West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith says the job coach Bill Stewart did rallying the team after back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut was nothing short of amazing.
“He got behind us and he got on us and he held everyone accountable,” Smith said. “He didn’t make any excuses, and it wasn’t a pity party or anything like that.”
Those six miserable days in October saw the Mountaineers twice blow early leads and turn the football over a total of seven times. Against Syracuse, West Virginia had a chance to put the Orange away early in first half, but Smith threw a costly interception in the end zone that took certain points off the scoreboard for the Mountaineers.
The Connecticut game went down the drain in overtime when Ryan Clarke fumbled at the goal line as West Virginia was about to punch in for the go-ahead score. Had Clarke scored it would have been interesting to see if the Huskies could have tied the game against a West Virginia defense that held them to just 278 yards of offense.
After those two losses West Virginia’s Big East record was 1-2 and most of the team’s preseason goals were in the dust. The snowball rolling downhill was gaining speed when Stewart intervened.
“He basically told us our backs were against the wall and we had to fight to get out and I think that’s what we did,” Smith said.
For turnarounds, it rivals the job Don Nehlen did in 1994 when his team started the season 1-4 and ended up going to the Carquest Bowl. Years later, Nehlen thought what his coaching staff was able to accomplish that season to get things fixed exceeded the job they did during their two undefeated seasons in 1988 and 1993.
This year Stewart was able to make similar repairs. He wanted more I-formation with bigger backs in the game to keep the offense on schedule, he wanted Smith to run more option to keep defenses honest and he wanted his team to exorcise the frustrations that were building up after two weeks of bad football.
“Not to disrespect the teams that beat us, but we felt like we should have won those games and we told ourselves let’s get to it and go out and win,” Smith said.
Once everything soaked in – watching the Connecticut students rush the field after their loss in Hartford and reading the Monday morning quarterbacks and the Internet complainers – the players took out their frustrations on themselves, something Stewart willingly encouraged during practice.
And the offense, sick and tired of being blamed for everything bad that was happening to the team, finally fought back.
“They kind of got their lunch money taken by the defense pretty much all camp and all fall and finally a couple guys just bowed up,” Stewart explained. “We had some enthusiasm in practice and I said, ‘We’re going third down against each other.’”
“I think the hardest part was we had a bye week and we were off like two or three days and had a chance to let it sit on our minds and it kind of ate at you,” added Smith. “Then once we got out there practicing, we kind of let our frustrations out on one another in competition drills. We were hitting each other and getting into fights and stuff. I think that kind of turned our season around.”
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen thought it was a matter of players simply realizing that a few plays are all it takes to define an entire football season.
“I think they understood that and when you bring that attitude to practice you’re going to have success against a lot of people, and clearly when you have success against one of the best defenses in the country, you’ve got to feel pretty good,” he said.
With the heart of its schedule still in front of it – including two tough games on the road where WVU hadn’t exactly set the world on fire, West Virginia went out and whipped Cincinnati, Louisville, Pitt and Rutgers to finish the season with four straight wins and make a return to the national rankings. During that four-game stretch, the Mountaineer offense averaged 31 points and nearly 400 yards per game against three of the better defenses in the Big East.
“Had I been maybe more selfish I could have got more points in a couple more games,” Stewart pointed out. “But I did what I did and I stand by it.”
And Stewart’s players stood by him.
Look at the way they rallied behind their coach after most of their preseason goals went by the wayside in mid-October, and then compare that to what happened up in Pittsburgh. Pitt was picked to win the Big East, lost some early non-conference games before stumbling at UConn, but the Panthers still had everything in front of them in conference play when they faced West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl.
Then the Mountaineers stepped on Pitt’s throat in the second half in a blowout victory that could have been much worse than the final 25-point margin indicated. The Pitt players standing on the other side of the field looked cold, disinterested and defeated – and it wound up contributing to their coach losing his job.
Stewart’s players never wavered in their belief of him, even when it was so easy to do so.
“They followed the plan, they had faith in the plan and they executed the plan,” said Stewart. “Things have a way of working out when teams do what you ask them to do.”
There is still unfinished business ahead. The Mountaineers have an opportunity to make a little history on Dec. 28 against NC State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
“We have a chance to be the eighth team in West Virginia history to win 10 games or more in a season,” Stewart pointed out.
Smith is just gratified that the senior class will once again go out winners when it wasn’t such a sure thing back in October.
“It was just great to get those wins down the stretch for the seniors,” he said.
By John Antonik
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