The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 28, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU trying to avoid distractions

ORLANDO, Fla. — While here on a business trip that climaxes with tonight’s 6:30 p.m. Champs Sports Bowl meeting with North Carolina State, Bill Stewart has seen to it that his players  got a taste of the attractions available at this vacation wonderland rather than drinking in the distractions that literally are everywhere with this team.

There was a trip to Universal Studios and another to Sea World, which equals the entire number of hard practices the team had after arriving here to prepare for the game that could give the Mountaineers a 10-3 record. In fact, overall, considering final exams and the holidays, Stewart really didn’t push his team as hard as he could have and, as he has quite a bit these days, he became quite testy about it during the stay.

When it was noted North Carolina State practiced last Friday while his team romped through an amusement park, Stewart became openly upset.

“We practiced just what I needed to practice. I’m not debating about practices. If you want to talk about the bowl, we’ll talk about it,” he said. “Yesterday was a treat for the players for being at this bowl.”

Indeed it was for the ones who were there, which did not include starting center Joey Madsen, backup nose guard Josh Taylor and backup safety Eain Smith, each an academic casualty.

The grade results, of course, came on top of a dramatic, controversial coaching change which left Stewart as a lame duck for next season while his anointed successor worked on his staff, a staff that will be without at least two coaches — offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and offensive line coach Dave Johnson — who nonetheless are coaching in the bowl game.

Other offensive coaches go into the game with their futures unknown, which could well be defined as a distraction.

So there you were, Stewart getting edgy over questions about distractions even though there really wasn’t much else to talk about.

The bowl game itself has hardly captured anyone’s imagination. Ticket sales are weak, the coaching situation is occupying the thoughts of Mountaineer fans, and the fact that the secondary, too, is softened by the loss of cornerback Brandon Hogan to injury does nothing to increase interest.

Front and center, so to speak, is the offensive line situation. Madsen’s failure to make grades forces a shuffle up front that includes starting right guard Eric Jobe moving back to center while reserve Cole Bowers moves in at guard.

Stewart obviously is perturbed by the situation.

When he was asked about how Bowers might do starting in this game, after having started only twice all year, including a key game at LSU, Stewart was ready with his answer.

“LSU gave him great experience. Cole Bowers is a talented young man,” Stewart said, adding snidely, “I trust him. He got his grades.”

And then there was the question about how having two changes in the offensive line might change things for the offense or for quarterback Geno Smith.

“Nothing changes,” Stewart snapped. “It’s just like if a guy got

hurt on the first play of the game. Guys did not take care of their grades. Those that did take care of their grades are going to be playing in the football game.”

And so it is that the Mountaineers must try to make the grade without people who didn’t make their grades.

The truth is that this has been a most offensive offensive line for much of the year, rolling over no one all season. And when you hear Stewart talk about the N.C. State front, you wonder if it will be up to the task.

“Their defensive line is strong, physical, fast,” he said. “I’ve watched them knock the opposing ACC teams back into the backfield. The linebackers come downhill, just like ours do. The guy in the middle is very tough. They will be very difficult to run against.”

Stewart maintains he’s fine with Jobe at center.

“Jobe has prepped all year. He has two years of it,” he said, referring to the fact that he split time there last year with Madsen and has a number of starts at the position. “Eric Jobe will be our starting center, John Bashler will have a chance to get in there as well as Jeff Braun. Cole Bowers will start at guard with a chance for Bashler to get in there.

“We are just going to pick up the saber and march on.”

Jobe, who will be looking at the world between his legs again, is eager to pick up the saber.

“I am excited for the challenge to play center again. I started my career at center and played the position in past bowl games. It's the challenge that is in front of me so it looks like I will play my final game at WVU as the center,” he said.

Smith, at quarterback, admits there is something of an adjustment due to the change.

“Joey Madsen’s my guy,” he said. “But we have Eric Jobe and I’m pretty familiar with him. They alternate during practice. Jobe’s a pretty good center. We expect guys to play and step up. Cole has played some big games.”

Smith, like Stewart, is denying that there are any distractions in this offensive line situation.

“I don’t see it as distractions. Every man has to do his part.  I know Joey Madsen wanted to be here but he had some issues he had to deal with. We have some guys who are going to step up and it’s not going to be an issue at all,” Smith said.

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