The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 1, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: College football algebra

MORGANTOWN — First, a quick story that carries more truth than I would like it to.

Junior year in high school, Algebra I final. Instructions from Miss Connors, bring your books because you will need them to answer some of the questions.

Guess who came without his book, purposely, for Algebra I already was a lost cause. A blank paper was turned in and when grades came out, Miss Connors brought yours truly in for a little chat.

“I know you are planning to go to college and I know you are planning to go for journalism,” she began. “If you will promise me you will never take another math course, I will give you a D in Algebra I.”

“I promise,” came the answer, a promise that to this day has been kept faithfully and quite happily.

Now fast forward to Tuesday, Bill Stewart’s press conference. Having just lost to LSU, leaving his coaching record away from Puskar Stadium a rather unimpressive 7-8 we were moved to ask the following question, as convoluted as it was.

“Bill, you have to be spending a lot of time in your mind wondering why you haven’t had more success on the road. You know, you have a 7-8 record. I know part of it is that a lot of your road games are against tougher teams.

“I’m sure you’d like to be above .500 in road games. What do you think you have to do to turn 7-8 into 10-6, or 10- 5, if my math is right?”

The answer, may we say, was the ultimate touché.

“You won’t get to 10-5, Bob, when you have eight already in that column. I’d like to have had you as my algebra teacher. I don’t worry a lot about that. I worry about season’s end. I don’t like to lose. We lost (at LSU).”

At this point I informed Coach Stewart that no, he would not have liked to have had me as an algebra teacher, but I that I meant was if those 15 games that produced a 7-8 record away from Puskar Stadium could have been 10-5 things might have been different.

See, in each of Stewart’s first two seasons at WVU, he has been one victory away from recording 10 victories, and programs that win 10 games have far, far more prestige than those that win 9, even if the difference – if my algebra is right – is just one game.

Stewart went on with a rather lengthy answer to the question, proving that he obviously had thought about this maybe a lot more than he wanted to admit.

“Want me to go back to the first one, to East Carolina? I mean, we got whacked that day because we thought all we had to do was show up and play ball. Then we lost a tough one out at Colorado because we didn’t have any big backs, tight ends or fullbacks to get a first down and we couldn’t give them the ball, you know, with as hot as that quarterback was playing that night. That’s why we didn’t go to the two-minute drill at the end of the game and there’s various reasons why you lose.

“Is it easier to play at home? I don’t know. I guess it is, if that’s what the oddsmakers say. I really don’t know. I don’t worry about that. All I worry about is at the end of the year what our record is – have we done as well as we can do? — and go from there.

“I know this: We got beat 20-14 against the second-largest crowd in the history of West Virginia football. Is that not correct, for a road game? The larger crowd, by about 1,000 people, I think, West Virginia got beat 51-6.

“We expect to win every game right now. Every game. Every game. Home. Away. I don’t care. We’re at that point right now. That’s what I want to do. That’s who we are. That’s how I coach. That’s how I live. That’s how the staff is. That’s how the team is.”

Here’s the deal, though. Road games count on that year-end record. They may count more in the rankings than do home wins, considering that you are less likely to win on the road. The question is whether or not Stewart and West Virginia are winning their fair share on the road.

Obviously, it’s unfair to compare them to Top 10 teams like Alabama, Boise State, Ohio State or Florida, most of whom lose but one or two games a year and because of that surely have winning road records. But how does Stewart’s teams compare to similar programs — often Top 25 programs — on the road.

Since this research involved no algebra (not even long division, thank you), we took the liberty to check the records of some of these similar programs and compare them. Those checked were Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, BYU, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Oregon State, Iowa, Florida State and Pitt.

What we found is that while no one could match WVU’s 15-1 home record over the last two-plus years but that the only school in that group which had a losing record away from its home field was Michigan State.

Winning away from home is difficult, yes, but not impossible. Indeed, Missouri is 11-5 on the road and at neutral sites, as is BYU, while FSU 10-5 and Georgia Tech 10-6. Even Pitt is 9-5.

WVU should spend some time looking into the psychology of winning on the road, to study where they have road weaknesses. Last year, for example, they rushed for an average of 198 yards a game at home and 113 on the road, a statistic that is mimicked this year with 193 yards a game rushing at home and 106 on the road, although facing that LSU defense skewers that at this moment.

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

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