The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 16, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU may have reason to stay conservative

MORGANTOWN — It is time, for a moment, to get over the Mountaineer Madness, to shake off the giddiness that comes with a 20-6 West Virginia University victory over South Florida in a made-for-TV special that produced far too few points and far too many empty seats.

The empty-seat problem can be easily fixed by a school with enough backbone to stand up for its fans who brave the traffic and the weather and the long trips from Beckley and Martinsburg on a school night with work scheduled the next day.

If the Big East doesn’t like it, let them find a replacement that does more for the sagging league than West Virginia.

The fix for the lack of points is not as easy, and to simply put it on USF’s defense, which the Mountaineer coaching staff has been trying to do, is not the answer, unless you want to paint your program more like Stony Brook, which also scored two touchdowns on the Bulls, than Florida, which scored five.

When analyzing what is wrong with the WVU offense the obvious place to begin is with the running game, seeing as the passing attack, while frustratingly relying far too much on plays designed to gain four yards rather than 14 or 40, is producing the touchdowns that are being scored, 14 of them through the air to seven on the ground.

And no one can deny that the heart and soul of the running game, Noel Devine, has not been as devastating a breakaway threat as he has been in the past.

One would prefer to blame it on three factors:

1. An offensive line that is not as accomplished in run blocking as those he ran behind in the past.

2. A change in emphasis in the offense to more of a passing philosophy.

3. The last three games a bruise he received below his big toe in the LSU game.

If you were to analyze each you would see that all of it is working against not only Devine but the Mountaineers having the physical, crunching kind of ground game they had in the past with a Devine, Steve Slaton or Patrick White also capable of breaking away at any time.

The offensive line has spent so much time and effort on its pass blocking, as well it should if the emphasis of the offense is going to be on throwing the ball, believing a short pass to a short man out in space is just as good as running between the tackles.

With the pass setting up the run, rather the traditional way which is vice versa, the entire attitude of an offense changes.

Even coach Bill Stewart admitted that “we are becoming more a two-dimensional game. We did not run as well as we can.”

He says he’s not worried about it and pointed toward one drive in the third quarter, a drive where he went to power football with Ryan Clarke and Matt Lindamood, rather than Devine, doing the work.

“I don’t know how long we had the ball but we got the field goal. It was a big, big drive. It took a lot of the clock. We ran the ball a bunch. We made hay, so to speak,” Stewart said.

It was the kind of drive that also will develop toughness and break down the heart of a defense.

The drive was so successful that you figured with a two-touchdown lead Stewart would stick with it through the fourth quarter, but he opted to put the power game to rest and go back to Devine, trying to get him on the loose.

“Let’s say we did in the fourth quarter what we did in the third quarter, but to do that you take 7 (Devine) and the little guys out of the game. I don’t want to take away what’s good to us,” Stewart said.

But how good is Devine to him when Stewart himself admits that he doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent?

“I can’t tell you what his foot feels like,” Stewart said. “All I can do is look out there and go by what I think. He’s just not as quick yet. Next week I hope it is better, but he’s not as quick as he was before he got hurt.”

The truth is again that you have to have a dependable running game to win in college football, especially in this area of the country where the weather can turn awful before you can turn the page in your playbook.

Devine has gone three games without gaining 100 yards – although had he been healthy against a terrible UNLV defense he might have gained 300, considering that he made 84 yards on three carries. But now it’s the Big East and Stewart is going to have to decide whether the spread or a power formation is best for his team.

There’s little question about it if Devine is on top of his game, but right now it might be best against a tough Syracuse defense to go a bit more conservative.

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

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