What follows is what happens when answering email and texts and tweets keeps me up the night of a 37-0 loss and when I’m alone for four hours in the car the next day. You might want to pull up a chair today …
So here’s what I gather when I open my eyes and ears and listen to the noise. There is a high volume of high-volume critics who want Dana Holgorsen to no longer be West Virginia’s head football coach.
This is a different crowd than the one that is (insert adjective for upset) with Holgorsen and his two-and-a-third seasons. There’s nothing wrong with the existence of either crowd, and we can agree they both have fuel for their fires, but I think one is more off base than the other.
Here’s what I can tell you, based on no recent conversations and nothing more informed than my insight and intuition: Barring a total and thorough collapse here, Holgorsen will not be fired this winter. Apart from the possibility it might be premature and undeserved, it’s too pricey on many levels. First, Dana (and his staff) would be due a massive buyout. Second, Athletic Director Oliver Luck would be starting all over. Again. Again? People might overlook that he’s actually witnessing a rebuilding project right now.
And let’s stop here: I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to admit this, but it has to be acknowledged. At present, WVU is not as good as its reputation. WVU is working to get back there and beyond, but those projects take time. And this is a project. It doesn’t make a lot of the things you’re witnessing acceptable, but it’s a reality a lot of people seem to miss.
Where were we? That’s right, turnover. Not turnovers, which are killing the Mountaineers this season, but turnover. Fire Dana and you’re looking at regime change in 2008, 2011 and 2014. That’s extremely dangerous on the level of college football where you want the Mountaineers to exist. People say Luck has to make a move. He already made his move. You have to have conviction behind action.
Still, change can be a necessity. If this ends up 2-10 or 3-9 and more blowouts arrive, then the welfare of the program just has to be considered and the conversation has to occur. Back when Luck arranged this in December 2010, someone smart said something that’s stuck with me ever since.
“If this blows up and Holgorsen does not succeed, Luck must be held to the same standard.”
That was me, so understand that I went into this long ago with an open mind and I have one today. If what’s bad stays bad, or gets worse, and there’s neither improvement nor optimism, then this becomes a really big deal and Luck has questions he must be prepared to ask and answer. Think he wants to go down with the ship? No A.D. does. But you can’t call in air strikes every time you hear a gun shot.
While we’re here, go back and read that — I’ll be here when you return, I promise — and apply some of the same arguments to the present. They’re valid. The business aspect can’t be ignored. Results still matter. That kind of stuff remains relevant and it ought to for the final eight games. Lousy crowds, missing a bowl game, things like that can be huge negatives this season.
“Oliver Luck’s job is to run a business. He needs to make money for the athletic department. He therefore needs the football program to be as dynamic and profitable as possible. He, for his reasons, which whether we like it or not, matter alone, decided a Bill Stewart football program was not going to compete for a national title and, as such, would not inspire the income that is spread across the board in the athletic department.”
For real, all of that is mobile logic. If in December you can swap “Bill Stewart” with “Dana Holgorsen” and it’s just as valid, well, I think you know where that might go.
But you’re not there yet. Far from it, in fact. If you’re asking me, and if I’m being completely honest, there are things that concern me, but I don’t know that they’re aren’t personnel things that happen when there’s as much change as WVU has witnessed on the field and on the sideline, though I might have more and different answers two, four or eight weeks from now. I don’t anticipate a complete and thorough collapse this season, and I’m not saying that because covering a coaching search sucks. I just don’t see it happening and I don’t see Luck making a change after, say, 5-7 or 4-8.
I guess what I want to impress upon you, at this point, is that a change might do more immediate damage than not making a change.
That’s not exactly why we’re here today, though I have to wonder where things are today. Here’s reality: Holgorsen is 30 games old now. He’s in the all-important third season. You can start to take trends and make them something a little more permanent.
So here are 30 things about Holgorsen at 30:
1) He’s 19-11.
2) He’s 6-5 on the road and 2-1 in neutral site games.
3) He’s 11-5 at home.
4) He’s 1-1 in bowl games, and the games couldn’t have been more different.
5) He’s 9-8 in conference games, and the two conferences probably can’t be more different, either.
6) There are 16 Associated Press polls every seasons. We’re in the fifth poll of the third season, which means 37 polls. Holgorsen has been ranked in 23.
7) Holgorsen was ranked in the first nine. He hasn’t been ranked in the last 12.
8) He’s 4-4 against ranked teams.
9) He’s 12-7 as a ranked team.
10) He likes to weak black. If you would have felt better Saturday night because Holgorsen wore gold and/or blue, I don’t know what to tell you.
11) He’s tried. He made some genuine efforts to introduce and reinforce the history and the tradition of the state and the school during the offseason. That included bringing back Tony Gibson and JaJuan Seider (and I guess Lonnie Galloway) and hiring Ron Crook. Holgorsen has also demoted a defensive coordinator and promoted the replacement from within. He fired Daron Roberts as cornerbacks coach. He maneuvered Steve Dunlap, which, privately, people say was a wonderful move for everyone. He’s had to work on his staff more than he ever wanted to, and don’t dismiss that as a factor. True, he made some bad calls, and he’ll admit it, but he’s had to live and to work with those errors.
12) He’s 4-5 as an underdog. Three wins (at Maryland, at Cincinnati, v. Clemson) were in 2011. One was last season at Texas. That’s four wins as an underdog away from home.
13) He’s 15-6 as a favorite.
14) If you rank the past 10 seasons by attendance, the 2011 season is No. 9 and last season is No. 6.
15) The average attendance through 16 home games is 3,352 below capacity.
16) He’s 7-3 when he has more than a week to prepare for a game.
17) He’s 4-4 after a loss.
18) He’s 11-6 with a 300-yard passer and 16-6 when he outgains the opponent through the air.
19) He’s 8-1 with a 100-yard rusher and 10-2 when he outgains the opponent on the ground.
22) He’s 13-1 when he leads at the half.
23) He’s 5-9 when he trails at the half.
24) He’s 14-5 when he commits the same number of or fewer turnovers than the opponent.
25) He’s plus-four in turnover margin (51-47). That’s not good. When you’ve got an offense like he has and part of the plan is to create turnovers to get that offense more opportunities, plus-four after 30 games isn’t doing it.
26) He’s been outscored 232-216 in the first quarter. There are some blowout wins included to tip the scales, but in the 11 losses, the margin is 116-34 after the end of the first quarter and WVU has trailed 10 of the 11 times. Defending his offense is a lot easier when your defense has a good lead. But larger than that is this growing concern that WVU isn’t prepared and motivated to play the games and that the energy on the sideline either isn’t there or doesn’t sustain. I’m not the only one saying this. Dana has said this, now in all three seasons.
27) He’s scored touchdowns on 86 of 128 red zone possessions. Sixty-seven percent is pretty good, generally good enough for the top 25 every year.
28) Of the 33 field goals his kickers have made, 26 were red zone scores.
29) He once told me going for it on fourth down is a 50-50 deal and said, in essence, you make it or you don’t. He was apparently serious. He’s gone 9-for-18 in 2011, 17-for-34 in 2012 and 2-for-4 this season.
30A) Dana Holgorsen is 4-6 at night.
30B) He did do this:
If you’ve been around here for a few years, that might look familiar. I gave the same treatment to Bill Stewart after 30 games because WVU had just left fans feeling low after a loss to LSU.
For the record, I find it hard to compare the two coaches and their situations. Stewart had a really nice run at home, but while we won’t disparage that, let’s not pretend Big East opponents are the same as Big 12 opponents. I also think they’re defined, and thus to be measured, by different elements. It’s silly to compare offensive figures. They had different philosophies. Now, comparing defensive figures? Valid, though one conference is more offensive than the other, but I don’t know what can I say to you beyond “WVU’s defensive statistics are not good, and were skewed greatly by the 2012 disaster.”
Still, I think Stewart inherited a good situation and was behind the wheel when it crashed. I think Holgorsen inherited a good situation, too. When you look back at it, he was perhaps fortunate to make and to get as many breaks as we witnessed in 2011, which got him to the Orange Bowl, which was the catapult to a new contract and all sorts of hype that still serves as a firewall, or a fire starter.
But I think Stewart’s situation before his third season, with all the talent and experience he had, was better positioned for success than was Holgorsen’s. Some of that is probably the work the coaches did to get there, but I think some of that was out of Holgorsen’s control. Stewart’s staff did a nice job recruiting, but didn’t recruit a lot of players. Holgorsen’s recruiting is, shall we say, out to jury, but he had a thin roster when he started.
We can agree and disagree with these things, but I want you to know what I think as I frame what follows.
Yes, there’s more.
When I got to thinking about where the coaches were after 30 games, I got to thinking about a similarity that can’t be ignored because it’s fact. They both lost to Randy Edsall in their third season. After WVU’s first ever loss to UConn, I wrote this. It had a paragraph that struck me again Saturday night.
- A bowl eligible college football season is 13 games long. In the past 13 games, which includes everything in a full bowl eligible season — seven conference games, five road games, 10 games against BCS opponents (usually nine, like this season, but also sometimes 10) and a bowl — WVU is 8-5. That includes a 4-3 record in Big East games, 2-3 road record (2-4 if you count the bowl loss), a 5-5 record against BCS opponents and a defeat in a bowl game.
Well, Holgorsen just completed a 13-game string that has nine Big 12 games, five road conference games, a non-conference game against a BCS opponent, a non-conference game against a FCS opponent and a bowl. The result: 5-8, 3-6 in the Big 12, 2-3 on the road in the league, a blowout loss in a non-conference game and a blowout loss in a bowl.
A lot of people want to compare the situation that sent Stewart out the door to the situation Holgorsen is in today. I don’t think it’s entirely fair or accurate, but I think if we look at the situation through the same lens, we can better understand and appreciate the state of affairs.
- Bill Stewart’s job is in the balance. There’s no need going on if we can’t agree on that. This is not to say he’s out or should be out or that he can’t or won’t salvage things, but a very new chapter to his time as the head coach at West Virginia University began late Friday night as he walked from the team locker room at Rentschler Field and toward the team bus.
Dana Holgorsen’s job is not in the balance. I think and hope I explained that earlier, but this is not to say he won’t be or or shouldn’t be out if he doesn’t salvage things. And honestly, “salvage” might be the wrong word. Trouble arrives if this deal continues to deteriorate to and maybe beyond a state that can’t be fixed by the current mechanics.
- As was previously planned, Stewart’s weekly press conference will be Monday this coming week and not Tuesday. The reason? Stewart will be out recruiting beginning Tuesday. You could argue easily he hasn’t made a more important recruiting sweep than this one.
Holgorsen has two more games before he can hit the road. That could be a bad thing (it’s against Oklahoma State and Baylor) or it could be a great thing (it’s against Oklahoma State and Baylor). The reality is WVU isn’t recruiting in Oklahoma or West Texas and rarely ever goes head-to-head against a Big 12 team, so temper that just a little bit.
- Oliver Luck was at the game last night. He had, I’m told, tickets for the stands and a pass for the type of place where the visiting A.D. might sit. I’m wondering if the people surrounding him wherever he chose to sit could have affected him in any way.
That nugget was included because the chatter about Stewart’s future had already started. I don’t hear it right now, and I don’t think Luck’s point of view mattered. I think the outcome mattered more because a sloppy 37-0 loss was troubling on several levels.
- There are losses and there are ways you lose and they reflect on a coach, team and program in two different ways. The way WVU lost last night was worse than that WVU lost last night. Turnovers, penalties and an erratic offense are not new issues. They are persistent. For two-plus seasons now. It’s been said again and again, but the offense can move if it can get out of its way. I think you can legitimately ask now if the way plays are called and drives are schemed are being affected by a fear of the other shoe dropping, so to speak.
That was a loss that reflected poorly on a coach. The score was one thing and turning the ball over on the the final three possessions, each on the way to a score, was something a bad team does. That’s how you end up with six turnovers. Not challenging the Charles Sims fumble was curious, and it was inconsistent with the way Holgorsen has managed games in the past. I’m willing to wonder if the snafus at Oklahoma affected that particular decision. And you have to consider this: Being a head coach in the game is a lot different than being a coordinator. Sometimes coaches have a hard time running everything when they’ve been conditioned to running just an offense or just a defense. The grip you’re supposed to have on everything can get a little loose. It’s not always a fast or easy adjustment. What’s concerning is that these special teams errors have been critical or comical or both and you sort of expect them now. It’s one thing to fumble. It’s another to not know that waving off teammates isn’t a fair catch.
- Blame coaches all you want, but a lot of this is on players. Sorry. WVU fumbled seven times in a college football game last night. Bill Stewart, Jeff Mullen, Chris Beatty and Dave Johnson did not fumble once. I think the staff conspired to do everything it could to get the ball in the end zone in overtime — and maybe even a few times in regulation — and a first-and-goal run play from the 1-yard line blew up in everyone’s faces. That’s not supposed to happen.
Turnovers happen and teams do drills to protect against them, but there are mechanical and fundamental mistakes the players are making. That’s coaching. Holgorsen said Monday he didn’t do a good job having his team motivated and prepared. That’s a coach critiquing coaching. I think what’s most unusual is, in my eyes, game plans aren’t really working. The pass wasn’t there against Oklahoma. The run wasn’t there against Oklahoma. There were a few of those last year, too. Then again, coaches aren’t failing to execute the game plan. Chicken? Egg?
- WVU committed just four penalties — which is about the average for a loss … I’ve done the numbers — but they were all on offense and three were at bad times. The fourth was an illegal formation, which, in game eight, is puzzling, particularly when you did it three times in game seven.
The penalties were bad, and it’s really unbecoming of a coach and his staff to have a pair of penalties for 12 men on the field and one for a delay of game after a kickoff. But WVU has not been consistently bad about penalties. Then again, we have some examples this season that the trend is bending, bending, bending…
- I don’t think this is a slump.
I don’t think this is a slump, either. I think it’s, I guess, reality. I see a new quarterback, an average offensive line with players who have played a lot and receivers who can’t do what they’re asked. There’s potential, but WVU is at best approaching it. The problem, I suppose, is some of these receivers are guys Holgorsen recruited, but I can’t make that a blanket indictment of his recruiting.
- Ryan Clarke may be a very good short-yardage back and may be what the offense needs from time to time, but he can lose the football. If you’ve asked in the past why he hasn’t been featured more, you may have seen the answer.
I think defensive backs try to get into WVU’s receivers and the front seven thinks it can beat WVU’s offensive line, no matter the numbers. That’s not good.
- Defenders are trying to take the ball from Noel Devine and Geno Smith. Both their turnovers were pure strips.
I think Georgia State and Maryland went hard on punt coverage, no doubt to make the return man uncomfortable.
- For a long time, WVU was able to thump its chest about a few things: It had a premier Big East program, it operated cleanly and without breaking any rules, it dominated rival Marshall and could be counted on, basically every year, to beat Syracuse, UConn and Rutgers, which went a long way toward establishing and sustaining a high profile in eastern football. A lot of that has come down this year. WVU will share last place in the Big East during its open week. It could be alone in last place when it plays next. The NCAA case is going to make news again soon. WVU was fortunate to beat a terrible Marshall team and has in consecutive weeks lost to Syracuse for the first time since 2001 and to UConn for the first time ever.
Here’s some perspective for you: It’s not that bad right now. WVU is not a great Big 12 program, but it knows that and is working on that. It’s impossible to carry this comparison across the bridge. Ending a seven-game winning streak against Maryland with a thorough thumping is bad form, but let’s be honest: Maryland is better than WVU right now. For so often, WVU was the better team almost every time it played Marshall, Rutgers, UConn and Syracuse, even when WVU lost to UConn and Syracuse in 2010. This isn’t the case against the opponents WVU sees now.
- Stewart did not enjoy last night’s press conference. There were direct and difficult questions.
Holgorsen doesn’t run in his press conferences and conference calls. He’s blunt and honest and he doesn’t try to intimidate or undermine reporters. I don’t know how much this matters to you, if at all, but he’s not acting in a way that suggests he’s incongruous to reality.
- I think WVU’s defense is veteran and smart enough not to go in a bad direction and quit on the offense, and perhaps the open week comes at a very good time, but this is a football team that’s lost when allowing 20, 19 and now 16 points in overtime.
And here’s where we get weird. WVU’s defense is better than WVU’s offense right now, which you would have laughed at had I predicted it a year ago. But I think that side of the ball knows better than to take any exception to the performance of the offense, and I think that’s why Shaq Rowell and Darwin Cook were so effusive in the blame they aimed at their own defense Saturday.
– Not that the defense is free of blame. It hasn’t forced a turnover the past two games and sooner or later a truly special defense has to not just support, but save a struggling offense. And Jeff Casteel admitted his side came up short on a few occasions and needed to be better on some key third downs.
Having to stand up beneath six turnovers isn’t easy, but it was really just four Saturday. One was a pick six and one came before Maryland kneed three times to end the game. On the other four, WVU allowed three touchdowns. Against Oklahoma, WVU turned it over four times, but allowed one touchdown and forced two turnovers and a punt. That’s a big difference in those two games.
- WVU has four games left, two at home and two on the road, which is where WVU is now 5-8 under Stewart and where WVU plays conference-leading Pitt and Louisville, a team it may very well have to beat to be in a favorable bowl position. Cincinnati at home and Rutgers in the regular-season finale following the Pitt game aren’t picnics, either.
WVU has eight games left and each is in the Big 12 that has thus far been above WVU’s head. The Big 12 is not great. The road games are difficult, but do Kansas State, TCU and Kansas frighten you? Would you rather play Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas at home or on the road? It could be worse. How would you feel about 5-6 WVU closing the schedule by playing host to Iowa State?