By Cam Huffman
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato could take the field in a single-back offensive attack. West Virginia freshman wide receiver Jordan Thompson might freeze up when he sees 60,000-plus fans in the stands for the first time, or Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith could be trampled by a member of The Pride of West Virginia, who excitedly exits the tunnel too soon during the pregame festivities.
None of these scenarios are likely, but it’s that uncertainty that always makes the season opener so stressful for coaches.
It’s why WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen mentioned the possibility, during Monday’s Big 12 Conference call, of Marshall coming out with a new offensive attack and then had to explain his comments during his weekly press conference Tuesday.
“Who knows what we’re going to do offensively, right?” asked Holgorsen, turning the tables. “Nobody knows for sure. We may throw something else out there that they haven’t seen before.
“Defensively, it’s widely known that we’re running the 3-4 defense, but what does that mean? There may be some things we do defensively that they haven’t prepared for. I’m sure their defensive coaches have been studying football across the country for the last six or seven months and have come up with some different things that they’re going to do against us.”
But for two coaches, Holgorsen and Marshall’s Doc Holliday, who have seen multiple leagues and different parts of the country during their careers, there are only so many surprises left in the bag.
“You can only put 11 guys out there, so there are only so many things you can do,” said Holgorsen. “Five of them are going to be linemen, one of them is going to be a quarterback, a couple of them are going to be receivers and a couple of them are going to be running backs. There are only so many different things you can do.
“I don’t think anybody is reinventing the game. The biggest thing is in-game adjustments after finishing out what the plan is going to be and figuring out what they’re doing on all three sides of the ball.”
Even after weeks and months of preparation, Holgorsen explained that most of the chess game actually occurs after the opening kickoff.
“Nobody knows going into the first game,” said the Mountaineers’ second-year coach, who picked up his first collegiate victory last year against Marshall. “You can assume all you want to, but the bigger thing for game one is in-game adjustments, which I’m confident our coaches are going to be very aware of and alert to what is going on on the field.”
More than the opponent, Holgorsen is worried about his own players. He’s seen what they can do in practice — and many of them during games — but with a number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen on WVU’s depth chart, Holgorsen’s not exactly sure how some of his guys will perform in front of a packed house.
“Any time you get in a game-type situation, there is always some concern,” he said. “Typically, how you practice is how you’re going to play. You may have wide eyes in the first game, you may not. Who knows what is going on through 18-year-old kids’ heads?
“You have to keep that in the back of your head. You need to be aware of how they are; you got to look at their eyes on the sidelines if they come off. If they’re wide-eyed and looking up in the stands, you have to slap them around a little bit, get their attention and get them focused on what really counts.”
These questions, though, can only be answered on the field. There’s only so much the coaches can do in practice to simulate a game environment. There’s nothing like the real thing, and Holgorsen can’t wait for Saturday to finally arrive.
“I would have been ready a week ago,” he said. “We’ve been focusing on this team, which is our team, for a long time. We have gotten to the point where we know how to line up and what we’re going to do. We could’ve probably done it last week and been just fine. I feel good about where we’re at as a team and who we have plugged in there in the schemes that we have.
“I’m excited about game week.”
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