West Virginia Notebook: Stewart to evaluate team and himself

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Two consecutive losses for West Virginia have dropped the Mountaineers, once thought of as Big East bullies, to 5-3 overall and 1-2 in conference play.

The successive defeats against Syracuse and Connecticut have forced something else as coach Bill Stewart's program settles in for an open week before its next game Nov. 13 against visiting Cincinnati (3-5, 1-2).

"A total self-evaluation of the program," is what Stewart described.

"From me, to the assistants, to the players. What we've done good, what we've done OK, what we haven't done good."

Stewart used a large portion of his weekly news conference Monday to outline the specific components of West Virginia's performance that need to be fixed -- and promised Mountaineers fans that every effort will be made to rectify such shortcomings.

First was ball security, a glaring inadequacy as the Mountaineers fumbled seven times against Connecticut (losing four) and have lost 11 fumbles and thrown six interceptions this season.

Stewart also addressed formations, movement and pre-snap mistakes and pass protection.

On defense, Stewart had very few qualms about the unit that is one of the finest in the nation.

Ultimately, Stewart swung the brunt of the blame for the losing streak right around to himself.

"At the top of the team is me, I am the CEO of this football program," Stewart said. "I need to do a better job. ... that's my job. We are all going to get on the same sheet of music. That, to me, is a team."

Running man

In the Connecticut loss Friday, the Mountaineers' offense unveiled a new wrinkle -- a throwback of sorts to the Rich Rodriguez days -- as there were some zone-read option plays and designed runs for quarterback Geno Smith.

Smith rushed 15 times for 64 yards against the Huskies; nine of those were designed runs, the others were hurries or sacks.

But as Smith is seen as more of a dropback passer, could the system be counterproductive?

Also in the equation is this: The Mountaineers have just one quarterback, freshman Barry Brunetti, behind Smith. Another freshman, Jeremy Johnson, left the program a few weeks ago.

"I don't worry, I just try to be a smart businessman," Stewart said.

"When I tell [Smith] to slide, I want him to slide."

Still confident in Clarke

Sophomore running back Ryan Clarke fumbled twice in the Connecticut loss, including a crucial fumble in overtime when the football slipped from his hands inside the 5 on the Mountaineers' only possession. From there, Connecticut took possession and kicked the winning field goal.

Stewart insisted he has not lost confidence in Clarke.

"We will put the ball in his hands," Stewart said. "We will make him run through the tires, run through the gauntlet [in practice].

"I am not blaming that loss on Ryan Clarke; no way, shape or form is that Ryan Clarke's fault. He ran hard, and a guy got knocked back into him and the ball came out."

Lasting impact

It could be said that a late hit, out of bounds, has been the single deepest blow to this West Virginia football team all season. Against LSU Sept. 25, senior running back Noel Devine was drilled by a Tigers defender after the play; the hit resulted in a toe injury to West Virginia's standout runner.

Devine has been hobbled since and has yet to show the regular electricity that made him a breakaway threat in his first three seasons.

Stewart was asked yesterday if that one play changed the entire course of this season.

"I'd rather not answer that," Stewart said.

"It altered it, I don't know if it changed it. You asked me an honest question, I'll give you an honest answer."

Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com .


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