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November 11, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: Clarke putting fumble behind him

MORGANTOWN — It has been a week of 48-hour sunless days for Ryan Clarke.

It’s that way when you want to make amends, to spit a bad taste out of your mouth, to scratch an itchy back that is just inches out of your reach.

It’s that way when you have amends to make and nowhere to make them.

Let us first remind you of what brought this all on. West Virginia University was playing at Connecticut, coming off a stunning loss to Syracuse. Again the Mountaineers struggled on offense, but in overtime they seemed to have things going their way, the ball on the goal line and in Clarke’s hands.

He is their short-yard maven, a man who got his job because he was so good at doing just that, getting that final step into the end zone or to a first down, only this time it wasn’t to be. The ball slipped from Clarke’s grasp, his second fumble of a game that saw the Mountaineers put the ball on the ground seven times.

Connecticut recovered, kicked a field goal and won.

A step from being a hero, Ryan Clarke had become the goat and now he was eager to make amends but there was no game last week, simply an open date.

Coaches and teammates tried to console the 247-pound sophomore fullback. Even his father came in from the Washington, D.C., area, not necessarily because of the football situation, but it didn’t hurt to have him around to lean on.

“He was important. I wanted him to come up and see me. I had to do some stuff for school. It had nothing to do with football,” Clarke said during Tuesday’s player interview sessions.

That Clarke talked at all was a big step forward for him. He seems ill at ease in interview situations, as so many young athletes are, and this one had to be the most uncomfortable. He kept rubbing his hands as if washing them, perhaps trying to wash away the entire situation.

But he faced the music and is better for it, rest assured.

“Like I said, it’s something you have to deal with. Troubles come to you in life. You just have to brush it off,” Clarke said.

Someone mentioned that it isn’t like he had never fumbled before in his career, perhaps forgetting that he had fumbled earlier in that very same game.

“Every running back has fumbled. It comes with the territory,” Clarke noted.

The fumbles, Clarke’s and his teammates, really got to Coach Bill Stewart. He swore that this week he would work on ball security, hammer it home.

“I’ve watched [running back coach Chris] Beatty, they are running gauntlet after gauntlet, they got two or three guys tugging. They are doing all the things you need to do,” Stewart said.

He understands that losing a football game like the one at Connecticut is inexcusable and that he is running short of patience.

“Ryan Clarke didn’t lose that football game. He fumbled on the 1-yard line. What he needs to do is put that ball in belly, hold it high and tight and stick it in the end zone. Then it’s a favorite memory,” Stewart said.

“Well, it still better be a memory. Hear what I’m saying, it better be a memory. That’s something that should never leave the memory bank. I can’t have a whole lot more of that. I just can’t. I’m the CEO of this outfit and I can’t play a guy who puts the ball on the ground time after time. That’s anyone, not just Ryan Clarke.”

Certainly, though, not fumbling the ball has been stressed from the moment any running back or receiver has walked out onto Mountaineer Field. This isn’t just a matter of an important item being overlooked. It’s a matter of not getting across how important it is and how to avoid it.

Stewart defended the approach he is now taking.

“You reinforce it through drills and constructive criticism. I’ve played for people that harp. I’ve played for people that cuss me. There’s a fine line. If you think there’s no discipline in this program, look around town, see how the Mountaineers act downtown. Why do we have the grades we have? Why are we graduating people? Because we are doing things right.

“If there are problems on the field turning the ball over, you correct it. The dumbest thing I can say to them is ‘Don’t fumble.’ What kind of coaching is that? Don’t miss a free throw. My God, show him how to make the free throw. Show him about the elbow, show him about the finger follow through. I know a little bit about basketball, too. I was a pretty good player.”

As for Clarke, he just wants to get back out there and move forward.

“I’m not worried what happened in the past. I’m worried about running the ball now,” he said. “It’s always going to stick in your mind. It’s something you can’t dwell on. Right now I’m thinking about my goals for the rest of the season.”

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

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