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Deep Dive into the West Virginia Offense

We take a deep dive into the Mountaineer offense as the Cowboys get set to head to Morgantown this Saturday.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma State travels to Morgantown this weekend to take on former Cowboy offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia Mountaineers. The Mountaineers come into the game sporting a record of 5 – 2, and that’s mostly attributable to their offense. With a rushing defense that’s ranked 99th (yards allowed per game) and a passing defense that’s ranked 105th (yards allowed per game), West Virginia has had to score 38+ points to win games this season.

So, just how have the Mountaineers put these big numbers up on the scoreboard? Well, let’s take a look in this offensive breakdown.


Coach Holgorsen is a Hal Mumme/Mike Leach protégé, which means that his offense is based around the “Air Raid” principles. However, Holgorsen has his own style of this offensive philosophy. The typical Air Raid system is fast paced and emphasizes a significant amount short passes out of a spread set. There are normally 4 or more split wide, with the quarterback setup in the shotgun. The quarterback will read the defense at the line of scrimmage and has the ability to call an audible based on this read. What Holgorsen does that is different from the Mumme Air Raid of old, is he has incorporated much more of the running game into this system. He uses the up tempo passing game to setup the zone and power rushing attack. This keeps the defense guessing, and makes their assignments much more difficult. He’s taken the Air Raid scheme and made it into a powerful balanced attack that his Mountaineer offense has been running extremely efficiently during his tenure as head coach.

Holgorsen is also a huge advocate of the Run/Pass options (or RPOs). He was ahead of the curve in this regard, as almost every team in college football incorporates these plays in their offensive playbook nowadays.

It’s also important to note that Holgorsen has relinquished his play calling duties as of the season to new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. And, from what we’ve seen so far, they haven’t missed a beat as Coach Spavital has this offense humming.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, I’ll take a deeper dive into West Virginia’s passing attack.

Passing Game

Before we breakdown what they like to do through the air, let’s take a look at how West Virginia’s passing game has fared against FBS opponents this season. Listed below I show their opponents current rank in passing defense based on yards per game (ypg) and how many yards passing West Virginia had against that particular opponent this season.

  • Virginia Tech – 26th, 186.9 ypg,

o WVU – 371 yards

  • East Carolina – 128th, 326.8 ypg

o WVU – 403 yards

  • Kansas – 123rd, 289.1 ypg

o WVU – 347 yards

  • TCU – 56th, 210.6 ypg

o WVU – 366 yards

  • Texas Tech – 126th, 291.3 ypg

o WVU – 352 yards

  • Baylor – 125th, 290.6 ypg

o WVU – 375 yards

As you can see from the numbers above, WVU has played some, we’ll just say “borderline terrible” passing defenses this season (I mean… it is the Big 12). However, against every team they’ve faced, they’ve thrown for over that team’s yards allowed per game, which is extremely impressive.

Their passing attack all starts with quarterback Will Grier. The 6’2, 215lb signal caller was formerly at Florida, but was dismissed from the team for doing his best Jon “Bones” Jones impersonation. But, Grier has been given a second chance, and he’s made the most of it. He currently leads the nation in touchdown passes with 26 and is 7th in total passing yards (Mason’s first, just FYI).

It also doesn’t hurt to have a quarterback guru like Spavital on your sideline. He’s coached his fair share of talented qb’s.

Spavital says Grier reminds him most of former Cowboy Brandon Weeden.

Grier will be the best passing quarterback the Cowboy defense has faced all season, and he will try to expose them in a variety of ways.

Short Passes

West Virginia will run RPOs featuring short route concepts, that act almost like running plays in themselves. They have a corps of dynamic receivers led by David Sills, Gary Jennings, Ka’Raun White and Marcus Simms, that are extremely dangerous when they get in the open field, and these short routes are designed to give them that opportunity.

A perfect example is shown below. The Mountaineers lineup with two receivers split wide to the bottom of the screen and White (brother of Chicago Bears receiver Kevin White) split to the top of the screen by himself. The line and fullback block for the run play, as Grier fakes, pulls the ball back and fires out to White. With White’s explosiveness, he’s able to gain close to 5-yards before a defender brings him down.

As you can see from the video, WVU ran this play on first down, and it worked just like a successful run play would, leaving them with second and 5.

Here we see a similar play out of a slightly different formation. This time, instead of a fullback, the mountaineers have two receivers split wide to each side. Grier again fakes to the running back, and quickly throws the screen pass to Simms. The 6’0, 195lb Simms gets a great block from fellow wide-out David Sills and then is able to make one guy miss on his way to a first down.

Along with the screen pass, Grier loves to throw the quick slant. And who better to throw it to than the nation’s leader in touchdown receptions, former quarterback, David Sills. Now, Sills is no James Washington on the slant, but he runs it pretty well. Here he’s able to get inside the defender and Grier puts in right on the money to move the chains on second and short.

They ran this play out of the trips formation, with three receivers to the bottom of the screen. WVU shows trips quite a bit throughout the course of a game and will run a variety of different plays out of this set.

Below you see WVU use the slant in the red zone, as Sills makes the grab for six.

And speaking of trips, here you see the formation again with White as the lone receiver to the bottom of the screen. Grier again fakes the handoff, and fires it to #12 Gary Jennings on the hitch route. I noticed they ran this route concept a few times against several different teams. The two inside receivers will run the hitch and the outside receiver will turn in back to the quarterback on the snap like a receiver screen.

The last play I’ll show out of the trips formation is the 5-yard in route to Simms. Simms, who is lined up on the outside to the bottom of the screen, and the inside receiver run a similar route and the middle receiver goes deep. Grier makes another great throw and West Virginia picks up the first down.

Once the defense starts giving too much attention to these receivers, Spavital will dial up the pass to the running back Justin Crawford. You see this in the video below as all of the receivers are moving one way, and Crawford flares out the other way for a big gain.

Intermediate Passing Game

Grier has also done a lot of damage in the middle of the field. Below you see a similar formation to the first video I showed above. White is the lone wideout to the top of the screen. The Kansas safety on White’s side creeps up, and just as he does, White cuts behind him on the post route. Grier makes a great throw before the corner can get there and it goes for a big gain.

Here we see this formation again, but this time it’s Simms split out to the top of the screen by himself. As he makes the break on the 10-yard in route, Grier puts it right on the money.

When the Mountaineers get in the red zone, they look to the 6’4 Sills, as I’ve already shown above. On this particular play, Sills and the inside receiver on the top of the screen cross routes right off the line of scrimmage. The corner sticks with the inside receiver, and as Grier sees the Baylor safety drop into his zone coverage, he drops a dime to Sills over the middle for a touchdown.

It’s not just the middle of the field in the intermediate passing game. Grier really likes to throw curls and comebacks on the outside.

Here’s an example of him hitting Simms against Tech.

And if they aren’t going to Sills when they get close to the goal line, they look for White on the fade. Here they go trips to the far side, and again leave White split out by himself.

Deep Ball

When you’ve got a guy like Sills, sometimes you just have to drop back and throw it deep. In this one, Grier takes the snap and rolls right to throw to, what looks like, a bubble screen on the bottom part of the screen. But then he stops, plants and throws it deep over the middle to Sills for the touchdown.

On this one we see the receivers in a “double stack” formation to each side. Grier goes with a three step drop and launches the ball to Sills. Sills makes an amazing catch, for another Mountaineer touchdown.

Now that we’ve covered “most” of what West Virginia likes to do through the air, go back and re-watch these videos. Notice anything? Grier makes some absolutely beautiful throws. If you give this guy time, he will shred you apart. Oklahoma State’s secondary has looked great the past two weeks against Baylor and Texas, but West Virginia’s passing attack is a different animal.

Running Game

So, they can’t have a good running game too, right? WRONG! The Mountaineers average 175.4 yards per game on the ground and have a committee of talented athletes in the backfield that the Oklahoma State defense will have to account for.

West Virginia uses zone and power blocking formations for the most part in their rushing attack, and a lot of the plays and formations look very similar to what you’ve seen in the passing videos above… hence the term “RPO”.

Now, they haven’t been great on the ground these past two weeks, but they’ve had some solid outings this season. Their running back corps is led by senior Justin Crawford, who went for over a thousand yards last season. Crawford hasn’t looked himself as of late, but he’s an explosive runner who also can catch passes out of the backfield (as you saw above). After him, WVU trots out Kennedy McKoy, 5’8 Martell Pettaway and 5’5 freshman Tevin Bush, who are all capable of breaking one for six.

In this first video, you see a similar formation to what we saw in the videos above, but this time Grier decides to hand off to the running back, and he looks smart as it goes for a huge gain.

This is the exact same play, (shown above) out of the same formation, but Grier decides to pull the handoff back and pass here.

… RPO …

Holgorsen and Spavital feel comfortable going to pretty much any of these guys in the red zone. Here you see Crawford on the power.

And here it’s McKoy following his fullback.

As I mentioned, all of these guys are explosive… especially Crawford. On this big gain against TCU his linemen do an excellent job of getting to the second level of the defense, and then Crawford does the rest.

And, although they don’t have as many designed runs in the RPOs with Grier as they’ve had with their quarterbacks the past couple of seasons, he’s a capable runner himself.

This one wasn’t designed, but if nobody’s open, he isn’t afraid to take off with it.

All in all, their passing attack has been the key to their success this season, but running the ball has worked for them as well. Their line was shaky against Texas Tech, giving up 4 sacks and they only rushed for 44 yards on 29 attempts, but for the season, they’ve been decent. It also helps that Grier can keep plays alive with his mobility.

The Mountaineers offense will be the toughest test for Oklahoma State thus far. We’ve seen good things from the defense at times this year, and if the Cowboys want to leave Morgantown with a victory, they will have to play lights out on that side of the ball.