Forrest Gump was never a member of the West Virginia coaching staff and is not currently. Jobs in college coaching are infamously difficult to snag for fictional characters.
“Life is like a box of chocolates,” he famously said. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
That’s been life in Morgantown the past two seasons.
Last year, the defense was the Big 12’s worst and hamstrung one of the league’s best offenses. This year, the defense has easily been one in the top half of the Big 12 and the strength of the Mountaineers’ team while the offense played musical chairs at quarterback and scored seven points in two games against major conference competition.
A week ago, West Virginia was scratching its head to figure out how it lost to Maryland, 37-0, while coach Dana Holgorsen took the blame for everything from the offense’s lack of execution to the loss to Georgia Tech in the 1954 Sugar Bowl.
Monday, Holgorsen had to smile while answering questions about how the Mountaineers snapped back to beat No. 11 Oklahoma State for one of his best victories in two-plus seasons as the head man in Morgantown.
“We played a little better together. We had been playing OK defensively and continued to get a little bit better defensively this week, even,” Holgorsen said.
The defense turned the first turnover of the day into seven points when Ishmael Banks returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown. The second was a fumble that gave the offense the ball at OSU’s 29-yard line and set up a field goal. The defense grabbed one more turnover with less than four minutes to play when Darwin Cook snagged an interception to set up a game-sealing field goal in the 30-21 win. He gave the offense the ball at Oklahoma State’s 36-yard line.
“When defenses have been getting turnovers, they’ve been long fields, so they weren’t really setting up scores for us, and then the offense this past week took advantage of that,” Holgorsen said. “So just trying to figure out how to play together on all three sides of the ball, coupled with obviously playing harder than we did the week before just because we faced so much adversity. Being at home and the crowd giving us a big lift, it all came together.”
Two days before the win, Holgorsen made a surprise announcement that Ford Childress had suffered a pectoral injury and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett would be WVU’s third starting quarterback in four games. That was two days after Holgorsen said Childress was “going to be our guy.” Before kickoff on Saturday, he debuted a depth chart with 21 changes from the previous edition. All was not well, despite Holgorsen insisting the team (the offense, mostly) wasn’t as far off as it seemed. Beating the nation’s No. 11 team does wonders for your credibility.
After the loss to Maryland, making plans for a bowl game seemed silly. After beating Oklahoma State as a 21-point underdog, “the game done changed,” as the kids say these days. Trickett had played just six snaps in three games, but after Childress’ injury, Holgorsen handed him the keys and trusted him to make his first start as a Mountaineer.
“How we coach offense is foreign to him. How we play offense is foreign to him. So it’s going to take some time to really grasp that, and we’ve known that, but being able to really get him out there and just watch him react to the game of football, he did well,” Holgorsen said. “He got the ball out of his hands, he kept the play alive a lot, he kept his eyes downfield. He got knocked around a little bit, but that didn’t bother him. He gets right back up and gets ready to play the next step. He reacted well and I was proud of he did that.”
He completed 24-of-50 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, carrying WVU to a win despite a shoulder injury. The Mountaineers are down to one healthy quarterback, Paul Millard. Both Trickett and Childress could be healthy enough to play on Saturday against Baylor, but Holgorsen plans to wait until Thursday’s practice to decide who will start against the Bears.
Trickett was the third starting quarterback in four games for West Virginia, which has been carried by a strong defense. That’s a far cry from last season, when Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey couldn’t outpace a defense that gave up at least 30 points in seven games and ranked at the bottom of the Big 12 in scoring defense.
West Virginia has given up just 16 and 21 points in two Big 12 games this season. Oklahoma State’s 21 points were the fewest since the end of the 2009 season, when Mike Gundy handed playcalling duties in Stillwater over to none other than Holgorsen.
Safeties Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook headline the improving unit, which has been bolstered by junior college transfer Dontrill Hyman and defensive linemen Shaq Rowell and Will Clarke.
Defensive lineman Kyle Rose and linebacker Brandon Golson join Clarke to give WVU three players in the top 10 in the Big 12 in tackles for loss. West Virginia had just two players in the top 18 in the stat a year ago.
“We’re not playing 10 true freshmen is probably the biggest difference,” Holgorsen said. “Our corners aren’t true freshmen like they were last year. (Junior cornerback) Travis Bell’s an experienced guy who’s emerged. All the 10 true freshmen are sophomores.”
Joe DeForest was also moved out of a playcalling role as co-defensive coordinator and moved to special teams coordinator. Keith Patterson took over playcalling duties before a loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.
He’ll face his toughest task yet on Saturday against Baylor. The Bears lead the nation in scoring offense at 69.7 points through three games.
“Coach Patterson has done a great job of corralling these guys and teaching them the game. Last year, we had a version of his 3-4 defense, and then when he took over before the bowl game, he started installing his and his only version of the 3-4 defense,” Holgorsen said. “Having one voice obviously is the right thing, especially his voice. He’s doing a fantastic job of teaching them the game the way he knows how to teach it, and then you couple that with just experience.”
Holgorsen maintained Monday that his team is far from the finished product, but after two head-scratching results in consecutive weeks, the Mountaineers will try to look less and less like a box of chocolates.