Game Week Hits As West Virginia Preps To Peak For Virginia Tech Opener
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s head coach is ready to play.
Dana Holgorsen, he of the too-long-preseason rant, likes the match-up against No. 21 Virginia Tech, and loves the idea of a big opener to start the year. It’s a high-risk, high-reward game for both teams, as the No. 22 Mountaineers and Hokies both have a myriad of intangibles riding on the contest, including confidence ad momentum entering a short week following.
“I think it’s a positive,” Holgorsen said. “The last time I dealt with this three years ago when we opened up with Alabama down in Atlanta. It makes the offense kind of flow better. The attention to detail in practices, you seem to not lose the guys like you sometimes do when you open with a lower-level team. Is it good or bad? I don’t know. I’ve been a fan of these non-conference high profile games. I know it’s worked out good for us and I think our kids are ready to go.”
What he’s not a fan of, in terms of facing off against them, is Virginia Tech’s defense. Under longtime and legendary defensive mind Bud Foster – the veteran coach has been in Blacksburg for 30 years, including the last 22 as coordinator – the Hokies have built a reputation that thrives on sound fundamentals and hard-nosed play. Not unlike West Virginia, Foster’s defenses have thrived using a hybrid rover position, though the Hokes do it via a four-man front as compared to the 3-3-5 stack look of the Mountaineers.
This season, Tech returns seven starters off a unit that ranked 18th nationally in total defense at 340.7 yards per game while finishing in the top 30 in scoring (22.8 ppg) and passing (200.2 ypg) defense. The back seven (three linebackers and four in the secondary) will be arguably the best WVU faces this season, especially with ‘backer Mook Reynolds, a tweener player with good size and solid coverage and run stopping ability. Tech was second in the ACC in interceptions last season with 16, and will need a younger front to help make plays against a rebuilding Mountaineer line.
“I hear (Foster) thinks they’re as good as they’ve ever been, which is scary,” Holgorsen said. “They look good to me. He has a lot of returning players coming back. The one thing I knew about Virginia Tech before I got to West Virginia was who Bud Foster is and what he does defensively. They’re tricky; they’ve got really good players and they’re always sound with what they do.
“He’s always been one of the top defensive coordinators in the country and one of the best coaches period in the country over the last 30 years he’s been doing this. I have a bunch of admiration for him and what they do.”
West Virginia will counter with Jake Spavital, among the brightest young offensive minds in the nation. A former WVU quarterback coach in 2011-12 in the first two years of Holgorsen’s tenure, Spavital spent three seasons as OC at Texas A&M and one at Cal before a return to Morgantown this offseason. Spavital will call the plays, with Holgorsen taking a broader approach to team management.
“I think it’s going to be beneficial for us,” Holgorsen said. “I can kind of do some other things. We had a mock game this past week, and I was way more in tune with the transitional stuff and the game management on and off the field and directing the sideline the way it’s supposed to be done. I think that’s going to help. If I didn’t think it was going to help, I wouldn’t have done it.
“Jake’s ready to go. He’s done this for four years on his own and he’s going to be ready to roll. I’m excited about my role as well.”
Holgorsen’s counterpart, second-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, was among the hottest hires when Tech lured him away from Memphis prior to the start of last season. Fuente won 10 and nine games, respectively, his final two seasons in the Home of the Blues, leading a rejuvenated Tigers’ program to the Miami Beach and Birmingham Bowls before racking up 10 wins in his first season with Tech.
The Hokies finished first in the ACC’s Coastal Division and won the Belk Bowl 35-24 over Arkansas – overcoming a 24-0 halftime deficit – to end the year at 10-4 and ranked 16th in the final polls. He was named the Conference’s Coach of the Year, but key losses at quarterback and receiver in Jerod Evans and Isaiah Ford have taken a toll on an offense expected to regress from scoring an average of 35 points per game a season ago.
“He took over a Memphis program in shambles and turned it around pretty quick,” Holgorsen said. “It doesn’t surprise me his first year at Virginia Tech they won 10 games and had a chance to win the ACC. I could go on and on about what he’s done. He’s just a great offensive mind and understands how to develop quarterbacks and win ball games.”
West Virginia, of course, ripped off 10 regular season wins, and finds its strength on offense after managing 31.2 points per game to pair with a stout running attack which averaged 228.4 yards per game, the 25th best in the nation. The Mountaineers are stacked at running back, and have penned in Justin Crawford, last season’s Big 12 leading rusher (1,184 yards on 163 attempts) as a starter. Add in power back Martell Pettaway to the versatility of Kennedy McKoy – who is expected to see significant time at slot receiver – and the quickness and burst of freshmen Tevin Bush and Alec Sinkfield, and WVU will travel to D.C. carrying five running backs on its roster, to go with fullback Eli Wellman.
“We’re going to line up six of them and play them back there,” Holgorsen said. “We kind of consider Eli Wellman our main guy. He’s a fullback, H-back type, but he can also line up by himself back there.
“We have two freshmen that can carry the ball as well.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on Sunday night from FedEx Field, home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. The game will be broadcast nationally by ABC.