By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
In another life, Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano was an assistant coach for the Chicago Bears. That was a time when the rivalry in the Black and Blue Division of the National Football League was at its greatest with the Bears having to battle the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions when each was as much a monster as the Monsters of the Midway.
The Lions, long dormant in recent years, were the scariest of all those teams for they possessed a running back named Barry Sanders, a runner who proved that it was not impossible to be in two places at the same time.
Trying to find ways to defend Sanders was a nightmare, and as Schiano ends a season that has been a nightmare into itself at Rutgers with a tragic injury to a player and a season-long inability to win, he is having flashbacks.
They come compliments of Noel Devine, the WVU running back whose season was ruined by a foot injury through which he played, but not with the same ability as he’d had through his first three season.
“He reminds me of Barry Sanders,” Schiano revealed on the Big East Conference coaches call Monday. “Barry would lose 2, lose 1, then break loose for 60. That’s what scares the heck out of us.”
Perhaps Schiano watched the Pitt tape, where Devine had what has become his weekly problems breaking loose, but found a way to turn a simple flair pass into 41 yards to set up a key first half touchdown.
Make no doubt, Devine has not been divine ever since the LSU game, but this week is different and Schiano doesn’t want to hear about the injury.
“I’ve known him since he was a high school kid,” Schiano said. “It’s the last time he’s going to be playing at Mountaineer Field. He’s an incredible competitor and is going to want to leave that place with a boom. I have a funny feeling, even if he’s hurting, he’ll be well for that last game at Mountaineer Field.”
What makes it so interesting, however, is that with Devine hurting the WVU offense has had to make adjustments and the coaching staff seems to have stumbled onto an approach that works and makes far more sense than trying to run an injured superstar over and over.
All of a sudden this team that seemed intent on throwing rather than running and going sideline to sideline instead of up the field has found Shawne Alston as a big back and changed its approach.
“I like what we’re doing with the two big backs,” Coach Bill Stewart said. “I like what I’m seeing from Shawne (Alston) and (Ryan) Clarke. I really like Matt Lindamood being able to come out and play some fullback as well. I’m starting to like this look.
“What I saw Friday is that they (Pitt) had trouble just tackling our guys — they (Alston and Clarke) are two big, 200-plus pound men. That’s a pretty good deal. Then, you still have Brad Starks, Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders out there.”
He likes it so much that Saturday in the noon game at Puskar Stadiuim Field that the Mountaineers must win to have a chance at the Big East title and probably a Fiesta Bowl bid it’s more than likely Devine will be used a change of pace rather than a go-to back.
And now Stewart is talking of next year and there is no talk of Tavon Austin, who has found a home at wide receiver, moving into Devine’s role.
“We won’t lose anyone next year except Jock, Noel (Devine) and (Eric) Jobe. I think the future is very bright. Also, we’ll have our quarterback back for the first time in three years. We’ve had three years in this offense with three different quarterbacks. I’d challenge anyone in this country to do that,” Stewart said.
“If we win Saturday, that will be three straight nine-win seasons with three different quarterbacks.”
A repeat quarterback and a new look, big back offense is what Stewart has in mind for next season.
“Last year, with Noel, he got banged up here and there and we stumbled. In the bowl game (vs. Florida State), our defense couldn’t get them off the field and we couldn’t win. That frustrated me,” Stewart admitted. “Noel is a different back from Shawne, Ryan and Matt.
“We need to have a big-back approach and a two-back approach. I like what we’re doing – it’s hard for our guys to get tackled. Also, we still have three wide outs with those two in the backfield. If you take one of them out, and you put a tight end in, and you put Tavon in the back and run him, he also can run away.
“What you’re seeing is what we’re trying to evolve into. Noel is going to graduate, and he’s having trouble with his jump step. We had to get away from him and get those two big backs in. What you saw Friday we tried at UConn, but we fumbled the ball away. That’s what I’d like to evolve to.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.