By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
We are in the third year of the post-Rich Rodriguez era at West Virginia and it seems there is more confusion over what the Bill Stewart-Jeff Mullen offense is and what it is trying to do.
Make no doubt, whatever this offense they will bring into Baton Rouge to face LSU on Saturday night is, it will come up on the short end in comparison’s to Rodriguez’s offense, which was not only novel and inventive, but which had players the likes of which West Virginia has never seen come through here before.
That was an offense that once scored 80 points on an opponent, one that felt like it was shut out when it scored 30. It was fast and slick, armed with the likes of professional players like Chris Henry and Steve Slaton and Darius Reynard and, of course, Patrick White.
But they are yesterday’s heroes and it is yesterday’s offense.
The new offense is different. It is a multiple, one that is part Don Nehlen football when he was at ground loving best, part Don Nehlen football when Marc Bulger was turning the Mountaineers into a aerial circus.
It is an offense in an evolutionary stage, one that seems to have young players in quarterback Geno Smith and Tavon Austin capable of being what White and Slaton were in the Rodriguez offense, armed with a fullback in Ryan Clarke who may be capable of doing much the same things that Owen Schmitt did.
If Rodriguez’s wide receivers were solid blockers, they did not have the receiving flair of Jock Sanders or Austin or Stedman Bailey or J.D. Woods or Ivan McCartney.
It is an offense that remains built around running back Noel Devine, who was caught in the changeover, a budding star in the Rodriguez system who has adapted to play in this system and who may, if the offense improves as it should as this season goes on, have his best games ahead of him.
The changeover wasn’t easy, for as Rodriguez took over a program at Michigan with players alien to his system, so, too, did Stewart when he decided to make the switch at West Virginia. Because of that, there were some games that should have been won that weren’t, not because of coaching but because some of the pieces just didn’t fit.
“I know two years ago against Colorado we couldn’t get a first down, because I didn’t have any tight ends or full backs,” Stewart said on Sunday as he explained the evolution. “I had little-skilled guys and slots. I didn’t have Will Johnson because he just converted, or Tyler Urban, or Ryan Clarke because he wasn’t doing what I wanted and now I have a 238-pound chiseled man.”
Those are important items in the offense they wanted to run. They also, in a way, lost a year in the changeover with Patrick White at quarterback, putting him a system different than the one he had run under Rodriguez and knowing that as talented as he was, he was a one-and-done player in their program.
As Jeff Mullen once explained, when you have a Patrick White, he should dominate the ball and that is different than the way they are attacking defenses today.
“We have to become well-rounded and we have more in the arsenal. It’s called spreading the wealth and keeping people off balance,” Stewart said.
Rodriguez’s offense, run with the right people, certainly was awesome.
The Stewart-Mullen philosophy is completely different. While Devine is here it is, as they say, “a run first” offense, but it is not “a run first and foremost offense.”
The pass is the real staple of the offense. True, in three games the Mountaineers have run the ball 136 times and throw it only 107 times, but the yardage shows 657 running yards and 800 passing yards.
In Rodriguez’s final season the passing yardage was about half the rushing yardage and the Rodriguez team averaged 6.2 yards a rush while this offense is averaging 4.0 per rush.
So while they may be trying to sell that run-first theory, there are no buyers out there for it.
Not that that’s necessarily a negative. An offense has to do what it does best and this offense is sent up with a lot of fast, little receivers to get the ball off in space and let them do their thing. They do that differently than Rodriguez did.
What this offense has, however, that many of the Rodriguez teams didn’t have until Schmitt came along was a power offense, the one that was shown against Maryland in running out the clock in the fourth quarter.
“We got in that I formation and they weren’t ready for it and we ran them down the field,” Stewart said of using Ryan Clarke on eight consecutive carries. “We just wanted to send the message that we have ball control and play Mountaineer football — smashmouth — and take the points. That to me is pretty good football.”
The process of making and perfecting the changeover is still on-going.
“We’re trying to spread the wealth and our guys are stepping up and making plays, so they’ve grown, but we have a long way to go yet because there are some first year starters out there, like Stedman Bailey. Sure they’ll make mistakes, but I enjoy that,” Stewart said.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.