MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Amid the preseason dog days of August, back when the presumption existed that West Virginia would retain its Air Raid ways, Shannon Dawson was half-reminiscing, half-bragging about a statistically ludicrous 2008 game he coached at Stephen F. Austin.
“We threw it 85 times that day,” he said. “Still a record, by the way. You can look it up.”
Mike Leach and Washington State reclaimed the Division I single-game mark with an 89-pass effort at Oregon on Oct. 19. At least Dawson can reflect on his offense still owning the FCS record, but truth is, he’s not that into it anymore.
The pass-first reputation of Dawson and Dana Holgorsen has shifted toward a centrist position this season, their hands partly forced by unstable quarterback play and receivers stuck in developmental mode. For sure, the arrival of running back Charles Sims was a factor, but not to be underestimated was the coaches’ own willingness to acclimate and adapt.
“In the past, a lot of the reason why I threw the ball so much was probably an ego thing,” Dawson admitted Tuesday night. After all, here was an ex-college quarterback/receiver who joined minds with Holgorsen in trying to trump the conventional field-position approach to offensive football. As disciples of the Leach concepts, high-functioning pass attacks became their coaching brand.
When the brand required revision, they weren’t too stubborn to recognize it.
Caught in a roster turnover after last year’s offensive nucleus departed, WVU has shuffled schemes and personnel in hopes of identifying areas of reliability for the 2013 offense. That has meant “less of an infatuation with leading the nation in passing,” Dawson said, and more a weekly adaptation of “just doing what it takes to win the game.”
While the play-calling shift hasn’t experienced a dramatic reversal, the running game has gained traction. Through eight games in 2012, West Virginia was throwing on 58 percent of snaps (362 of 624). This year that’s down to 52 percent (348 of 660).
And whereas last year’s passing attack averaged 330 yards per game on the arm of future-Jet Geno Smith, this fall’s version is putting up only 250 per game.
As defenses grow increasingly familiar with the proliferation of spread offenses, it’s time for offenses to make a cyclical counter.
“With everybody doing similar things, then the defenses are going against (the spread) more,” said Dawson. He noted that when Holgorsen was working under Leach at Texas Tech, Big 12 defenses faced that type of offense maybe once a year.
“Now they’re going against it six or seven weeks in a row … and people are covering pretty good.”
Last week’s 30-27 overtime win at TCU presented a prime example of a talented secondary clamping down on the vertical game. With the safeties content to sit deep, WVU turned to Sims, who became the first back to eclipse the 150-yard mark in Gary Patterson’s head-coaching tenure.
“We had to find a way to run the football,” Dawson said. “When you have teams that smother (pass routes) like that, then what are you going to do—sit there and throw it 65 times?”
Not 65, and certainly not 85 … no matter how fond the memories are from 2008.
“By the way, we got beat that day,” Dawson said, “so there you go.”