West Virginia diversifies, sets road to Big 12 title through Morgantown
AUSTIN -- When West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck was interviewing candidates to replace Bill Stewart as head coach, he had an epiphany while talking Xs and Os with Dana Holgorsen.
"[Holgorsen] said, 'Look, I love Mike Leach, but I'm not like Mike, I like to run the ball,'" Luck recalled.
At that moment, Luck said, he knew he'd found his coach. And two years into Holgorsen's tenure at WVU, the Mountaineers find themselves on the edge of the national championship race thanks to that philosophy.
West Virginia outlasted Texas 48-45 Saturday night, and it did so because Texas dared the Mountaineers to run and they happily obliged. Holgorsen may be a pass-game savant, but WVU showed impressive offensive diversity as sophomore Andrew Buie gashed the Longhorns for a career-high 207 rush yards.
One week after Geno Smith channeled his inner David Klingler and threw for 656 yards and eight touchdowns, Smith had a mortal night. Sure, he finished 25-for-35 with 268 yards and four touchdowns, which is a night most quarterbacks would drool just thinking about in a venue like Texas Memorial Stadium. But the story of tonight's game relates directly back to Luck's conversations with Holgorsen nearly three years ago, as tailback Buie chewed up an average of 6.7 yards on each of his 31 carries.
"If you have a five-man box, that's pretty much disrespectful," Buie said.
And so Buie's big night sent an important message: WVU can air it out, but it can also slug it out in the trenches against one of the college football's toughest defensive lines.
"There weren't any tricks," Holgorsen said. "We lined up and ran it right at them."
Surely, folks in SEC circles will still hold their nose at West Virginia's indifference to defense. But after WVU's win in front of a crowd of 101,851 in Austin, it's hard to argue the team hasn't earned a place in the national title conversation. It's strange to say, but it appears the road to the Big 12 title now runs through Morgantown.
"Based on winning every game that we've played this year, I assume that would be the case," Holgorsen said in typical Holgorsen fashion when asked if this victory puts WVU in the national title picture.
Responses like that, part folksy and part sarcastic, have helped Holgorsen become a cultish figure in college football. The Xs and Os savants love his wide-open offense and unpredictable play calling. The bloggers who focus as much on the pop culture of college football as on the game itself have embraced him even more. And why shouldn't they? Holgorsen is a swiller of Red Bull, has multiple Facebook pages dedicated to his wild tuft of blond hair and keeps winning in such a manner that it's hard to stop watching.
"I think it's clear that we have the coaching talent, the playing talent, the capabilities and the chutzpah to come into an environment like this and win," Luck said.
As Luck spoke those words in the West Virginia locker room, players danced and shimmied toward the showers amid the Popeye's boxed chicken dinners and discarded athletic tape. There's a certain joy that comes with a big road win, and the screaming, hollering and pirouetting in the West Virginia locker room encapsulated that. Luck pointed right back at Holgorsen.
"I really think our team has taken on Dana's personality, which is relentless but unflappable, which helps us in games like this," Luck said.
That swagger could be seen in West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Smith's top two receiving threats. USC's Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are the best pro prospect wide receiver tandem in college football, but it's hard to imagine there will be a more productive due than Austin and Bailey. Bailey snared three touchdown passes among his eight grabs for 75 yards Saturday; Austin had 10 catches for 102 yards and another 111 yards on kick returns.
"To send 90,000 people home," Bailey said of the silence in the stadium postgame, "it doesn't get any funner than that."
Holgorsen credited Smith for his work at the line of scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said that Texas played its safeties so deep that WVU had no other choice.
"Pick your poison," Smith said with a smile.
Dawson pithily summed up WVU's ability to run the ball as well as it tonight: "It won the game for us," he said.
Holgorsen came into this game with a 2-7 record against Texas as an assistant coach, with few inspiring offensive performances among those games.
"They're really good at pass defense," he said in an empty WVU locker room after the game. "If our plan would have been to come in here and throw it a bunch, bad things would have happened."
Instead, bad things happened to Texas. The game's pivotal play came with nearly six minutes remaining and West Virginia clinging to a 41-38 lead. Smith had turned the ball over for a second time on an Alex Okafor sack. The first fumble went for a momentum swinging touchdown in the first half. This sack and fumble appeared destined for the same, as Texas took over at the WVU 12-yard line and appeared in control of the game.
But a miscommunication between Texas center Dominic Espinosa and quarterback David Ash resulted with a snap skidding behind Ash for a 16-yard loss. Penn State transfer Anthony Fera missed the 41-yard field goal, allowing West Virginia to keep the lead.
The Mountaineers salted away the game on an eight-play drive that epitomized the night. Buie rushed seven times for 63 yards and Smith completed the only pass he threw, a deft back-shoulder pass to Bailey.
"You look over the course of the game, we got what we wanted," said Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Smith checked to run play after run play all night, something that watered down his statistics but helped his team win.
"We're going to take what you give us," Smith said. "I'm a smart quarterback. I understand defenses. I understand how to exploit them. I think I did a great job getting in and out of checks."
Holgorsen said he and his quarterback pick each other up, as he estimated that Smith checked 50-percent of the time at the line of scrimmage Saturday night.
"Sometimes I get confused, sometimes he gets confused, so we help each other out a little bit," Holgorsen said.
There's no confusing the magnitude of this win for the WVU program. With LSU, Georgia and Florida State losing Saturday, No. 8 West Virginia is headed to the top five. WVU plays Texas Tech next week -- which Luck immediately identified as a trap game -- before hosting Kansas State Oct. 20 in a game that will play a large role in shaping the Big 12 title race.
Luck said he considers Alabama and Oregon the best two teams in the country, but thinks West Virginia has earned a place in that next tier of elite teams. Holgorsen didn't shy away from talking about WVU in the national title picture, but he also managed to sum up the meaning of that in his own manner.
"Should we be involved? Yeah," Holgorsen said of the title race. "Does it mean anything? No."
And with that, he walked off to the bus on a cool night in Austin. The path to the Big 12 title now involves a country road. All we can do is sit back, crack a Red Bull and enjoy.