In an opening statement of more than nine minutes, Stewart laid out the results of what he called “a total self-evaluation of the program.” At the conclusion of that evaluation, he had found at least one statistical reason for optimism and three areas of concern on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball that will be emphasized through this bye week.
Stewart pointed out that last season, the Mountaineers’ offense had only four games in which it gained 400 or more yards all season. Through the first eight contests of 2010, WVU has topped that benchmark five times.
He pointed out that his team’s scoring offense, which stands at 24.5 points per game, is only 4.5 points per contest behind arch-rival Pitt, the Big East Conference leader in that statistic. But he mistakenly said the Mountaineers are fourth in the league in that category (they are actually seventh) and failed to point out that even the league-leading Panthers are only 53rd in the country in scoring offense.
Indeed, the sum of the statistics isn’t pretty: West Virginia is still 67th in the country in total offense (369.5 yards per game) and 77th nationally in scoring offense (24.5 points per game).
Even if Stewart’s offense was gaining 400 yards in every game, that still would only mean the Mountaineers would be just outside the top 50 in terms of total offense.
But as a result of the “self-evaluation” he conducted, Stewart came up with three key areas to improve on to help the offense along: ball security (an obvious one, after WVU’s four lost fumbles on Friday night doomed it to the loss at UConn), lining up in proper formations (as illegal formation penalties have occurred on multiple occasions in recent weeks) and pass protection (perhaps moving the pocket a bit more and calling for more designed quarterback runs).
Even beyond those specific facets of the offensive game, Stewart said he has talked to his offensive coordinator, Jeff Mullen, about the team’s general approach to offensive play-calling and will continue to be more involved in that process.
“I grilled him and he’s grilled me,” Stewart said. “I went through every play and every player and said, ‘The plays you’re calling, Jeff ... can that guy do that? Can our left tackle do it? Can our back do it? Can our wideout do it? Can the quarterback handle it?’ So I’ve grilled those guys, and I’m going to continue to do that. That’s my job. Like it or lump it, that’s what I’m going to do.”
“We’re going to get on the same sheet of music. We’re going to call what we need to call to win football games with the plays our guys can do the best.”
But even though his team’s defense has been nothing short of stellar in the first two-thirds of the season, ranking in the top 10 in the nation in most major statistical categories, Stewart also had a trio of areas he hoped to emphasize in the coming weeks on that side of the ball.
The third-year head coach said he hopes to see the WVU defense create more turnovers in coming weeks (specifically fumbles), become more proficient at making open-field tackles and become more successful at keeping opponents from getting out of bad field position situations when backed up against their own goal line.
All the while, he insisted he was accepting blame for the team’s two-game losing streak in Big East play (the first time that has happened to the Mountaineers since the final two regular season games of 2004) and doing what a head coach should do -- trying to make every facet of his team better.
“All I’m trying to do is get things perfect,” Stewart, who called the last two games “a real eye-opener,” said. “That’s what a team does. That’s what a family does.
“But let me assure you,” he continued, stopping to ask the reporters in the room to make eye contact with him for his subsequent statement. “I am not a finger-pointer. I am not pointing any blame at these players ... so we start with Bill Stewart and we start with the coaches -- I’m going to grill them, believe me -- and then we go with the players [and tell them] ‘Just do what you can to the best of your ability and play hard.’ That’s all we ask.”
Stewart said seven of his staff members were on the road recruiting as of Monday, and he planned to join them on Tuesday (indeed, that was the reason the head coach’s weekly press conference was moved up a day).
He was asked if the “pitch” he uses to try to convince promising high school players to come to West Virginia had been altered at all in the wake of the struggles of the last two weeks and what he planned to say if parents or others questioned him about those issues.
“You can say, ‘That’s why we need your boy, so he can come up here and start and start quick,’” Stewart said with a smile. “I don’t think our guys will say that, because they’re classy guys, you know what I mean? What you say is, ‘Big East play, black-and-blue league, physical league.’”
“Things happen. So I don’t worry about our recruiting pitch. Recruiting is going very, very well. We’re in on some great players and we’ve got some great commitments thus far.”
As his team has struggled to put points on the board after fast starts in each of the last three weeks, Stewart addressed questions as to whether the issue is an inability to account for the adjustments opposing defenses have made after the first few drives of games.
It’s a question that has become more and more legitimate in recent weeks, as West Virginia has scored a total of only six points in the second halves of its three league games -- an average of less than a field goal in the final 30 minutes of those contests.
Stewart said he hoped to combat that by expanding quarterback Geno Smith’s role in the running game, something he said worked to great effect in the UConn loss (indeed, the Mountaineers’ had their highest rushing output of the season on Friday night).
“Two years ago and last year, I thought we did great halftime adjustments,” said Stewart, now 23-11 since accepting the head coaching job at WVU. “We’d be down at the half, come back and won the games. At least that’s what was said about us, what I saw. This year, it seems like we’ve not done as well at that. We need to work better at it.”
“I think it’s a thing where after you get so many films on someone, you know, we are who we are. We have not run the quarterback ... but by running, what I though Geno did the other night really opened things up. We had them really totally confused. And we’re probably going to run him some more. That’s what we’re going to have to do. I think that will help us.”
Asked if the criticism of fans and other observers of the WVU program was getting to him at all, or if it was something he knew came as part of being a head coach at a school in a BCS automatic-qualifying conference, Stewart brushed the question aside.
“I haven’t noticed [criticism], so it must not bother me,” said the coach, who fell to 7-6 in his last 13 games against FBS opponents and 4-4 in his last eight Big East Conference games with the loss to the Huskies. “I’ve got pretty thick skin.”