West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has gone from the hot seat to leading West Virginia to a sizzling start to the season.
No. 12 West Virginia (5-0, 2-0 Big 12) is a surprising early contender in the conference after being tapped in the preseason to finish seventh.
“I’m excited where we’re at,” Holgorsen said. “But it’s just five games. We’ve got seven more important ones coming up.”
Faced with plenty of questions about his own job security entering 2016, Holgorsen has put together strong performances — and had some good luck along the way.
Kansas State missed a late field goal in a tight game earlier this month, and BYU nearly rallied from 16 points down in the fourth quarter but turned the ball over on its final drive near West Virginia’s end zone.
A confidence boost came with West Virginia’s 48-17 dismantling of high-scoring Texas Tech on the road last Saturday. The celebration was limited to the two-plus hour plane ride home before preparations started for Saturday’s home game with TCU (4-2, 2-1).
“You get over it real quick,” Holgorsen said. “It’s pretty much you settle in and get back to work. This is our hardest game yet.”
To be determined: Whether his players heed his word about staying focused.
It didn’t work in 2012, when West Virginia started 5-0 and rose to No. 5 before its first full Big 12 season took a toll. West Virginia lost the next five games.
“I don’t think anybody truly knows that answer until we go through it. And you all are thinking 2012. I know you all are,” Holgorsen said. “This is a totally different team.
“I think this team is a good group of kids that like each other and like playing the game. And they didn’t listen when everybody was saying we sucked, and they’re not going to listen when everybody is saying we’re good. It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
Win or lose, his players say Holgorsen has remained consistent with his perfectionist approach.
“He’s always going to be fired up,” linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton said. “He’s always going to be one of those guys that will get in your face if you aren’t doing exactly what you need to do. From the first game to the last game, he won’t let up. He just wants to see you getting better and better each week.”
Holgorsen’s schemes certainly have changed.
Holgorsen comes from the Air Raid coaching tree that included Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan and later under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. But rather than relying on a passing attack, Holgorsen understood the need to evolve his running game, too.
Wendell Smallwood was the Big 12 rushing champion a year ago. West Virginia now runs the ball 54 percent of the time. Quarterback Skyler Howard has shown he’s dangerous with both his arm and his feet.
On defense, Holgorsen has made it a greater priority to recruit junior college players and other transfers who can step right away. Despite having nine new starters this season, most of them are seniors.
Holgorsen went 10-3 and won the Orange Bowl in his first season in 2011, then signed a six-year contract extension — his last one — in August 2012. But Holgorsen went 26-25 the next four seasons.
Athletic director Shane Lyons told Holgorsen last December he could keep his job. Lyons later said no further contract discussions would be held until after the 2016 season.
Lyons reiterated that point again this week. He did say the Texas Tech win accelerated the team’s momentum.
“That’s what you want, you want to build your confidence,” Lyons said. “That’s what Dana and his staff have done.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson said he’s noticed the Mountaineers have “got a lot of energy and they’ve got a lot of positive on their side right now.
“It’s been fun watching them. Dana has done a great job. The kids are playing hard,” Patterson said. “You’ve got to be able to go match that.”