By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
November 17, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A couple of different times, a couple of different ways, reporters on Monday tried to get Bill Stewart to talk about last Friday’s instant replay reversal at Cincinnati.
Each time he declined to elaborate.
“That game is beyond us, it’s over and in the books,” Stewart said. “It was in Saturday’s sports column as 24-21 and it can’t be changed.”
Pressed harder, Stewart didn’t budge.
“I got on the bus and took my boxed lunch and did a lot of soul searching and thinking and I’ll let it go at that,” he said.
Stewart said his coaches will use the free week to get injured players healed up in time for next Friday’s Backyard Brawl against Pitt at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Two years ago, 28-point underdog Pitt came into Morgantown and ruined the Mountaineers’ chance to play in the national championship game. This year the roles are almost reversed. Pitt is back in the Top 10 for the first time since preseason 2003, and the Panthers are gunning for their first outright Big East title since the league was formed.
Next Friday, West Virginia will be the underdogs on its home field.
“I heard (Pitt coach) Dave Wannstedt talking on the Big East call and he said it’s the Big East brawl and he’s ready for it,” said Stewart. “I saw some quotes in the paper and the players are ready for it and that’s really great for college football.”
In addition to getting healthy, West Virginia has a lot of things on its plate to accomplish this week. No. 1, the Mountaineers have to figure out how to keep a kickoff from being returned to midfield or beyond. West Virginia is ranked 90th this week in kickoff coverage, giving up 22.9 yards per return on kicks that rarely reach the 10 yard line.
Against Cincinnati last weekend, the Mountaineers were so concerned with getting down on coverage to tackle Mardy Gilyard that they were penalized on consecutive kickoffs.
“I told them to get a little jump on that for Gilyard,” said Stewart. “We tried it and got caught with our hand in the cookie jar.”
West Virginia also needs to reestablish an identity on offense. Are the Mountaineers a passing team? Are they a running team? Are they a power team? Are they a spread team?
Injuries and inexperience have forced the offensive staff to come up with different plans virtually each week. In week three at Auburn, West Virginia was freewheeling and aggressive down the field and that resulted in five interceptions in a 41-30 loss to the Tigers.
Seven weeks later against Cincinnati, West Virginia’s plan was to try and possess the football for long stretches to help out the defense by keeping Cincinnati’s offense off the field.
That tactic nearly worked.
The Mountaineers had their best offensive showing since the Connecticut game, running for more than 200 yards for just the fourth time this season.
Noel Devine, despite ankle, hip and hamstring injuries, ran for 88 yards on a season-high 25 carries. Power back Ryan Clarke scored a 37-yard touchdown and finished the game with 60 yards on just five carries. The running game also opened things up for quarterback Jarrett Brown, who completed 17 of 25 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown. It was his best all-around passing performance since the Syracuse game.
“He played so much better,” said Stewart. “He was in the flow of the game so much more.”
A third key area West Virginia needs to clean up is its run defense. The 3-3 stack is designed specifically to stop the run and it has done that beautifully through the years. Heading into this season, West Virginia had allowed only nine 100-yard rushers in its previous 51 games.
This year, however, four runners have cracked the 100-yard barrier and three others have come close. In its last three games, West Virginia allowed B.J. Daniels to rush for 104 yards in a loss to South Florida, Darius Ashley to run for 164 yards in a narrow victory over Louisville, and Isaiah Pead to run for 175 yards in Cincinnati’s three-point win last Friday.
West Virginia’s run defense has slipped to fourth in the Big East rankings this week (giving up 121 yards per game) after consistently ranking near the top of the conference in run defense the last five years. When a defense is struggling to stop what it’s designed to stop then that is concerning on all levels.
“First of all, Isiah Pead is a good back,” said Stewart. “He made us miss and that is the No. 5 team in the country and they did well. The youngster at Louisville is pretty good, ran the ball a lot, and we were in a bend-and-not-break mode and didn’t give up a touchdown and won the football game. I wish we could hold everybody to 20 yards, but it doesn’t happen in this day in age.”
Pead and Ashley are good backs, but they are not in the class of Pitt freshman Dion Lewis, who leads the Big East in rushing averaging 129.1 yards per game. Lewis ran 21 times for 152 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame, and he currently leads the Big East with 13 rushing touchdowns. Lewis’ backup, Ray Graham, had a 53-yard run against the Irish and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
“If we give up a third big game in a row we’re in trouble,” said Stewart.
The surprisingly rapid development of Lewis as a feature back has helped make quarterback Bill Stull one of the most efficient passers in college football under first-year Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti. Stull’s passer rating of 159.4 is 14 points higher than the next best passer in the Big East, and his 18-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio is among the best in the country.
West Virginia has to find a way to stop Lewis first, and then have enough men left in the back end to deal with 6-foot-5 receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who is blossoming into a big-time playmaker.
“The Baldwin youngster is special,” said Stewart. “We had a young guy like that a few years back named Chris Henry. He plays on Sundays now. That’s who Baldwin reminds me of.”
Stewart said the reason Pitt is playing so well right now is because Wannstedt was given the time to put his plan in place and recruit players to fit that plan.
“They have good talent,” he said. “They have more talent than they did five years ago. Someone told me there was an article that said Dave asked for patience way back. And the Pitt people gave him patience.”
Because of that, for the first time in years West Virginia is going to be playing a Backyard Brawl as the underdog with a big chip on its shoulders.
“I am going to tell the team to out-block, out-tackle, out-hit, out-hustle Pitt; strain and play Mountaineer football,” said Stewart. “Were we a better team in game 10 last week than we were in game nine? In my assessment we were. We played better on the road against Cincinnati than we played at home against Louisville.”
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