Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia Mountaineer Offense Explained
3 Reasons for Dana Holgorsen's Success as an Offensive Coordinator
The most creative offensive mind in college football is Dana Holgorsen, the head coach and play caller for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Anyone that's seen the Mountaineers play has witnessed his ability to consistently get his wide receivers open in space. Granted, some of that can be blamed on poor fundamental defense from Big 12 schools that are more concerned with putting up points rather than stopping them, but Holgorsen still deserves a ton of credit.
Holgorsen, as most people know, learned his craft at Texas Tech under Air Raid guru Mike Leach. His offense still uses a lot of the same concepts that have been a staple of the Air Raid for a number of years. It is an offense that attempts to spread the field, identify the coverage and make an easy read based on that coverage. Everywhere he’s been, his offense has consistently put up incredible stats.
As the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech in 2007, his offense led the nation in passing. He then took his offense to the Houston Cougars and put up staggering numbers with Case Keenum at the helm. Finally, he made the Oklahoma State Cowboys offense in 2010 the nation's leaders in a number of categories, including total offense. He’s been the head coach at West Virginia for the last two seasons and had tremendous success with Geno Smith at QB.
There are three elements to his offense that differentiate him from most other offensive coordinators in the college game, and here they are.
There’s nothing offensive coordinators hate more than getting stuck in a bad play. Most play calls are based on assumptions about how a defense will defend against a certain formation or personnel groupings. However, sometimes those assumptions end up being wrong. Sometimes offenses can get away with audibling at the line of scrimmages, but a majority of defenses have evolved. They too try to disguise their intentions and not allow the quarterback to sift through his many options in order to check to the best play. So in theory, the QB might be fooled by a defensive look and audible to a play that is destined to fail.
That's not so with Holgorsen. Many of West Virginia’s plays are now packaged together to give the QB a run/pass option after the ball is snapped, not just before. For example, one of Holgorsen’s favorite plays is Draw/Stick. From a trips set, the receivers (from outside to in) run fade, slide (five-yard quick out) and hitch. So the inside most receiver runs a hitch.
Meanwhile, the offensive linemen and running back are executing the draw play. Linemen are getting pass sets, encouraging an up-field rush, while the running back shuffles closer to the QB for a handoff.
Here’s the brilliance of the play; the QB can handoff on the draw or throw the hitch route to the third guy in the trips set. He simply reads the play side linebacker and reacts accordingly. If the linebacker stays in the box, he throws the ball to the hitch. If he expands underneath the hitch to stop the pass, he hands off to the running back who is now operating against a defensive front with a linebacker heading out of position.
It’s a great way for an offensive coordinator to build in a little safety net for the draw play in case he calls it against an all out blitz.
There are several other combination plays that West Virginia uses, but they all operate on the same basic principle: Give the quarterback one simple read, and let him put the team in the best situation. Brilliant.
Holgorsen is a master at borrowing formations and concepts from other teams and expanding upon them to make them better. For example, most people credit Nevada with inventing and popularizing the pistol offense (running back lined up directly behind the QB in the shotgun), however, it’s evolved within the last few years thanks to coordinators like Holgorsen.
At Oklahoma State in 2010, Holgorsen often utilized the diamond formation to his schematic advantage. The diamond is like the pistol, but the QB has two other backs with him besides the running back lined up behind him. He sometimes put one on each side and had athletic running backs and wide receivers line up in those positions. At other times he had big, bruising fullbacks and tight ends in those spots to lead block in the run game. Either way, he was able to create mismatches with his formations.
These formations have helped in a variety of ways but most notably in the play action pass game. Teams struggle to get aligned against the many different looks that Holgorsen’s teams throw at them, especially since they play at a break neck pace. As a result, teams end up getting caught looking in the backfield and allow the play action pass to beat them. Again, watch to see how many times he has players in space with no one around them. It’s astounding.
Since becoming the head coach at West Virginia, Holgorsen has become even more creative, thanks in large part to his personnel. Recent first round pick Tavon Austin gave Holgorsen a weapon that he could move around on the field in order to give the Mountaineers schematic advantages. He played him in the slot, out wide, in the backfield, and he was often put in motion (more on that later) to best utilize his skill set.
Some people add more formations for cosmetic reasons, perhaps to make it look like they are more sophisticated than they really are. However, every formation Holgorsen uses has a purpose, and he uses them masterfully.
In reality, Holgorsen’s offense isn’t as confusing as it might look. They have a relatively small number of base plays but can run them in a variety of different ways. One aspect of his offense that causes defenses trouble is his use of motions. Rather than just lining up and letting defenses get comfortable, he moves his receivers and running backs quite frequently.
The motions have two basic goals. One, to help the quarterback identify what coverage the defense is playing, and two, to try to out-leverage the defense on the perimeter.
While many offenses run the jet sweep to a wide receiver in motion, no one does it like Holgorsen does. He has the receiver run just behind the offensive line (3-4 yards ahead of the QB) and catch a mini shovel pass from the QB. It looks like a game of hot potato for the QB. As soon as the ball touches his hands, he flips it forward to the receiver in motion.
He also loves to motion backs out of the backfield to give the quarterback the option of handing off to another running back or throwing a screen outside to the back in motion. It puts a tremendous amount of stress on the force player as they often have to decide between staying in the box to defend the run and getting to the flat to help out on a potential screen.
Holgorsen is the best in the game right now, and his offensive numbers can attest to that. With the departure of Geno Smith, some Mountaineer fans are worried about how they’ll look on offense in 2013. There’s no need to worry; as long as Holgorsen has the headset, their offense will put up plenty of points.