By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
These, Thomas Paine wrote in “The Crisis,” are the times that try men’s soul.
Thomas Paine was a patriot, not of the New England variety.
He knew not of the game of football, at least the American version, for he was born in Thetford, England, where their version of the game is what we call soccer here.
However, we return to Thomas Paine today, for at West Virginia University, where football is more religion than game, these are times that are trying men’s soul and, to understand it will take, if you will pardon the pun, a bit of “Common Sense,” that being Paine’s 1776 pamphlet that was America’s call to arms against England.
Think back, if you will, to the situation when Bill Stewart rose out of the ashes of a devastating loss to rival Pittsburgh that cost WVU not only a shot at a national championship but the coach who had brought the team to the brink of that opportunity.
He seemed so perfect to take over at the time, being the anti-Rodriguez. His mouth was not foul and his approach was fair. He was a fatherly, veteran coach who had everything but experience as a head coach and, when he crafted a stunning upset of Oklahoma out of the residue of the Pitt defeat, he was given the job.
There was much consternation among many of the most influential alumni, men who preferred Vince Lombardi himself come back from the grave to take over for Rodriguez, a group of people who now are whispering “I told you so” as Stewart has seen the glory days turn to gory days.
It didn’t happen immediately, for he had a great amount of talent from the Rodriguez administration, including Patrick White, but even there they began tinkering with an offense that was dominant until now it is a confused, fumbling, impotent mockery of what it once was.
Teams that the Mountaineers once dominated — Syracuse, UConn — now dance on the field after beating them.
And, of course, our e-mail and Facebook carry calls for Stewart’s scalp and ask that his offensive coordinator go with him. The public outcry will hardly be the deciding factor for Oliver Luck, the new athletic director, President Jim Clements or the WVU Board of Governors.
Their approach will be more reasoned and will be driven, as are all decisions these days, by the finances of the situation. Indeed, Stewart still has time to turn things around, but beating arch rival Pitt now becomes a necessity in the season’s closing weeks.
So, too, is a turnaround from an offense that has been, quite frankly, offensive to watch.
Four lost fumbles in the latest defeat speak volumes to what is wrong, although it needs an interpreter. Certainly, the fumbles came from anything but hard hits. Most were mistakes of concentration and conviction. They were foolish mistakes, just as are such simple things as the punt return team failing to get away from punts that are not going to be caught.
West Virginia has been the most mystifying team in America, and nothing has been more mystifying than one absolutely tragic part of the offense.
It seems that whenever Noel Devine, as gifted a runner as the school has ever recruited, gets the football he runs into a wall of defenders. It’s the damnedest thing you can imagine, for it seems on 14 of 16 carries he has nowhere to go with the ball.
Sometimes he makes something of it by reversing field or spinning or juking, but you would think every so often there would be a hole opening and it just doesn’t happen.
Is it simply a case of an offensive line that can’t do the job? Is it bad coaching by line coach Dave Johnson? Is it bad plays? Are they tipping the plays?
It is truly difficult to watch, just as it is difficult to understand how the best back on Connecticut carries the ball twice as often as does Devine. It seemed in basketball at WVU a year ago, the ball always found its way into Da’Sean Butler’s hands, but this team seems more interested in proving their coaching skills than in taking advantage of their most dangerous player’s skills.
Make no doubt, Stewart is coaching for his job the rest of this season. The year is not yet a disaster. Running the table would make it another normal 9-3 season with a win over Pitt, so there is no need to yet give those season tickets away.
But know this.
This is a time that is trying not only your soul, but those of the WVU coaches and players, and they have an off-week now to figure out how to salvage what’s left of the season before they have a real revolution on their hands.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.