By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
October 11, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Last year, the best way to stop West Virginia's offense was to keep the Mountaineers just short of the sticks. Time and again WVU couldn't get those tough yards between the tackles that it needed to move the chains or score touchdowns.
The most telling game was a 19-15 loss at Pitt when West Virginia continuously failed to punch the football into the end zone when it reached the red zone.
Three of West Virginia's four losses in 2008 - Colorado, Cincinnati and Pitt - were caused by the offense's inability to get tough yardage. So Coach Bill Stewart set out to change that last spring.
He told fullback Ryan Clarke to get into better shape. He went down to Virginia and recruited Shawne Alston. And he had tough, physical practices in the spring working on those short yardage situations that kept the Mountaineers from making a third consecutive BCS bowl appearance.
"We lined up in fourth and inches, fourth and a foot, fourth and a yard, third and inches, third and a foot, and I did that all spring in full pads," Stewart said Sunday. "One day we ran 44-46 isos, powers and sweeps - just pound, pound, pound clear across the board. I wanted to see who was tough.
"One day I put 12-13 guys on defense from the scout team. We're coming right here - I don't care," Stewart said. "You just have to get an attitude. Maybe that's crazy. Maybe that's too demanding or whatever, but that's what I did."
The guy taking the brunt of the punishment was Clarke, today a much-slimmer-and-much-more-effective 230 pounds. There were times when Clarke was asked to run five or six straight plays up the middle into the teeth of the defense - Stewart, demanding, encouraging and sometimes cajoling Clarke to keep on going.
"We are going to need you to do this in the fall for us big fella!" Stewart yelled over and over.
Well, all of that the hard work last spring is beginning to pay off. Clarke scored two red zone touchdowns against Syracuse yesterday, and five of his 19 carries so far this year have gone for scores.
And Clarke isn't the only back running harder between the tackles. Noel Devine is figuring out how to twist, turn and contort his 176-pound body near the goal line to get into the end zone as well.
Devine already has seven rushing touchdowns this season - three more than he scored all of last year. The West Virginia ball carriers are sniffing the end zone and doing what it takes to get those tough yards that can mean the difference between winning and losing.
"I know we have talent on this football team but I know if you strain and stay on a block a half-second longer - a half a second longer - that is the difference between an inch and a 10-yard gain," Stewart explained. "That is why the game is so unique and so special for those who work just a little bit harder than the next guy."
West Virginia still has the big-play weapons in its lineup to score from anywhere on the field, but the fact that it is showing an ability to hold onto the football for longer periods of time could pay big dividends later in the season when the weather becomes much more of a factor in football games.
"We want to make sure we have a balanced attack but what really got to us last year was the short yardage and not being able to keep the offense on the field, averaging just 54 snaps a game," Stewart said. "You can't win like that. We won nine games, but to win more we had to get better by staying on the field."
"That young man needs to play more," Stewart said. "I don't know how to get him in there but he needs to play more. I wanted to see what he could do and he impressed me - and it's tough to impress me."
Alston, a 6-foot, 218-pounder, ran for 2,278 yards and scored 34 touchdowns last year as a senior to help Phoebus High School to a state title.
"We will run them hard tonight and we will continue to work on turnover circuits on both sides of the ball and see if we can't get better at that," Stewart said.
"I watched a Tiger Woods tape about never hitting your snooze button and that was a problem of ours in the past," he said. "We started almost a year ago last January and we had three or four practices last spring at 6 a.m. I think that's the reason we are starting the way we are starting. Our players are coming out ready to go."
Now, Stewart wants the strong starts to translate into stronger finishes as well.
"On the flip side, we have to close the deal. That's maturity. That's mental toughness," he said. "Those are things we pride ourselves on in this program. We came close. You have a fumble here, a fumble there - you don't take a big play to the house and the next thing you know you are in a battle.
"I'm glad I substituted (freshman) Geno Smith when I did because I wanted to get the young lad some reps as I did the other youngsters," Stewart said. "Maybe that was a factor as well."
"It spreads the field and it puts people on islands. It makes guys play in space," Stewart explained. "Noel was bottled up with nine-man fronts and we threw some deep balls and did OK, we hit Bradley Starks in the hole once. That is our little speed unit that goes in there. We spread the field with fast guys. Do they want to load the box? Do they want to play man? So that's what we did with that to see what they would do.
"We will use it and are also using Shawne Alston in there at tailback with Ryan Clarke in there at fullback. That is something that we wanted to see."
The Thundering Herd have the nation's second-leading rusher in Darius Marshall, who failed to get 100 yards for the first time this season in a 31-10 win at Tulane on Saturday.
"I watched him on the highlights last night, wow. He runs behind his pads and he is tough," said Stewart. "I saw another great play by Albert McClellan and I didn't sleep worth a lick. It was very much an attention getter."
Stewart knows the Mountaineers will be facing a fired-up Marshall team on Saturday.
"I've got a whole lot more thinking to do on that, but I can't imagine young people not getting ready for that team down South," he said. "I can't imagine that. But these young minds today … we've talked as a staff and we're going to continue to talk about that this evening.
"It's not Big East but it's the team down South and that's enough said. I coached there in 1980, very proudly, but I no longer work there and we better be ready to play and take our state first before we start worrying about anything else. Is it big to me? You betcha, and it's big to our players, too."
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