New offense a hit for No. 12 Oklahoma St
Mike Gundy spent the better part of a decade going up against Mike Leach's potent offenses at Texas Tech, then watched as the Red Raiders took the next step and became a legitimate national championship contender.
The questions from Oklahoma State fans were only natural: Why not just do what Leach was doing?
It was never that simple, but now the 12th-ranked Cowboys have the next best thing - or perhaps something even better.
First-year offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen has Oklahoma State (9-1, 5-1 Big 12) leading the nation in total offense despite massive turnover on the roster from last season, including the loss of two first-round NFL draft picks. Behind their 547.5 yards and 45 points per game, the Cowboys also lead the Big 12 South with only games against Kansas and No. 16 Oklahoma left in the regular season and are closing in on their first appearance in the conference championship game.
The success isn't completely unexpected - just a couple years earlier than Gundy could have expected.
''You don't think you're going to lose four offensive (line) starters and change quarterbacks and lose Dez Bryant and then all of a sudden think you're going to have instant success,'' Gundy said. ''No, I did not think it was going to be that way.''
Gundy set out after last season to find an coordinator who he considered a great play-caller and someone who could bring in a system that would be attractive to recruits. He was able to land Holgorsen, who had been a part of offenses that were in the top six in the nation each of the past eight years.
He spent eight years on Leach's staff at Texas Tech, with the Red Raiders never finishing lower than sixth in total yardage between 2002 and 2007 and leading the nation once. He then became the offensive coordinator at Houston, leading Case Keenum and the Cougars to finish second in the country in 2008 and first last season.
Holgorsen's success in Year 1 at Oklahoma State comes without the opportunity to load up the roster with players who fit his system. He inherited a group of unproven receivers and has seen Justin Blackmon turn into the nation's top receiver for Bowl Subdivision passing leader Brandon Weeden.
''You would eventually like for this offense to evolve where you get some more skill guys to play in here on the perimeter and then just keep going,'' Gundy said. ''You don't ever take your foot off the gas pedal. Just let her rip.''
The way Holgorsen tells it, he started out playing the sport but it wasn't until Leach and Hal Mumme came through his hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, that he learned ''what football was all about.''
He had graduated from Iowa Wesleyan with a degree in secondary education when Mumme and Leach offered the chance to follow them to Valdosta State in Georgia and give coaching a try.
''It worked out,'' Holgorsen said. ''They didn't fire me.''
Holgorsen was left behind when Mumme was hired as Kentucky's coach and Leach went along. In 1999, Bob Stoops hired Leach to be his first offensive coordinator at Oklahoma and it took just one season for Texas Tech to come and hire him away as a head coach.
Then Leach reunited with Holgorsen.
''Without a doubt, that was kind of my break,'' Holgorsen said. ''He believed in me. ... I was comfortable with what I was doing at Tech for eight years and liked my job, was excited doing it. It was just at that point I had to get away from it, and that's why I took the Houston job.''
Like Leach, Holgorsen uses a few basic plays that the Cowboys run repeatedly in practice until they're mastered. Weeden, who's throwing for 339 yards per game, said the real ingenuity comes on game days.
''He's the mad scientist,'' Weeden said. ''He makes adjustments between series better than anybody. He sees things from the sideline that a lot of coaches can't see on the sideline.''
When Weeden comes off the field, he frequently finds that Holgorsen has already seen the same things in the opposing defense and is hatching a plan to defeat it.
''He has a feeling for what the defense is trying to do versus what we're doing and make small, minor adjustments where it doesn't affect your mind set and make you think too much,'' Weeden said. ''It's just a normal deal.''
Gundy, a former offensive coordinator, still is deciphering all the ins and outs of Holgorsen's misdirection-based offense and adjusting to the way he operates. Unlike the rest of the staff, Holgorsen is more apt to work late.
''Our personalities are much different,'' Gundy said. ''I'm very type A, structured, organized. I feel guilty if I don't show up early and stay late. His personality is not all the way to Mike Leach, but he's somewhere in between.''
That's all fine with Gundy, who wants Holgorsen to stick around until he decides to become a head coach somewhere else.
''I've got those aspirations,'' Holgorsen said. ''I think everybody does in the profession that has success and wants to continue to move on.''