4th-&-short gamble followed stirring sideline debate

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen nearly settled for the game-tying field goal Saturday before fired-up linemen convinced him to gamble on a fourth-and-1 that led to the go-ahead touchdown.

 

COMMENTARY

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Nine months after enticing Jake Spavital to rejoin West Virginia’s staff by handing over the play-calling duties, Dana Holgorsen was once again in a capitulating mood Saturday.

The head coach saw fourth-and-1 at the Texas Tech 18. Saw his team trailing by three points with 9 minutes left. Saw the conventional wisdom behind telling his field-goal unit to go tie it up.

Holgorsen also saw his offensive linemen seething and Spavital squarely in their corner.

“They were pissed when he sent the field goal team out,” said Spavital, who characterized the ensuing timeout as “a group effort to make him flip his mind.”

By now you know the rest of the story: Group-think won out. West Virginia converted the fourth-down sneak. And the Mountaineers struck for the go-ahead touchdown one play later. Not only a significant development in a 46-35 comeback victory, but significant for whatever achievements the second half of the season may bring.

West Virginia, thanks to surviving its own homecoming horror story, remains in the thick of the Big 12 race, part of a five-team cluster tied for second place. For as long as the No. 2 spot remains attainable, the Mountaineers can cling to hope the way Texas Tech cornerbacks clung to David Sills’ jersey.

Apologies for my allusion to WVU’s passing attack, when this column is obsessing over one of the rare run-play successes from Saturday. Back now to Holgorsen’s short-yardage deliberation with his team trailing 35-32:

The scenario arose after Gary Jennings capped his third-and-11 catch by lunging close to the first-down marker. As the field-goal squad set up, Holgorsen called timeout hoping the replay booth would improve the spot. The spot didn’t change — only Holgorsen’s mind did.

“Thank God for that timeout,” Spavital said. “That was the turning point for the offense.”

Quarterback Will Grier sensed that “the whole offense was yelling at Dana to go for it,” and right tackle Colton McKivitz offered, “I was the loudest.” It wasn’t so much a mutiny as an appeal to salvage their self-respect. The run game had been stonewalled to that point — embarrassingly so, with 12 measly yards on 22 carries — and the line needed to atone.

Slink away from a fourth-and-short in the red zone against Texas Tech? Might as well go sign up for flag football intramurals.

“I understand where Dana’s thinking was, and the field goal was probably the wisest thing to do,” Spavital admitted. “But the energy in that huddle and the way the offensive line was acting toward Dana, it was kind of like he had no choice but to go for it.”

Intense moments such as this are what compel Spavital to signal plays from the sideline instead of the birds-eye booth upstairs. He prefers seeing the faces more than the field. Proximity to Holgorsen also earned him persuasion points at a pivotal juncture when the boss leaned toward playing it safe.

Beyond the testosterone tornado swirling around him, Holgorsen recognized a rational argument for keeping his offense out there. For one thing, Mike Molina’s kicking leg is a mercurial limb these days. Squaring a 43-yarder in the first quarter was encouraging, but let’s not ignore that he hasn’t made consecutive field goals in the same game since Week 6 of last year.

Then there was the opposing offense to consider. Would tying the game at 35-all feel sufficient with Texas Tech headed toward 500-plus yards?

Holgorsen, it turns out, was hoping to be convinced.

“I was​ ​more​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​taking​ ​the​ ​lead​ ​than​ ​tying​ ​the​ ​game, because I​ ​didn’t​ ​think​ ​the​ ​scoring​ ​was​ ​over,​“ he said. “Then​ ​all​ ​five​ ​of​ ​our​ ​offensive​ ​linemen​ ​yelled​ ​at​ ​me​ ​and​ ​talked​ ​me​ ​into​ ​going​ ​for​ ​it.​ ​​​​​​​​So I​ ​said,​ ​‘OK,​ ​it’s​ ​on​ ​your​ ​shoulders.’​ ​And we​ ​got about​ ​an​ ​inch​ ​more​ ​than​ ​we​ ​needed.”

Grier’s sneak, while hardly a scene of scrimmage domination, proved effective at least. (“It was closer than I’d like, but I wiggled through there and got a yard.”) And when West Virginia needed to nurse the lead on its subsequent series, the line helped Kennedy McKoy surge for two first downs before Grier fired an insurance score to touchdown magnet Sills.

From 18 points down in the third quarter to 11 points ahead at the final horn, the Mountaineers’ late flurry overcame a multitude of sins. Among them, finishing with only 44 rushing yards, which Holgorsen labeled “unacceptable.”

Still, you sensed he was willing to accept Saturday’s bottom-line result, because his hard-lobbying players picked up the one yard that mattered most.





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