Looking Back; Moving Forward

  • January 02, 2010 10:18 PM
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By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
January 2, 2010

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Of the 126 plays that took place during Florida State’s 33-21 come-from-behind victory over West Virginia on Friday, Bill Stewart thought three of them decided the football game.

  Geno Smith will get the first crack at running West Virginia's offense this spring.
Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo

The first was Patrick Robinson’s second-quarter interception when West Virginia, leading 14-3, was moving the ball almost at will against Florida State’s defense.

The second came on the opening kickoff of the second half when Greg Reid returned Josh Lider’s short kick 69 yards to the West Virginia 9 that led to Florida State’s go-ahead score.

And the third key play occurred early in the fourth quarter just after West Virginia made it a two-point game. Florida State was facing a third and 9 at its own 33 when quarterback E.J. Manuel found Taiwan Easterling for an 18-yard completion to the Mountaineer 49.

Those three plays kept West Virginia from winning its fifth consecutive bowl game.

Let’s take them in order, beginning with Robinson’s pick.

West Virginia (9-4) scored the first two times it had the football and was looking for more points after a Jarrett Brown 27-yard scramble moved the football to the Mountaineer 42.

Then offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen called for a post-corner pass to freshman Tavon Austin that wound up being picked off at the Seminole 39.

“We had a freshman who didn’t stay on a high angle, snapped it off, Jarrett threw the ball late and it was an interception,” said Stewart. “You sell the post and you stick it on a 45 and you throw it in the hole. We catch it or nobody catches it.”

Florida State turned Robinson’s interception into its first touchdown of the game.

“It was a big, big play at that time,” said Stewart.

The second bad play also led to Florida State points. Stewart said Reid’s kickoff return was a matter of his kicker simply kicking the ball to the wrong area of the field.

“We kick the dad-gum thing right down the middle and off he runs,” said Stewart.

But West Virginia managed to battle back and was within a possession of retaking the lead early in the fourth quarter when the Seminoles made their biggest third-down conversion of the game.

“We lost contain on third down,” Stewart said. “We ran a twist and one of our best football players just didn’t get around. That broke our backs right there. We had them backed up and we lost momentum. It was a great play by them and not so good for us.”

The athletic Seminoles had several great plays, particularly on offense, which makes you wonder how this football team lost six games in the first place?

The one-handed grab by Jarmon Fortson was incredible. Jermaine Thomas was the fastest back West Virginia faced this year. E.J. Manuel stood tall in the pocket, scrambled when he had to, and finished the afternoon with 259 yards of total offense including the game-sealing 2-yard touchdown run.

The FSU defense wasn’t great, but when it got West Virginia in long yardage situations it was able to get enough pressure on Brown and Geno Smith to sack them five times.

“We tried to sprint out a couple of times and they came underneath us with their athleticism and that hurt,” said Stewart. “The speed of the defense (retiring defensive coordinator) Mickey Andrews brought at us - that hurt. And the pass blocking at the end got a little rough and I wasn’t pleased with that.”

It was pointed out to Stewart during his post-game press conference that Noel Devine, who accounted for 100 of West Virginia’s 132 first-quarter yards, only touched the football five times in the second half when Smith was in the game in place of the injured Brown.

Stewart said it was a matter of trying to get other players involved in the offense.

“We couldn’t get into a rhythm No. 1. We were trying to get the ball into the flat and put the ball into No. 9’s (Jock Sanders) hands,” Stewart said. “We didn’t think Jock had it enough. We tried to spread our wealth and keep them off-balanced and make them defend the whole field – not just horizontally but vertically as well.”

An encouraging sign for the future was Smith leading West Virginia to an 80-yard touchdown drive at the beginning of the fourth quarter that kept the Mountaineers in the game. Twice the freshman hit crucial third-down passes to Bradley Starks to keep the sticks moving. He also completed a fourth-down pass to Sanders on the Mountaineers’ final drive of the game.

Smith’s statistics weren’t overwhelming, 8 of 15 for 92 yards, but nearly all of his completions came under heavy pressure.

“He missed a read or two, but the kid played pretty well,” Stewart said.

Added all up, it’s a second-straight 9-4 season for West Virginia. Later this month we will find out if the Mountaineers will remain in the national rankings for a second straight year under Stewart.

After signing day, Stewart and his coaches will look ahead to this spring with Smith now the heavy favorite to win the quarterback job. In the meantime, Smith’s No. 1 objective will be to get bigger and stronger during the developmental season.

How West Virginia moves ahead offensively will depend a lot on what junior Noel Devine chooses to do. Will he return for a fourth season with most of the school’s rushing records in sight, or will he decide to give pro football a try?

If Devine returns four of West Virginia’s five offensive line starters will be back to block for him, but it will be paramount for the Mountaineers to develop more depth there this spring with open competition for some starting jobs likely a necessity.

West Virginia could also use a couple of physical playmakers at wide receiver to stretch defenses horizontally.

Defensively, the Mountaineers will have nine starters back from Friday’s Gator Bowl, although defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel must find a replacement for senior middle linebacker Reed Williams.

West Virginia should field one of the most experienced defenses in the country next year and with a few key additions, namely another edge pass rusher or possibly a lock-down corner, the Mountaineers could have a very formidable defense in 2010.

Of course the special teams, particularly the kickoff unit, will need extra special attention this spring.

Forty one players on West Virginia’s Gator Bowl offensive two-deep were underclassmen with 22 of those potentially returning on offense. It was an extremely young football team in 2009.

“We’ve got five seniors starting today and maybe the next time we are in the same situation we will learn how to close the deal,” Stewart said after Friday’s game. “That’s what you have to do – close the deal.”