Heat turned up after defeat, two losses in row for WVU

UCONN 16 WVU 13


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EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Now, coach Bill Stewart could be in deep trouble.

The kind of trouble, no matter what happens the rest of this football season, he might never be able to sway the fan base -- and more importantly the decision-makers at West Virginia University -- back onto his side with their full faith.

After the Mountaineers' offense sputtered in crucial situations, leading to a 16-13 overtime loss against short-handed Connecticut Friday night at Rentschler Field-- and turned the football over four times in the process -- the temperature of Stewart's seat undeniably is heating beneath him to levels it has never reached before this.

Cutting deeper into Stewart was this: The loss was the first time in seven meetings Connecticut (4-4, 1-2 Big East) has defeated West Virginia (5-3, 1-2) and it comes on the heels of an embarrassing loss for the Mountaineers -- at home, on homecoming -- against Syracuse a week ago. On top of that, Connecticut beat the Mountaineers with their third quarterback, Zach Frazar, as starter Cody Endres was suspended for the season and second-teamer Michael Box sustained a head injury a week ago and was unavailable.

"This is the lowest I've felt in my career," West Virginia senior nose tackle Chris Neild said. "This is definitely the lowest. Definitely."

West Virginia's chances were done for good when fullback Ryan Clarke lost a fumble inside the 3 on the Mountaineers' first possession of overtime.

When the Huskies got their possession in overtime, they advanced to where kicker Dave Teggart coolly booted a 27-yard field goal for the winner.

With it, he also stirred up the questions surrounding the job security of Stewart -- and perhaps some offensive staff members -- moving forward.

Stewart offered a quizzical response to a question as to why his team could kick just two field goals after the first quarter.

"I thought we did a good job in the red zone, except we fumbled," he said.

Those exceptions, those fumbles, were the difference in a game where the West Virginia defense performed solidly again, yielding just 112 yards rushing and less than 3 yards per running attempt.

"There is definitely frustration," Neild said of his view of the offense. "That is the side of the ball we can't control. We control our defense and we did a decent job of that, we did our job pretty well. We did a decent job of not letting the other team score, but ... "

Neild stopped himself there, but it was obvious his frustration -- and that of his unit mates -- is growing as this team lost consecutive games, and third this season, as it gave up 20 points or fewer.

The frustration levels aimed at Stewart also seem to be at all-time high.

Some of the public sentiment called for his firing even before this game.

Some of the public sentiment called for some offensive staff changes no matter how the final half of the season was going to play out.

All of the public sentiment called for some accountability, for some get-this-ship-righted-in-hurry sort-of football from the Mountaineers.

The performance did nothing but to provide more questions moving forward.

Stewart insisted, afterward, that he will not lose this team, as now the Mountaineers have four games remaining and a Big East Conference title is the longest of long shots.

"No, my God no," he said. "We lost two [non-conference] games my first year and everyone thought the world was ending and we rallied them back pretty well. I'm not worried about losing the football team."

One could almost hear the shouts of "where has that been" from the West Virginia fan base on the Mountaineers' first touchdown, scored on the squad's second offensive series.

On the initial score -- a 53-yard run by receiver Brad Starks -- the Mountaineers ran out of the shotgun and Starks zoomed through the formation and before taking a jet-sweep handoff from Geno Smith and racing through the Huskies' secondary.

Such a play and formation, and the highly expeditious nature with which the Mountaineers ran their offense, had been largely absent through the first seven games.

It kept up, as did a new wrinkle from the "old days" of former coach Rich Rodriguez -- using the quarterback as a runner.

Smith ran the ball by design six times in the first half, a half after which West Virginia took a 10-3 advantage. The Mountaineers got a 36-yard Tyler Bitancurt field goal after the opening touchdown and Connecticut matched it in the waning seconds of the second quarter as Teggart booted one from 39 yards.

The West Virginia lead quickly dissipated.

On the Huskies' first drive of the second half, tailback Jordan Todman carried eight times for 50 yards and pushed the offense into the end zone, and the score to 10-10, when he split through the middle of the field for a 24-yard score.

Another Bitancurt field goal -- this one from 42 yards -- gave the Mountaineers a 13-10 lead late in the third, but the turnover germ bit West Virginia, allowing Connecticut to tie it early in the fourth.

Smith scrambled, turned upfield and didn't secure the ball, it was poked from him and the Huskies recovered before marching to another field-goal drive, tying the score at 13-13 with 10:48 remaining.

From there, both teams traded the football through the end of regulation, although, with 1:20 left, West Virginia eschewed an attempt at a 50-yard field and punted to Connecticut.

In a postgame interview, Stewart explained he thought such an attempt was asking too much. Now it seems no one can ask enough questions -- pointed ones, at that -- aimed at Stewart and the direction he has the program headed.


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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