The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 30, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU shoves dagger in heart in horror show

HARTFORD, Conn. — After spending the night shooting themselves in the foot, West Virginia University shoved a dagger into its own heart in overtime on an improbable Friday night horror show to kick off Halloween weekend.

It has been painful to watch the Mountaineer program disintegrate before the eyes of its faithful, but there can be no doubting that is what is taking place even though coach Bill Stewart disagrees with that observation in the strongest way.

“I’m not worried about anything but righting the ship,” the beleaguered coach said after his second consecutive conference defeat, both improbable as the first came to a Syracuse team that had not defeated WVU since 2001 and this one came by a 16-13 score to a Connecticut team that had never – never – beaten West Virginia.

And, when asked if he was worried about losing his football team as the conference championship has all but slipped out of reach and the Mountaineer fans are up in arms, Stewart said he was not worried at all about that occurring.

Perhaps, though, the time has come to worry, for this team is playing as badly as a team can play, and Stewart seems to be in denial, pointing toward statistics like 414 total yards while ignoring the fact that his team scored one touchdown in 81 plays.

Statistics, they say, are for losers.

The problem is simply this: Stewart has a football team that seems better suited for holding onto the opposition than holding onto the football.

The first is illegal, the second inexcusable.

It is almost unimaginable that the Mountaineers would fumble the ball seven times, losing four of them.

Think about that for a moment. Seven fumbles. Were the officials putting a Teflon ball into play when West Virginia had it?

Of the four lost fumbles, three came in Connecticut territory, the other out at the WVU 44.

It led Stewart into making one of the season’s most unreasonable quotes, saying, “I thought we did well in the red zone … except losing those fumbles.”

That’s like a pitcher saying “I pitched a no-hitter, except for those 13 hits I gave up.”

See, playing well in the red zone means not fumbling, especially in overtime, which is just what happened to set up the Connecticut victory.

If there is to be any compassion, it perhaps can be saved for fullback Ryan Clarke, who made two startling gaffes, twice fumbling the football away, the second time as he failed to get a simple handoff from quarterback Geno Smith while trying to score the overtime touchdown from the UConn 1.

Clarke had fumbled early in the game on a fourth-and-1 carry but had redeemed himself with some of the hardest running seen in this stadium, carrying 10 times for 42 yards. In fact, at one point the Mountaineers found themselves backed up on their goal line and turned to Clarke to get them out.

Running from the I formation, he gained 8 yards and then 16. It seemed WVU had found something and there is this coaching axiom that you run something until the defense stops it.

But Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, who is taking the heavy artillery these days from the fans, opted to go to a single back set and five wide outs at that point. The first pass thrown by Smith was batted into the air and almost intercepted, and WVU’s offense stalled right there.

“I thought Geno was throwing the ball well,” Stewart explained. “I wanted to keep them off balance and spread out.”

“The 5-wide was working for us,” Mullen added. “I felt we needed to speed up the tempo. We had a lot more plays we could run out of that set.”

But when the world is crumbling, it isn’t exactly the right time to go away from something that has just picked up 24 yards on two carries and has set the defense back on its heels.

That, though, is what is happened all season with this WVU team that now has 17 turnovers in eight games and that came into this game ranked 68th in the nation in turnover margin and will be sure to drop further down with four more turnovers and no takeaways.

“They had zero turnovers. We can’t strip the ball, can’t pick the ball, can’t knock the ball loose on defense and our offense gave the ball way,” Stewart said. “You cannot win any games if you can’t take care of the ball.”

What makes this really a difficult situation for the coaching staff is that they begin and end every practice with ball-security drills, yet you have a defender ripping the ball from the grasp of Noel Devine on one play, Clarke losing it once, Smith losing it once and Smith and Clarke combining for another fumble that Stewart would call a “pitch fumble” because they were too far apart for the handoff.

If they can’t coach this team to do the basic fundamentals of the game, they are putting their own futures in jeopardy.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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