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November 4, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: LSU hit on Devine a season-changer?

MORGANTOWN — It was a softball tossed at Bill Stewart in the middle of a press conference that was for hardballers only.

“Do you think the late hit out of bounds on Noel Devine at LSU changed the course of your season?” Stewart was asked.

There it was, an escape hatch for a West Virginia University coach caught in an inescapable season.

All he had to do was grab onto the lifeline and be towed to safety.

He didn’t have to point fingers at his players or thumbs at himself. He didn’t have to explain the many turnovers that had plagued his season, the insanity of the play calling that seemed to change with the wind.

He could have taken the age-old route out, blame an official, spend 15 minutes about how not having a healthy Noel Devine at a crucial point in the season changed everything.

Instead, Bill Stewart told the truth.

“I’d rather not answer that,” he said. “I think it altered it. It might not have changed it. Ask me an honest question and I give you an honest answer.”

The situation certainly did seem to be a turning point in the year. The Mountaineers were playing a tough, tough game, a nationally-ranked team on its home field at night on national television. The score in a game WVU would eventually lose, 17-13, was still 0-0 but the Mountaineers were on the move.

They had taken over at their own 22, run Devine twice for 10 yards and a first down, completed a pass for six to Matt Lindamood and then run Devine again for only a yard. On that play, a penalty was called, a personal foul against LSU.

The ball moved into LSU territory at the 46 and Devine again was called upon, Geno Smith hitting him with a swing pass that covered 15 yards, Devine being hit late and out of bounds. A 15-yard penalty was tacked on for personal foul by Lamin Barrow against Devine.

The ball was at the LSU 16 now, but Devine was limping. He was given the ball twice, gained 2 and 3, but wasn’t looking like himself. Then came an incomplete pass and a blocked field goal.

Certainly, the game at that point was altered. Devine was obviously the central figure in the game plan, having handled the ball six times on 10 offensive plays.

The next time WVU had the football, the bottom fell out. Devine wasn’t playing, Ryan Clarke fumbled and LSU took advantage of it for a touchdown.

Next possession, no Devine, Geno Smith is intercepted, setting up a field goal.

Next possession, no Devine, a punt is returned for a touchdown.

All 17 LSU points came right after Devine’s injury, and the game was settled.

The trainers got Devine’s injured foot treated — he was diagnosed with a severe bruise under his big toe — but he wasn’t right. He gained more than 100 yards in each of the Mountaineers’ first three victories. He carried eight more times in the LSU game and gained 12 yards.

The next game, against UNLV, a team that you could gain yardage against, he carried only three times for 84 yards, his mobility limited. Against South Florida he was a shadow of his former self, rushing for 37 yards on 13 carries and then, of course, came consecutive losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.

He was better against Syracuse with 122 yards, but on one breakaway that could have made a difference was downed one-on-one by a safety. Then, against UConn, he gained only 67 yards on 16 carries.

Had the injury on a play that drew a flag cost the season for Stewart and the Mountaineers?

Stewart wouldn’t use it as a crutch, and Devine, well, let me tell you about what has happened with Devine.

He had come to WVU as a shy kid who mumbled a lot in interviews. He was clearly uncomfortable in the situation through his first and second year. The third year he improved, but seemed to have made his mind up that in his senior season he would be the face of the program.

He was a senior, poised on what he expected to be a great year, the kind that wins the Heisman Trophy. He had turned down a chance to go to the NFL, partially because he was predicted to go in the third round on down, but partially because he felt he could earn a degree and do some things in college that he wanted to do.

He’d been cooperative and insightful with the media, been out front and open and obviously was a leader of the team.

The media have not seen him since the LSU game, as he has turned down interview requests, including one that had been set up with his hometown newspaper. To be fair, Devine has had problems with that hometown paper before, so it might not really have been much of a change, but he had agreed to do the interview.

Let’s be clear. He is under no obligation to give interviews and, to be honest, if he believes he has nothing to add or to explain about anything, it probably is best not to give interviews.

But there certainly was a change in his approach that could not be missed.

The question was whether or not being hobbled and less effective than he wanted to be had made him withdraw as a team leader in this moment of crisis. Stewart swore he had not.

“He’s worked hard, very vocal. He’s been a team player. He’s tried to lead by example. From what I’ve seen, I’m proud of him,” Stewart said.

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

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