By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
There are no Up-The-Middle Meters needed for Bill Stewart. If it’s fourth and 1 at the Pitt goal line and his defense is playing the way it was last Friday (Nov. 27) against the Panthers, Stewart is pinning his ears back and going for it.
If it’s fourth and 10 at the Marshall 27 and his offense needs a spark, Stewart has no qualms with rolling the dice. You see, Bill Stewart has a little riverboat gambler in him.
“I grew up along the Ohio River,” he chuckled. “I know about the Delta Queen and all of that stuff.”
Stewart gave reporters a little insight into his thinking Tuesday afternoon (Dec. 1) when he was asked to explain his decision to go for it on fourth and goal against the eighth-rated Panthers in a scoreless game.
He said that he wanted to send his team a message.
“I told the team before we went on the field, ‘We’re not playing this one close to the vest. We’re bringing out the holsters and we’re pulling both pistols out one at a time. We’re double-barreled and we’re coming out,’” Stewart said.
So when it came time for Stewart to practice what he had been preaching all week, he didn’t want his players wondering whether or not their coach was all in because he is ALWAYS all in for them.
Stewart brought up the 2007 loss to Pitt when two missed field goals early in the game set a bad precedent for the team.
“That absolutely deflated us when we didn’t get points early in ‘07 and that’s why I did it,” Stewart said. “I didn’t not want to put that pressure on our football team early ? I wanted them to say, ‘The old man is going for it. He’s going after the jugular.’ And that’s what I told them. No one said a word.”
Stewart went for it a second time on fourth and 9 at the Pitt 27. Once again, his offense was unsuccessful
“The second one, when it was second down I said I’m not kicking this ball. (The other coaches) said, ‘Hey …’ I said, ‘I’m not kicking this ball. Get two plays (ready). That third and (nine) didn’t turn out like we wanted and the fourth and (nine), ‘I said I’m not backing up.’
“When I looked behind me on the second one I saw Robert Sands, Chris Neild, J.T. Thomas, Reed Williams and Scooter (Berry). Those guys don’t coach, they play; I run this outfit, I call all of the shots,” Stewart explained. “But I said, ‘Men, I’m putting this on your back!’ They said, ‘Coach we’ve got your back. Don’t kick it. Go for it!’ I knew right then that we were going to be in the football game.”
Stewart has said repeatedly that at this point in his career, freshman Tyler Bitancurt’s range is the 25 yard line. That is the area he is most comfortable kicking from.
“The second one I thought about 28 yards ? he wasn’t hitting them well first of all in warm-ups,” said Stewart. “His kicks were low, secondly, and I didn’t want to put pressure on the young man and take the air out of the sails like what happened to us two years previously.”
The same message he was conveying to his players he wanted sent to those standing across the field as well.
“I wanted the Pitt defensive staff to know that they were playing a different opponent – that they were playing guys that were not going to go down easy,” he said. “That’s the message that I wanted to send, right, wrong, good, bad or indifferent.”
For his part, Bitancurt understood precisely Stewart’s intentions and he wound up making four field goals, including the game winner with no time left on the clock.
Stewart did something similar in another high-pressure game against Marshall earlier this year when his starting quarterback Jarrett Brown was standing on the sidelines with a concussion. West Virginia was struggling to move the ball with freshman quarterback Geno Smith under center, and the coach wanted to show his team that he had confidence in his young quarterback.
With the ball on the Marshall 27, Stewart eschewed the field goal try and went for it on fourth and long. Smith made a terrific play by eluding an all-out blitz and completing a first down pass to Jock Sanders. One play later, Noel Devine scored a touchdown to give the Mountaineers their first lead of the game.
“That was pretty aggressive,” Stewart noted.
Hit the rewind button to last year’s game against Rutgers in Morgantown. If you recall, Stewart called a fake punt at the Rutgers 45 on fourth and 2 that Zac Cooper ran 18 yards to the Rutgers 27. The fake punt set up Jarrett Brown’s touchdown run, giving West Virginia a 24-10 lead.
Then with two minutes remaining and West Virginia needing one first down to ice the game, Stewart went for it on fourth and 1 at the Scarlet Knights’ 46. It didn’t work but the defense held.
Stewart had faith that it would.
That wasn’t the case earlier this year at South Florida when his patched-up defense was minus several key players. That’s why Stewart chose to punt the football twice inside USF’s 40.
“The defense wasn’t playing that well. Any time my defense is playing like they were playing the last two games (against Cincinnati and Pitt) ? because they’re all back,” Stewart said. “This is the first time all season our defense – the starting 11 – has been together.”
Despite a tough, physical game against Pitt last Friday, Stewart expects all 11 players on defense to be ready to go once again this Saturday against Rutgers – a Scarlet Knights team that will be gunning hard for the Mountaineers.
Because of that Bill Stewart wants his players gunning hard for Rutgers, too – just like their coach will be.