Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen couldn't help but laugh this week as he created a composite of several dozen similar conversations that took place in the near-decade he spent as coach Mike Leach's eye in the sky at Texas Tech. Leach would growl into his headset and ask why the Red Raiders' quarterback took a sack or threw an incomplete pass or an interception.
Leach: "Who was open?"
Holgorsen: "Mike, I know you don't want to hear this, but there wasn't anybody open."
Leach: "What do you mean there wasn't anybody open?"
Holgorsen: "They dropped nine people and they double-covered all our guys. There was nobody open."
Leach: "Well, how'd they get pressure on the quarterback?"
Holgorsen: "Well, because one guy can't block one guy for seven seconds."
Between games, Holgorsen would entreat Leach to call a few more running plays to keep the defense honest. Leach -- who, to be fair, won an awful lot of games doing it his way -- usually declined and kept right on calling passes.
Holgorsen didn't want to run the option. Like Leach, he's a Hal Mumme "Air Raid" offense disciple who loves to throw. (Holgorsen played for Mumme at Iowa Weslyan.) But Holgorsen thought the air support could benefit from a little infantry. So when he left Texas Tech for Houston before the 2008 season, he resolved to hand off on occasion. Still, he never dreamed he'd be calling plays from a three-back formation.
But that's exactly what Holgorsen is doing in his first season at Oklahoma State. Through their first three games, the Cowboys have run 115 times for 613 yards and seven touchdowns. They have thrown 119 times for 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns. Oklahoma State leads the nation in total offense and passing offense, and it ranks second in scoring offense at 57 points a game.
The Cowboys have yet to play a Big 12 game -- they open conference play Thursday against Texas A&M -- but Holgorsen is loving calling plays in an offense that forces the defense to choose whether it wants to stop the run or stop the pass. He inherited a stable of backs that includes senior Kendall Hunter, who has averaged 157.7 rushing yards a game. In Oklahoma State's last game, a 65-28 win against Tulsa, Hunter rushed for only 59 yards. Tulsa had stacked eight men inside the tackle box to stuff the Cowboys' rushing attack. Holgorsen simply smiled and unleashed hell with quarterback Brandon Weeden. The former minor league pitcher carved up the Golden Hurricane to the tune of 409 yards and six touchdowns.
"For so many years, I was scheming up plays, I was talking to Coach Leach, I was trying to find specific pass plays to run against a whole bunch of defenders -- which gets tough at times," said Holgorsen, who still calls Leach regularly to talk Xs and Os. "Having [Hunter] back there makes it easy to call plays, because you hand it to him, and he gets yards. Then if you're not getting yards, there's usually a pretty good reason for that."
Holgorsen knows he probably won't run such a balanced offense in Big 12 play. The Cowboys dominated two of their first three games and ran a lot in garbage time. Still, even in a 41-38 nailbiter against Troy on Sept. 11, Oklahoma State ran 37 times and passed 39.
Ideally, Holgorsen said, he'd prefer to throw 60-65 percent of the time. He hit that figure in his lone season at Houston. Quarterback Case Keenum threw for 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns, while backs Charles Sims and Bryce Beall rushed for a combined 1,368 yards and 16 touchdowns. The offense -- 65 percent pass, 35 percent run -- helped the Cougars to several upsets, including a 45-35 win against then-No. 5 Oklahoma State.
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy already knew about Holgorsen from his days at Texas Tech. Gundy, who had served as his own playcaller after Larry Fedora left to become head coach at Southern Miss before the 2008 season, was intrigued by the offense Holgorsen ran at Houston. "When I got out of the playcalling I wanted a guy who was a good playcaller," Gundy said in an August teleconference. "I wanted to take that step before deciding what style of offense we wanted to run here, taking recruiting into consideration. Coach Holgorsen was a guy that had a history of being a really good playcaller, which interested me."
When Gundy called, Holgorsen wasn't sure he wanted the job. It may have seemed like a no-brainer, but Holgerson struggled with the notion that he would have to give up the chance to coach Keenum for another season. "For the average guy sitting there looking at it, with the difference in the quality of facilities, difference in the schedule, all the national attention, the difference in salary, all that stuff, you'd think it would be an easy decision," Holgorsen said. "But Case was great. He was the best one I've been around." Holgorsen wrestled with the decision for several days before he decided to head to Stillwater.
When he took the job, Holgorsen didn't know much about his personnel. The Cowboys had just lost a number of offensive stars. Receiver Dez Bryant and offensive tackle Russell Okung were NFL first-rounders. Quarterback Zac Robinson and tailback Keith Toston were excellent college players.
Holgorsen didn't know that offensive line coach Joe Wickline had a fairly experienced group returning. He didn't know his tailback stable of Hunter, Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle would be so good that he would pair two of the tailbacks and add a fullback and invent something he calls the Diamond formation. "It's worked pretty well so far," Hunter said of the Diamond. "The defense can't key on one person. With three running backs, you never know what's going on."
And if -- like Tulsa -- the defense loads up to stuff the run, Holgorsen can call on Weeden. The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder was a second-round pick of the Yankees in 2002. A shoulder injury ended Weeden's baseball career in 2006, but Weeden hasn't stopped throwing fastballs. "He's got a little rocket on him," Hunter said. "You've just got to be ready at all times. If you take your eyes off the ball, it's going to go right through your hands. It'll hit you right in the face."
Holgorsen said that while Keenum is the best all-around quarterback he's coached, the 26-year-old Weeden has the strongest arm and the best touch on the deep ball. With receiver Justin Blackmon (24 catches, 431 yards, eight touchdowns) catching Weeden's passes, defenses can't cheat to take away either the run or the pass against the Cowboys.
So now if Hunter gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage and Gundy growls into the headset, Holgorsen can call a pass on the next play. Or if all the receivers are blanketed, Holgorsen doesn't have to divine a way to complete a pass against a nine-man coverage scheme. He can trot out the Diamond and gash that defense.
Finally, the Air Raid has some ground aid.