|LSU's Tyrann Mathieu (7) rips the ball from WR Brad Starks in the first quarter. (US Presswire)|
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The countdown begins here, tucked inside a narrow L-shaped
closet room in the back of the Milan Puskar Center, a short throw from the football stadium on the West Virginia campus. To get to his cramped workspace near a window, Vince Cashdollar, a former Division II All-American center at Ashland College, weaves past a 7-foot high refrigerated drinks cooler, stacked cardboard boxes of soda cans and bottled water and two garbage bins. Cashdollar settles his 6-foot-2, 280-pound frame into a chair in front of two computer screens that sit beneath four rows of shelves packed with more boxes, bins and dozens of hard plastic binders, stretching up to the ceiling.
It's 6:30 a.m. Sunday, or T-Minus 157 hours and 42 minutes before the West Virginia Mountaineers kick off against the visiting LSU Tigers in the Game of the Year for first-year coach Dana Holgorsen. Cashdollar is WVU's offensive graduate assistant. A chime alerting him of a new text on his cell phone woke him a few minutes earlier. The WVU video coordinator texted saying the LSU tape was in. For offensive coaches, the LSU defensive film makes Paranormal Activity seem like kid's movie.
|WVU grad assistant Vince Cashdollar rises early to chart LSU tendencies from his 'office.' (CBSSports.com Original)|
Since the Mountaineers are always in the shotgun and primarily a passing team, "some of the games are completely worthless [to break down]," he says. "And some of the formations we run, a lot of people don't run, so you have to say 'Well, this kinda could be this.'"
Cashdollar selects LSU's first three games of the season (against Oregon, Northwestern [La.] State and Mississippi State) plus their 2011 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M to chronicle. This week isn't the only time Cashdollar has studied LSU. He is the lone member of the WVU offensive staff who was with the team when it faced LSU last season. The Tigers were led by All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson and All-American defensive tackle Drake Nevis. "We thought 92 [Nevis] was going to sack us on every play," he later will tell Holgorsen.
Cashdollar has pored over enough LSU tape to make a disturbing observation: "They had more star players last year, but they're actually playing better now."
Sunday, T-Minus 152 hours and 12 minutes: Holgorsen learned under Mike Leach. Their routines and approach are eerily similar -- as are the results of their offenses. In fact, with the success Holgorsen had last season at Oklahoma State -- where he turned the No. 56 offense into No. 3 despite breaking in a first-time starting quarterback -- he's been labeled Leach 2.0. Holgorsen sounds like Leach, but isn't prone to the colorful storytelling. His team meetings are brief. This one lasts just two minutes. His message: "There are going to be a lot of distractions this week. Do exactly as your coaches tell you to do. Trust the system."
Sunday, T-minus 152 hours and 5 minutes: Aside from a few scattered pens and two bottles of hot sauce, the table inside the offensive staff room is neat by football standards. Jake Spavital, WVU's 26-year-old quarterback coach, sits armed with a clicker, at one end of the table, across from the projection screen in the front of the room. To his left: Geno Smith, the starting quarterback. To Spavital's right: Paul Millard, a true freshman who's the No. 2 quarterback, and Michael Burchett, a walk-on, third on the depth chart. Most college teams have more than three quarterbacks, but given the chaos around the West Virginia program the past 12 months, Holgorsen is thankful he has Smith, a three-year starter.
The baby-faced Spavital actually looks like he could still be an undergrad, but it doesn't take long to grasp his command of the room or this offensive system.
|More on West Virginia|
Spavital is Holgorsen's point person when it comes to running the daily QB meetings before practice. Spavital has been around X's and O's all his life. His grandfather, Jim, played and coached in the NFL; his dad, Steve, is a successful high school coach in Oklahoma and his older brother Zac is coaching in college.
Spavital linked up with Holgorsen in 2009 on the Houston staff. Zac, the safeties coach at UH, gushed about Holgorsen, then-the Cougars' new offensive mastermind. So Jake left his graduate assistant gig at Tulsa, where he was working for another touted coaching whiz, Gus Malzahn, to be a GA under Holgorsen.
When Holgorsen moved on to OSU in 2010, he brought the former Missouri State quarterback with him, same as Holgorsen did last year when he was hired by WVU. While Spavital may not have finished his master's because of all of the lost credit hours that wouldn't transfer, he has earned a Ph.D. in Cutting Edge Offensive Football from Holgorsen. The 40-year-old coach trusted Spavital enough to allow him to run the quarterback meetings on several occasions at OSU, where the GA was actually younger than the Cowboys' starter, Brandon Weeden.
Given the recent history of the Air-Raid guys (the offensive system that Hal Mumme and Leach spawned two decades ago), it's not hard to imagine Spavital as an offensive coordinator at a major college program within three or four years. He spent much of the morning reviewing the film from WVU's 37-31 win at Maryland, when Smith connected on 36 of 49 passes for 388 yards. He also took one brutal shot where he was sandwiched by two defenders and withstood a violent helmet-to-helmet blast.
"How you feeling about the game?" is the first thing Spavital asks to start the meeting.
"I feel like I've been in a car accident," Smith says.
"That scared the [stuff] out of me," the coach says as clicks on the Maryland film. Spavital goes through play after play, highlighting the things he liked and didn't like from his QB. Much is acute details about successfully handling the position that wouldn't get detected by the untrained eye, such as adjusting the protection on the fly to fan out a blocker to account for a free outside linebacker coming on a blitz.
The focus is on cleaning up mistakes, which they know they can't afford with No. 2 LSU coming to Morgantown. "You're doing a lot better getting them lined up faster than ever," Spavital says.
The bad: He missed a few opportunities on red-zone throws into the end zone. Spavital rewinds one play, where Smith almost drills a referee with an errant throw, three times. "We gotta get better at throwing buckets," he tells the QBs. "We're going to throw a lot of those today."
The meeting ends with the QBs asking the coach what he knows about the conference realignment rumors that have been swirling. Is the Big East going to collapse? Are the Mountaineers heading to the SEC? Spavital says he has no answers. In truth, the LSU defense is easier to figure out.
Sunday, T-minus 147 hours and 45 minutes: The Sunday evening practice is short. It's mostly special teams stuff and lasts under an hour. The team has dinner by 7:30. The staff is waist deep in LSU film. Most of the WVU coaches will go home soon after the team meal. Meanwhile, Holgorsen settles into what staffers affectionately call "The Lounge" to resume studying the Tigers. The 10-by-20 room next to the head coach's office, which used to be where former WVU coach Bill Stewart would smoke his cigars, has been remodeled and now has two theater-style seats, a few bar stools, an antique metal Coke cart, a Red Bull cooler and a 50-inch flat screen with an Xbox. Holgorsen likes the feel of the room for whenever he wants to have a one-on-one with a player. It's also an ideal spot for the coach and Spavital to get another look at a ferocious defense.
The scouting tape, broken down by situations, isn't supposed to seem like "a highlight tape," but in LSU's case, it does. On one clip, backup defensive end Barkevious Mingo roars down the line of scrimmage to level an Oregon running back. Holgorsen rewinds the clip twice to double check where Mingo began the play from and exactly how he was able to get to the ball carrier so fast. "This is why you run the outside zone," he says, "because that guy right there [the defensive end] is not supposed to be able to do that. And that's friggin' LaMichael James too."
A few clips later, there is video of linebacker Ryan Baker bursting through the line on a blitz. Baker doesn't so much as sack the quarterback as explode into him. There is no wrapping up. Just a vicious collision.
Holgorsen doesn't go three plays without noting a mauling going on at the bottom or top of the screen by one of the Tigers cornerbacks jolting an overwhelmed receiver feebly trying to get away from the line.
As dominating as LSU looks on paper -- the Tigers held an explosive Oregon attack to no play longer than 18 yards on 82 snaps and limited No. 25 Mississippi State to six points and nothing longer than 23 yards -- it's the way they look doing it that can give a coach sleepless nights. Play after play, it is one Tiger after another doing something spectacular. There are defensive linemen chasing down scatbacks and safeties obliterating receivers.
After an hour of marveling at his upcoming opponent, searching for weaknesses, Holgorsen announces, "They aren't gettin' any slower. They play so fast, you keep seeing LSU guys taking each other out.
"Watch this," Holgorsen continues as an offensive lineman attempts to cut-block a Tiger defensive lineman, only to see the guy pop back up. "When you cut 'em, they don't go down. They land on their feet."
The star or, more apt, biggest star of the LSU defense is "No. 7." To fans, No. 7 is sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, a 5-foot-8, 183-pound whirlwind. To the WVU coaches, Mathieu is known only by his jersey number, just like the rest of the Tigers. No. 7, listed in the media guide as a cornerback, but in the WVU scouting report as a SAM linebacker, literally playing all over the field and playing faster than anyone out there. From the Cotton Bowl game, there are clips of Mathieu, then wearing No. 14, blowing past a helpless 300-pound Texas A&M offensive tackle to clobber the quarterback and force a fumble. No doubt, No. 7 is a big, big problem.
Holgorsen also watches tape of the Mountaineers game at LSU last season, when WVU gave the Tigers fits, losing 20-14. One of the things he notices is then-freshman wideout Ivan McCartney beating Tigers standout Patrick Peterson, now in the NFL, on a double move. "Well, I feel a little better," he says before clicking off the tape. It's 10:16 p.m. Time to go home. Even though his players are off on Mondays, Holgorsen knows it's going to be a long day.
Monday, T-minus 139 hours and 32 minutes: Spavital and Shannon Dawson, the wide receivers coach, sit with their feet up on the table in the offensive staff room studying tape while Holgorsen is on some conference calls. They're spotting tendencies of how LSU plays their secondary, which may make them susceptible if the Mountaineer receivers can get some inside releases off the line in certain looks. "We can get some fade-stops on them," says Dawson, a 32-year-old who came to WVU after orchestrating some record-setting attacks at FCS Stephen F. Austin that he patterned after the Air Raid system.
Dawson has been close to Holgorsen since playing wide receiver for him when the WVU coach was an assistant at the tiny North Carolina school. Dawson grew up in Baton Rouge, but was no LSU fan. Instead he rooted for Notre Dame. No. 7's high school coach actually worked with Dawson in college. "He used to give us a list of players, but I know he [Mathieu] was never on it," Dawson says.
The coaches have probably now watched all of the LSU tape, perhaps in different sequences because of all the situational breakdowns, four or five times. And it's only Monday morning. Still, it seems like the exploits of little No. 7 never become routine. On one play where No. 7 lines up on the left side and vaults into the air to disrupt a pass, Dawson rewinds the clip for 90 seconds, back-and-forth.
"He's like a little Polamalu," Dawson says.
The two assistants continue to throw out options while shaking their heads in awe. By now, they know what Holgorsen wants, how he thinks. "We have to pick our spots with these double-moves" ... "I think you can 'jerk' 'em," referring to move where the receiver makes a juke maneuver midway through a short crossing route that would counter an over-aggressive defender. ... "I love putting that back out in the flat. I think sometimes that linebacker gets lost." ... "Their 'backers jump the (stuff) out of shallows." ... "Bet we see this, that's why I think we can throw '93'" ... "If we can't throw it downfield, it's gonna be a long day."
"But, adds Dawson, "if we can just put some doubt in their minds, we might have a chance."
After lunch and a quick workout in the weight room, the offensive staff meets at 3:45. Holgorsen has his feedback from his assistants and decided what he thinks their first play of the game will be: Bullet Snake. Well, it'll be that unless the Mountaineers begin on their left hash. Because of specific rules of the Air-Raid offense, receivers are wired to do certain things on a given play, and because it can be hard to mirror, coaches try to eliminate the thought process on a play as much as possible so some things work from one side of the field but not the other.
But if things go as WVU expects they will, the Mountaineers will capitalize on the Tigers' aggressiveness and hit a big play right out of the gate from speedster Tavon Austin, their most dangerous weapon.
This meeting is heavy on deliberation. Not just about which plays could work best against LSU's tendencies, but also how the Mountaineers can tweak some of their own tendencies, say by moving a running back to the other side of the quarterback. O-line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, a college teammate of Holgorsen's at Iowa Wesleyan, lists the running plays he prefers. Holgorsen surveys his options and tells Spavital what to jot down where on the grease board, which is divided by types of plays and situation. By 5:45 p.m., they have 52 plays on the board. That number will be reduced and inflated throughout the next two days as Holgorsen sifts for his ideal balance.
Tuesday, T-minus 99 hours and one minute: On Tuesdays, the Mountaineers practice in full pads. It's often a sloppy one. Today is no different. Players get misaligned. Receivers botch the signals. Coaches are fidgety and short-tempered. A reserve O-lineman is chewed out before being sent to the bench. Smith is deliberate. He is over-thinking things too much, not reacting, he later explains.
Tuesday, T-minus 95 hours and 35 minutes: The offensive staff has watched film of the day's practice and is back tweaking the play options on the board. The number of plays will go down to 31 and back into the mid 40s. Mimicking the speed of LSU at practice is impossible. For instance, as athletic as the guy WVU has tabbed to represent No. 7 on scout team is (JC transfer Will Marable), he simply isn't flying down into the flat as aggressively as Tyrann Mathieu is expected to do. Meaning the vacated space isn't quite there like the coaches think, hope, it will be.
"I'm just hoping we can even get to the red zone," Holgorsen says.
Dawson: "I like the way you're thinking. Positive. Nice."
Holgorsen: "[Screw] you. It's only Tuesday."
For many college football staffs, Tuesday is the worst day of the week. "Everybody's negative, it's your only day in full pads, you're unfamiliar with the script. It's a work day," says Spavital, who will be in the office until 11:30 p.m. tweaking the Wednesday practice script of the plays they want to rep and see against certain defenses. "You have so many plays, you don't wanna try and rep 75 plays. When I start going cross-eyed from staring at it, I leave."
In the past five years the two most celebrated offensive coordinators in the college game have been Holgorsen and Gus Malzahn. Spavital has worked for both. Malzahn would go into a game with three times as many plays as Holgorsen wants.
"Dana's very independent," Spavital says. "He lets guys get their stuff done. That's different than at a lot of places in America. He's a big believer in the longer you sit here and stare at stuff, you're gonna screw it up."
Wednesday, T-minus 79 hours and 27 minutes: Saturday night in Morgantown is the place to be. Not only will powerhouse LSU be in town, but so will ESPN's College GameDay. The spectacle is something WVU knows it can exploit. Lord knows just about every recruit on the big board in the staff room would love to experience the scene. Alex Hammond is a former NCAA investigator who now oversees the Mountaineers recruiting. Holgorsen tells Hammond he doesn't want to schedule any official recruiting visits for the weekend. The team has enough distractions already.
"It makes the most sense with all that is going on," Hammond says. "We can spend more time with them later." Still, it's a juggling act for Hammond with all of the recruits looking to come in for the game on unofficial visits. The school is allowed to give out 155 tickets, with 10 of those allotted to the basketball program. Of the remaining 145, WVU budgets three for each prospect (the other two would go to the parents). The other delicate matter is answering questions about all of the conference realignment speculation.
"The difficulty is it's such a fluid situation," Hammond says. "Contractually, we're talking about stuff as far out as the 2014 season, but the message for them to tell the recruits, 'West Virginia is going to continue to be a national football player regardless of what happens with realignment.'"
Thursday, T-minus 57 hours and 51 minutes: Smith, decked out in a Miami Heat sweatshirt, walks into the offensive staff room.
Film today, Geno?
"Film every day," the South Florida native says, plopping down on a chair in front of the computer rather than sitting back and watching the same footage on the projection screen.
Smith flips through clips from Wednesday's practice in about 10 minutes before turning on the LSU tape of the Tigers' third-and-long defense. Smith watches some plays from the Oregon game and sees open receivers but Ducks QB Darron Thomas, chased from the pocket, keeps misfiring. "We have to stay out of third-and-longs," he says. "Have to."
Smith explains that he's looking to see how certain players react to certain things, like the initial flow of the Tigers defense to fast motion across the formation to see who reacts and who doesn't. (On this particular clip he keeps rewinding, no one commits.)
"The best thing about us is we can sight-adjust," he says. "We'll just take whatever they give us and stay on schedule."
Friday, T-minus 28 hours and 42 minutes: The football office is quiet. Most of the coaches already have family that has arrived in town for the big game. Dozens of RVs are parked down the street from the stadium. Morgantown is buzzing. Holgorsen's message to his team is similar to what he told them at the beginning: "They're fast. You're fast. They're going to be physical. I know you're going to be physical too. There is no question in my mind. You have to play smarter than them."
Saturday, T-minus 0 hours and 48 minutes: Hip-hop music blares from the speakers at Milan Puskar Stadium. WVU is a Big East team, but the place feels like an SEC environment. Both teams are on the field in warmups. Geno Smith, head nodding to the drumbeat, is dancing. "Geno is definitely ready," says Spavital observing his quarterback. On the far end of the stadium, the Tigers are jumping on top of each other and appear to be too.
|The aggressive Tigers defense forces Geno Smith into making throws too quickly. (US Presswire)|
Turns out, moving the ball wasn't the problem for the Mountaineers. Holding onto it was. They outgained LSU 533-366. But they committed four turnovers. LSU didn't commit any. The game plan worked pretty well. The double moves didn't work, but some of their man-beaters such as the jerk route did. (Although early in the second quarter, Smith, working out of his end zone, rushed to go outside for an 11-yard gain when he missed Austin, who was wide open on a jerk route for what could've been a 96-yard touchdown play.)
WVU had a lot of success tempo-ing the Tigers too, including a fourth-down conversion early in the game. Smith went to the fade-stops early but was a little too quick on his throws. Holgorsen called Bullet Snake, which was slated to be the first offensive play, on the second series. The Mountaineers got the reaction they wanted, but Smith overthrew his receiver. As the game wore on, it appeared that the Mountaineers running all of those man routes with the Tiger DBs chasing took its toll on LSU. Austin, who finished with 11 receptions for 187 yards, burned the defense for a 72-yard gain late in the third quarter. Unfortunately, for WVU, LSU is too solid on offense and too efficient in special teams. The Mountaineers lose 47-21.
"We did some good things offensively and defensively," Holgorsen said, "but you can't beat a good team by doing that. You can talk about 500 yards if you want to, but the only thing I'm going to talk about tomorrow is four turnovers."
Ninety minutes later, the WVU football office is almost empty. A few staffers who were watching a Pac-12 game with family while waiting for stadium traffic to thin out, leave. Cashdollar, who retreated back to his work space, has a busy night ahead of him. He's got to break down the LSU game film and get to next week's opponent, Bowling Green. Geno Smith walks by and heads back to the offensive staff room. It's 1:30 a.m. ET. More film?
"Yep," he says. "Have to."