While U of L (5-5, 2-3) is at the back end of the Big East race, it is a much-improved team under first-year coach Charlie Strong.
A big part of that has been the emergence of senior running back Bilal Powell, who is fifth in the country in rushing, averaging 134.11 yards per game on the ground.
Powell, who sat out his team’s win at Syracuse two weeks ago while dealing with a knee injury, returned for Louisville’s 24-21 overtime loss against South Florida this past Saturday. He showed no signs of a continued slowdown, running for 140 yards on 31 carries.
“He’s pretty good,” Stewart said in a bit of understatement.
“I see him as a competitor ... he looks to me like he’s the heartbeat, so to speak, of that offense. He’s tough to bring down.”
But Strong, who was the defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida before finally getting a shot as a head coach in Bluegrass country, has done even more to change the Cardinals’ fortunes on that side of the ball.
The Cards ranks 15th in the country in total defense (306.50 yards allowed per game) and 22nd nationally in scoring defense (19.4 points allowed per game). Notably, Strong’s squad shut out Connecticut 26-0 on Oct. 23 -- the same Huskies squad that would go on to beat the Mountaineers 16-13 in overtime just six days later.
“I see aggressiveness,” Stewart said, when asked for his impressions of the Louisville defense. “I see Charlie Strong’s personality, from the time I’ve known him throughout the years. They have a wide range of players, with youthfulness and old guys. They tackle really well in the open field. That is what I saw them do when they shut out UConn. You shut out UConn, you’re playing pretty darn good defense.”
“So this is going to be a heck of a challenge for the Mountaineers,” the third-year West Virginia coach continued. “It’s going to be a tough football game.”
BACK TO BRAUN:
Starting right tackle Jeff Braun was replaced in the second half of WVU’s 37-10 win over Cincinnati on Saturday by senior Matt Timmerman. The reason for that switch had not been discussed until Tuesday, but Stewart indicated it was not because of any issue the coaching staff took with Braun’s performance.
“Jeff Braun has been playing very, very hard and solid and he kind of got nicked up a bit,” the head coach explained, going on to say that the redshirt sophomore was dealing with “a little sharp pain in his shoulder” against the Bearcats. “It was nothing major, so he’ll be back in the starting line-up for sure.”
Still, Timmerman, a fifth-year senior, was impressive enough in his time on the field that it was asked whether he had earned an opportunity to see a bit more playing time. Stewart seemed to downplay that possibility while still praising the work of Timmerman as part of the Mountaineers’ short-yardage package and extra point team.
“Old Matt Timmerman came in there and gave great relief in a back-up role and did a really nice job,” Stewart said. “He played very hard. He’s a senior, a veteran. It was really neat to see him play like that at home. I watched him very closely on the film Sunday just to see, and boy, he competed hard.”
“He’s a big guy and knows how to play, and I’m just glad he went in there and did really well for him, because he’s such a great young man.”
In his three seasons in control of the West Virginia football program, Stewart has proven tough to beat within the confines of Milan Puskar Stadium. His squads have fared considerably worse outside of Morgantown.
The head coach has a record of 18-2 in games played at Mountaineer Field, but has gone 5-8 in true road games in the same span. That includes losses in two of the first three road contests in the 2010 campaign -- and only a desperate comeback and an overtime win at Marshall kept allowed WVU to collect that one victory.
“I don’t know,” Stewart said, when asked why his teams have found so much more success at home. “I think most people, generally speaking, I would imagine, probably have a better home record. That’s why the home crowd is always so special to you and to the young men out in the arena playing.”
That could be a bit concerning for Stewart, as his team has two Big East road games in its last three outings, starting with Saturday’s contest at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville (where the Cards are 61-20 all-time and 3-3 this season).
But the head coach said there was no simple way to explain his squad’s issues away from home and explained that his staff tries to make everything seem as familiar as possible to players when they are not in Morgantown.
“We’ve done okay on the road,” he said. “We’ve won some big games and lost some heartbreakers. This year, it’s not been as pleasant as we’d like for it to have been. So maybe we can make amends for that and try to right the ship and get back on track. But we do keep everything pretty much consistent whether we’re home or away.”