Saturday’s win over Syracuse marked the midway point of West Virginia’s 2008 regular season. Despite their 4-2 record – including a perfect 2-0 mark in the Big east – few could have expected the offensive struggles the Mountaineers have encountered through the season’s first six games.
West Virginia’s average of 317 yards per game ranks 77th out of 119 Division One FBS programs. In scoring offense, the Mountaineers are 84th with an average of just over 22 points per game. The most important stat, though, is what head coach Bill Stewart is talking about.
No, the Mountaineers aren’t gashing opponents up and down the field with a high-powered offense, but they ultimately accomplishing the main objective, albeit in a grinding fashion.
“We’re finding ways to win,” Stewart said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “We’re playing guys that aren’t starters and still finding ways to win. We lost guys to the pros and are still finding ways to win. I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of what we’re doing off the field as well as on the field.
“What I would like is a whole lot of points, but that hasn’t happened yet,” he continued. “I’d like more ball control. That will come. We’ll get better and better.”
At least some of West Virginia’s offensive struggles can be attributed to the new 40-second play clock, which starts automatically at the conclusion of each play. It is quite clear through six games that the Mountaineers have yet to fully adjust to the rule change, which has cut down on the amount of plays per game across all of college football.
“We’re losing plays,” Stewart said. “It’s a faster game. What’s ten more minutes? The game goes faster, but we’re having less plays.”
Clock rules or no clock rules, however, West Virginia has been unable to sustain long scoring drives, something that has contributed mightily to the low scoring numbers. If drives can be sustained, Stewart says, opportunities to throw the ball more will present themselves.
“We would like to pitch and catch more,” Stewart admitted. “We haven’t had the ball to control it more. We need to just pitch and catch a little bit more.
“When you have the ball 35 minutes, you can pitch and catch a lot more,” he explained. “When you only have it 25 minutes and 50 some plays, it’s harder to pitch and catch. We have to keep sustained drives, possession time and have more plays.”
Though this weekend’s open date is not a true off week by virtue of next Thursday’s game against Auburn, the extra time off between games will afford some beaten and battered Mountaineers a little bit of extra healing time before taking the field against the Tigers.
“We came out of it in the sixth game, the second Big East game, banged up,” noted the first-year head coach. “I’m sure every team in America is banged up. These last two Big East games have been really physical. I call it the black and blue league because we bang on each other and we beat on each other. It’s football at its best when you get to play against rivals like we have in the Big East.
“It’s a great time for us to heal at the halfway point,” added Stewart. “If I could ever pick an open date, now would be the time that I would pick it.”
In recent weeks, the training room inside the Puskar Center has been as crowded as rush hour at Penn Station. Injuries of varying degrees have piled up over the past month, causing notable players such as Pat White, Josh Jenkins and Pat Liebig to miss games and others such as Jarrett Brown, Sidney Glover and Quinton Andrews to be limited if not held out altogether during practice.
White, West Virginia’s senior quarterback, missed the Syracuse game still feeling the effects of a head injury sustained in the win over Rutgers. White was set to return to the practice field full-time on Tuesday afternoon.
“He’s doing well, no headaches,” Stewart said. “He’s bouncing around as good as his normal self. He’s tugging on my cape to play and practice, so he’s going to practice.”
Brown, who started in place of White against Syracuse despite having an injured right shoulder, is likely to be limited in practice this week, but should be available for the Auburn game.
The prognosis for both Jenkins and Liebig was not as optimistic. Jenkins, who injured his knee against Rutgers and did not dress this past weekend, looks to be a game-time decision at best.
“I don’t know that Josh Jenkins will be ready by Auburn,” Stewart said of the freshman offensive lineman. “He will be close, but I don’t know that he will be ready.”
Liebig is still recovering from a concussion he suffered nearly a month ago, and while he is making progress, it appears unlikely that he will suit up against Auburn.
Stewart, offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel were the only members of the coaching staff in the office on Tuesday. With a little bit of extra time on the docket this week, assistant coaches have hit the recruiting trail.