The Buffalos, winners of their first two games in 2008, are similar to East Carolina in that their defense features a host of veterans, including three seniors along the defensive front. Given West Virginia’s monumental struggles against ECU’s mobile defensive line, ironing out the glitches that occurred in Greenville in the coming days of practice could go a long way in preventing an encore performance next week in Boulder.
According to Stewart, there could also be some personnel changes up front, though he did not elaborate on who might be playing and who might be sitting. If nothing else, though, it sounds as if there will be plenty of spirited competition in practices leading up to next week’s game.
“We’re not in the firing mode, but there are going to be some guys who get more playing time this week, starting tonight in a full-pad, two and a half hour practice,” Stewart said. “There will be some competition there on the practice field here in a little bit.
“I thought a couple of our guys didn’t play up to their capability,” he continued. “There will be some more guys play this week on the line. We’re not at all gelled yet. This is only the second week of the season. I’m sorry I’m not that smart and don’t have my thumb on it, but there is still competition within our football team.
“They’ll start gelling, hopefully, in the third game. I think they’ll be playing a lot better. They have a big challenge.”
Stewart was asked if he was concerned about his team playing in a much higher elevation next week than they have played in to start the season. Having spent time in Colorado as an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy, Stewart has four years of experience dealing with the mile-high elevation and all that comes with it.
Will it be any additional factor in his team’s play, even though the Mountaineers will leave for Boulder a day earlier than they normally would for a road trip?
“Not one bit,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if we go out there one day or two weeks.”
It isn’t as if the Mountaineers will be scaling the Rockies while also trying to take on the Buffalos. At the end of the day, it’s just another football game, Stewart says, with the same elements as every other contest.
“A football play lasts, the longest one, is six seconds. By the time you throw a deep ball and the kid runs under it, it lasts about six seconds. Most of the time it’s only four seconds,” he explained. “In the elevation, all I’m asking our guys to do is strain for six seconds. With the 40-second clock, and even the human element, you’re going to have close to 40 seconds to rest.
“I do not believe in oxygen. That’s a joke,” he continued. “Oxygen is for astronauts. You go over on the sideline and put an oxygen thing on after the play is over. Why do you need it? If you need it while you’re playing, maybe that’s different. I don’t know. I’ve never been to (NASA) to experiment. I just don’t think that’s a big deal. I think it’s kind of comical.”
No matter what elevation his team is playing at, one phase of play he would like to see rise to another level is tackling. Against ECU, the Mountaineers missed countless tackles both in defending the run and in defending the pass. The big, physical Pirate running backs were able to shed would-be WVU tacklers at the line and pick up extra yardage, some of which led to first downs.
With a couple of extra days to prepare for Colorado, Stewart and the defensive coaching staff will be preaching the basics of tackling to West Virginia’s defense between now and next Thursday.
“It’s not an easy cure,” he said. “You have to take your feet with you when you tackle and wrap them up. With a big back, sometimes you have to go low on them.
“Today, we’re going to go out there and do our West Virginia victory drill right off the bat,” he continued, referencing WVU’s version of the old Oklahoma drill. “That’s three on three, full banging, hitting, tackling, blocking. It’s what you do. You make a block or you shed a block. You tackle or you get run over. It’s a great drill. I think that will be good for our guys. The good thing is we have time to get better.”
Through two games, West Virginia has had its fair share of good moments, but also plenty of not-so-good moments. Thus, perhaps more than anything else, Stewart is hoping to see an edge out of his charges that has yet to be seen against either Villanova or East Carolina.
“This is a game where we need to go out and put on the old gold and blue and play in the old gold and blue, not just wear the old gold and blue,” he said, reiterating similar comments that he has made in the days following the loss to ECU. “By that I mean when you put that uniform on, it’s time to send a message and make your mark. We have not made our mark. We’ve played, and we’ve played good, but we’ve played not so good. I won’t say we’ve played bad, because the opponent has something to do with that, but I’d like to see us play the Mountaineer way for 60 minutes.”