitment to fostering a laid-back environment for the team's success in fast-paced, game-breaking situations. "It's just his personality," said Smith. "He never shows panic; he never shows a sign of being worried. And it's just a game. It's just making routine plays, doing the same things you do in practice. Our practice tempo is so fast and so hard, so when we get in the game, we want to double that."
Rather than growing fatigued by the pace Holgorsen's system demands, Smith said the Mountaineers have embraced the new order, particularly with their conference move, and that it all started during offseason conditioning. "When we entered the Big 12, this is the first time that I've seen 100 percent participation," Smith said. "We had no one miss a day. All summer. Every one of 'em. I'm talking about 6:30 [a.m.] workouts, every one of them's on time and ready and eager to go. I never thought I'd be able to be 225 [pounds], because I'm a really skinny guy. And now I'm 225.
"We used to do traditional things. Gassers and hundreds, you know, everyone does that. This time around we're competing like track stars, man. We're doing, like, the 400s and timing ourselves, trying to make it under 55, 56 seconds. For football players, we got big offensive linemen -- to run that entire 400, that's a man's race. To do that, that's just tough. But guys are out there competing, and I rarely see guys fall out. We didn't really have any weak links."
"No weak links" is a theme Smith returns to again and again, particularly when -- inevitably -- he's asked about the looming specter of December's awards season. "I could care less about the Heisman Trophy," Smith said in Saturday's postgame conference. "The biggest thing for us is that we won the game today."
Sunday, Smith clarified his position: "It's not that I don't care about the Heisman, know what I mean? If I win it, I'm going to be happy and glad that I can shed some light on my program and for my family, but it's not going to make me feel like any better of a player. My goals as far as football goes are team-oriented. It's about winning games, and it's about being a good teammate and just bringing the guys together and continuing to strive for more. That's what I like the most about it. It's not that I don't care about the Heisman, because I do understand it is the top individual award. But winning it is not one of my goals."
Smith seems more comfortable steering the conversation toward his offensive line and his two preternaturally tuned-in receivers, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. He's happier talking about the emergence of wideout J.D. Woods, the work running back Dustin Garrison has put in to make a speedy recovery from ACL and MCL injuries and the performance of sophomore back Andrew Buie in the absence of the injured Shawne Alston. But each Mountaineer will need the kind of outing Smith expects from himself if they hope to take down Texas in Austin.
The unstoppable force paradox
"Not every Big 12 game is like this," Holgorsen reiterated after last Saturday's touchdown barrage. "Not every Big 12 offense is like this. Not every game is going to be like this." Exhausted onlookers may have been relieved to hear it. "Texas has an unbelievable defense."
In a manner of speaking, he's right. Texas fans are grateful for the Longhorns' 4-0 record, but slightly bewildered at how the team arrived there. All of a sudden the 'Horns have a sure thing at quarterback -- David Ash trails only Smith in passing efficiency -- but a defense that gave up 576 yards in a victory over another Air Raid team, Oklahoma State, just last week. As SB Nation numbers whiz Bill Connelly put it: "There is no magic formula for stopping the Air Raid. With a quarterback this good, and with a receiving corps this dangerous, all you can hope to do is tackle well, live to see another day, and force just enough bad plays that your own offense can outscore the Mountaineers." Smith does not rattle readily, but rattling to whatever degree Manny Diaz's guys can manage will be a necessary component of any Texas victory.
"Oklahoma State's probably a little bit better at running the ball than we are," said Holgorsen. "That's always been the case. I think we're probably a little bit better at throwing the ball. With that said, it's pretty obvious that Texas is really good at defending the pass, better at defending the pass than they are at defending the run." Worse luck, then, that West Virginia still won't have Alston back from his lingering thigh bruise this week, though Garrison continues to strengthen and fullback Ryan Clarke will dress after missing the Baylor game. (And there's always the touch pass, which Smith categorized as "basically a running play" for his star receivers.)
But West Virginia isn't the only team still offensively loaded for bear. "Texas scored points against Oklahoma State," Holgorsen said wryly, "which means they're probably gonna score points against us. We better take advantage of every opportunity we got. There's not gonna be 14 possessions in this game like last week."
There's also not going to be an uncovered Bailey in the corner of the end zone, where Smith found him last Saturday afternoon. "Yeah, that worked the way we drew it up," Holgorsen chuckled, echoing his post-Orange Bowl sentiments. "I guess that's why we keep drawin' that s--- up, huh?"