It was a good problem for the Mountaineers to have, as in what was only a relatively short response to a question on Monday’s Big 12 coaches teleconference, Holgorsen named three players who, in his opinion, turned in the best performance of their college careers in the 2012 season-opener.
Ultimately, it was running back Shawne Alston who the coaches gave the honor of being the team’s offensive player of the game.
“Geno is going to get a lot of stuff nationally, obviously. I mean, Geno played his best game since I’ve been here,” Holgorsen said of the news his quarterback, Geno Smith, had been named Walter Camp national offensive player of the week. “He could have easily [been WVU’s player of the week] but we’d like to spread it out a little bit.
“Shawne played the best game he’s ever been in. Jeff Braun, a guard, we considered giving it to him, because he played the best game he’s played since he’s been here. We could have given it to a couple of other offensive linemen. The player of the game, you can make a case for a lot of different people. Based on Shawne playing the best he has since he was a Mountaineer, I thought it was pretty easy. You know, he had about 65 yards after contact. So half the rushing yards he had were from him being a physical runner, which is something we’ve tried to get him to do for quite some time.”
Indeed, Alston made good on the hype his coaches had helped generate throughout the preseason this year, when they raved about his playmaking ability and named him the starting running back in the weeks before the season-opener.
It was a far cry from when Holgorsen and his coaching staff came to Morgantown before spring practice of 2011, when a stated preference for smaller, “quick-twitch” running backs seemed likely to push Alston out of the regular rotation at the position.
“He finished the year good, and through the offseason, he had a tremendous offseason, got himself in shape physically,” Holgorsen said of Alston. “He feels really good. This past spring, he practiced 15 times and did some good things that carried into camp. We had seen that stuff before and thought he was capable of it. But we hadn’t seen it too much in a game, but we’ve seen it a lot more in practice. What we saw in the game was what we had seen in practice lately.”
West Virginia is in the atypical position of having an off week immediately following it season-opener. Its next game comes Sept. 15, when the Mountaineers travel to FedEx Field in Landover, Md., to face FCS opponent James Madison.
“I don’t think it’s ideal,” Holgorsen said of the schedule. “But you’re going to have off weeks regardless of where you put them. We’ll have to make some corrections based on playing against each other. I think it’s a little bit easier to make corrections when you play somebody else.
“There’s nothing we can do about the off week, but there’s things we’ve got to get out there and try to improve on. The punt team has some issues we’ve got to take care of. The timing on our PAT/field goal stuff is something we have to improve on. We’ve got to block a little better on punt returns. There are things we’ve identified we can work on in practice. I think it would be easier to accomplish if it was during a game, though.”
Beyond those special teams issues, the head coach and his staff identified a few problematic areas during their review of the game film following the win over Marshall.
“We put the ball on the ground twice, had the one missed opportunity in the red zone,” Holgorsen said. “The fourth down call [a fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line that failed], I take on my end, but a couple plays prior to that, we didn’t do a good job pushing it in there.
“Defensively, we missed too many tackles, which is always a concern early in the year. We had too many third down opportunities (go Marshall’s way). I think we had about 22 critical downs and we were only successful on nine of them. We need to do a better job of that. We did play hard. We did play fast defensively. But there’s obviously some things we’ve got to do. We’ve got to tackle a little better.”
Smith’s 32-of-36 performance, with 323 yards passing and four touchdowns (to go along wih another 65 yards and a score rushing) raised eyebrows nationally and served as a fine follow-up to WVU’s Orange Bowl rout of Clemson to end the 2011 campaign.
Holgorsen was asked how the performance ranked in terms of efficiency of play in a season-opener. Given the fact the former Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech offensive coordinator has coached some of the game’s top quarterbacks in recent years -- Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum and Graham Harrell -- the second-year coach’s answer may have spoken volumes.
“That’s a tough one to beat,” Holgorsen said of Smith’s showing. “I’ve had some good quarterbacks start the year well from a completions standpoint. The thing we gauge more than anything is taking care of the ball. Geno took care of the ball. I mean, he got us in the right plays. There weren’t many negative plays. His completion percentage was high. He didn’t put the ball in the other people’s hands. Is it as efficient as some of the other people? Yes. Is it higher? Probably.”