That meant less sleep for some of Bill Stewart’s Mountaineer players, as the head coach instituted 6 a.m. offseason workouts in January. He followed through by holding several practices at the same hour during spring drills.
“That was a motto we started way back: ‘Never hit your snooze button,’” said Stewart. “That was a problem in the past.”
If the early part of this season is any indication, Stewart can consider that problem solved. His West Virginia team jumped all over Syracuse early in Saturday’s contest despite the fact that it was a noon kickoff at the Carrier Dome.
“I think those (early mornings) helped us start like we’re starting,” the second-year coach said. “Our players are coming out ready to go.”
Indeed, WVU did just that against the Orange, racing out to a 27-0 lead at halftime that could have been larger if not for a pair of possessions that stalled in SU territory in the final minutes of the half.
The team didn’t quite play the final 30 minutes at the torrid pace it did the opening 30.
Coordinator Jeff Mullen’s offense, which appeared to be unstoppable for stretches of the first half, managed only one touchdown in the final two quarters and had four three-and-outs in the same span of time.
The defense, which had allowed only 77 yards of total offense in the first half and given up only one first down on the final five of the Orange’s six first half possessions, loosened up just enough to allow backup quarterback Ryan Nassib to fire a pair of touchdown passes.
Thus, a game which appeared to be a complete mismatch early ended with West Virginia winning by “only” three touchdowns at 34-13.
While taking its proverbial foot off the gas pedal didn’t prove costly against Syracuse, it potentially could in later games against tougher Big East Conference foes. Stewart now has to address the very opposite problem of the one he dealt with a season ago -- instead of starting fast, his team needs to learn to close opponents out.
“We have to close the deal,” he said. “That’s maturity and mental toughness. Those are the things this program prides itself on. You fumble here, you fumble there, you don’t take a big play to the house and the next thing you know, you’re in a battle.”
Still, the statistics don’t lie. In most every facet of the game, the Mountaineers dominated their opposition in their conference opener.
“When you can control the ball 39:02 and run 74 plays (to SU’s 49), that is good,” Stewart said. “That doesn’t mean you are always going to win, but that certainly gives you a better chance and opportunity to win.”
Some miscues continued to haunt the visitors -- notably the three fumbles Stewart’s team put on the ground only one week after they lost four. On this occasion, the team managed to recover two of its own fumbles, helping keep the margin of victory high.
“Had we not fumbled again trying to get more yardage on a third down conversion past mid-field, we might have had more (points),” Stewart said. “I hate that. We work on that, and we’re going to continue working on that. But other than that mistake, and a kick-off return here or there, I thought we played very well.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO MARSHALL:
This week’s opponent is a familiar one for Stewart, who worked for the only other current Football Bowl Subdivision program in the Mountain State in 1980, back when it was a lower-division program.
While Marshall has never beaten the state’s flagship land grant institution on the gridiron, some still classify the annual Friends of Coal Bowl as a “rivalry” game. The attention paid to this matchup by fans on both sides should make getting the players emotionally charged up for the contest a bit easier, according to Stewart.
“I can’t imagine our team not being ready for that team down south,” he said.
“This game isn’t a Big East game, but it’s the team down south. That’s enough said. We had better be ready to play and take our state first before we start worrying about anything else. It’s big for me and it’s a big game for our players.”
Preparing for Marshall (the team) means that Stewart’s defensive staff will have to prepare for Marshall (the player).
Running back Darius Marshall anchors the Herd’s attack and is the No. 2 rusher in the FBS, averaging 147.4 yards per contest and having nine touchdowns to his credit thus far. He and WVU running back Noel Devine (who slots in at No. 3 in average rushing yards per contest, just behind Marshall) have an identical average of 6.64 yards per rush.
“I watched (him) on the highlights last night -- wow,” Stewart said of Marshall. “He runs behind his pads and he is tough.”
The Mountaineer head coach also singled out MU defensive end Albert McClellan for praise and said he sees plenty to worry about when watching head coach Mark Snyder’s team on film.
“I didn't sleep worth a lick (last night),” Stewart said. “They got a fumble and scored yesterday (in a 31-10 win against Tulane). Those highlights were very much an attention-getter.”