Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rain Man

The skies were clear on Saturday in Morgantown, but Pat White was making it rain touchdowns at Milan Puskar field. The victory over Villanova was not a surprise, but the air assault from Pat White racking up 5 TDs and throwing for over 200 yards certainly was. Alric Arnett backed up the hype that Bill Stewart gave him during camp by pulling in 2 TD catches, and Jock Sanders solidified his position at wide receiver by pulling in 2 TDs as well.

The defense raised some questions regarding their ability to shut down the offenses of more worthy opponents, but a slow defensive start for West Virginia has been the norm in recent seasons. The defense had a slow start last year and ended up being ranked 7th in the country. The defense did create 3 turnovers and scored on one of them, a contribution that will be even more necessary when the West Virginia offense plays against the stingy defenses of South Florida and Auburn.

After Virginia Tech's loss to East Carolina this past Saturday, the match-up this weekend between West Virginia and East Carolina is peaking the interest of college football fans nation wide. A loss this early in the season will surely eliminate the Mountaineers from national-title contention, and may be devastating to the confidence of such a young defense. The game this Saturday is a must-win if the Mountaineers hope to keep the success of recent years going, especially with a road game at Colorado in the coming weeks.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Where are they now?

As the 2008 Mountaineers take the field next week there is a ton of talent that will be wearing the old gold and blue, like Pat White, Reed Williams, and Noel Devine. On the other hand, there will be some household names that will not be seen in the huddle, like Owen Schmitt, Steve Slaton, and Darius Reynaud. All will be missed this season, especially the last two considering they were both eligible for one more year, but the good news is that if any of them was your favorite player to watch, you can still see them in action this season in the NFL.

Darius Reynaud was an integral part of the West Virginia offense last year. His athletic abilities were obvious and both Steve Slaton and Pat White claimed that he was the best athlete on the team. He opted to enter the NFL draft but was undrafted, then eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings. In his first preseason game against the Seahawks he returned 3 kickoffs for 109 yards and caught a 13 yard pass, a promising showing for any rookie. He is listed as a wide receiver on the Vikings roster wearing #82, and may be seen in action this Thursday against the Cowboys at 8PM ET.

Another major contributor to the West Virginia offense was Steve Slaton. He was discovered in the multi-overtime bout with Louisville, and was named the starting tailback from that game forward. His power and agility allowed him to rack up a number of records at West Virginia University; such as: most touchdowns in a game (6), most rushing yards in a season (1744), most TDs by any player at WVU (53), and third all-time rushing yards at WVU (3,923). Had he stayed, he surely would have blown a number of other records out of the water, but he opted to enter the NFL draft and was signed in the third round (89th overall) by the Houston Texans. He has racked up over 150 yards on both kick returns and rushing in preseason games, and scored the game winning touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. He is listed as a running back wearing #20 on the Texans roster, and his next game is this Thursday against the Buccaneers at 8PM ET.

Owen Schmitt may be the player that is missed most this year on the Mountaineer roster. He was given an opportunity to prove himself to Rich Rodriguez after a solid year at Division-III Wisconsin-River Falls. His gritty style of play and unwavering effort were hallmarks of not only the 2007 season, but his entire career. No mountaineer fan will ever forget the sight of him banging his helmet against his forehead after botching a punt attempt, or his 60+ yard run down the sideline for a touchdown against the Oklahoma Sooners. He personified everything that it means to be a mountaineer. He was drafted in the 5th round by the Seattle Seahawks and awarded a 4-year contract and $158,000 signing bonus. So far he has 3 catches for over 50 yards and two tackles on special teams. He is listed on the Seahawks roster as a fullback wearing #35, and can be seen tonight playing the Chargers at 8:00PM ET.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Coaching Controversy

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last year, you have heard about the tumultuous coaching change at West Virginia University. It has been a continuous storyline during the offseason for college football reporters, and still rears its ugly head just weeks before the 2008 season begins. Thankfully, the lawsuits have been settled in court and West Virginia did receive the $4 million dollars from the buyout clause on Rod’s contract; however, one thing remains unsettled: the stomachs of Mountaineer football fans.

The “ugly divorce,” as columnists labeled it, between West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez, came as a shock to the Mountaineer community. How could the coach that lifted this program onto the national pedestal leave weeks after it was ranked as the #1 team in the country? Over the last year a lot of information has leaked out concerning the weeks prior to his departure, and it turns out that the deteriorating relationship between Rodriguez and the athletic department had reached a point of irreparable damage. Rodriguez began looking for an exit strategy. A lackluster season by Lloyd Carr at Michigan opened up an irresistible opportunity, and Rodriguez jumped at the chance to coach in one of the top college football programs of all time.

The press conferences with Rodriguez decked out in Michigan regalia have long since sunk in, but the nerves associated with the Mountaineer ship without its salty sea-worn captain remain. Is Bill Stewart a worthy replacement for the father of the spread offense? Can he maintain or even improve the Mountaineer program from the point where Rodriguez left off? Only time will tell, but I think that Bill Stewart is exactly what the Mountaineer program needs right now.

As I look back at the tenure of Rich Rodriguez I see the obvious accomplishments that the program achieved: numerous Big East Championships, high-profile bowl victories, legitimate Heisman contenders, etc. However, I also look back and see moments of hair-pulling frustration. For example, last year on September 8th in Huntington, West Virginia, the Mountaineers trailed Marshall 13-6 at halftime. I specifically remember numerous 3-and-outs as Rodriguez repeatedly tried to rush the football, getting shut down time after time. When this “run-it-down-their-throats,” strategy was failing, Rodriguez seemed to take it personally, and would follow it up with a “now we are really going to run it down their throats,” attack.

We know Coach Rod wanted to win, but it seems that there was some underlying agenda to win only by running the football. Passing the football was the last resort, and Rodriguez would only turn to it in the most desperate situations. Not only did his stubborn one-dimensional offensive strategy put pressure on the players to succeed by running, but it also increased the wear and tear on ball carriers. As mentioned above, the two losses last season came when Pat White was sitting on the sideline injured. Had the offense incorporated some passing, it may have alleviated those injuries, opened up the running game even more, and reduced the number of weak offensive starts and subsequent close games.

Reports from West Virginia’s training camp indicate that Bill Stewart has been working some downfield passing into the offense. He realizes that Pat White is the lifeblood of the offense, and that he can not afford to put him in jeopardy by running on every down. Some believe that Stewart is not qualified for the job. I agree that his 8-25 record at VMI does not exactly instill the highest confidence regarding his ability to win; however, can you imagine how hard it would be to try and recruit good football players to come and play at a tiny military school? Not to mention, when the captain of the team declares on public television that Stewart should be the new head coach, it says a lot more about him as a coach and a leader than an irrelevant record in a completely different league. Stewart has surrounded himself with experienced coaches from major programs around the country and has key offensive starters returning. The defense does not have as much experience, but the coaching staff feels confident about the progress that many of the players have been making during camp.

Yes, Rodriguez took a piece of West Virginia football with him when he left, but part of that piece we didn’t want anyway. Coach Stew is now at the helm and he vowed to never leave West Virginia as long as he is wanted. That is good news, because the only divorce that Mountaineer fans could face now would be between the players and those atrocious yellow uniforms.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Pride of West Virginia

Questions to be Answered...

As college football fans everywhere get ready for the upcoming season it is important to look back and remember what made last season so special. Was it the opening weekend upset of Appalachian St. over Michigan, or was it Standford's upset of USC? Could it have been the curse of the number one position (teams in that spot were upset week after week), or the miraculous accomplishments of Heisman winner Tim Tebow (the first QB in college football history to score over 20 TDs both rushing and passing)? Even the casual fan will admit that last season eclipses any other in recent history, but the question remains: can this season even come close?

I believe that the answer to that question is...yes. The Heisman race this year will be just as intense, with Tebow trying to join Archie Griffin as the only player to ever win it twice, and Michael Crabtree, Chase Daniels, Pat White, and Chris "Beanie" Wells trying to rain on his parade. The season is packed with crucial inter-conference games, such as Ohio State vs. USC in September and Auburn vs. West Virginia in October. It will be interesting to see how Utah fares against Michigan, and Appalachian St. against LSU on opening weekend. Will the season kick off with another monumental upset?

Who is going to rain on the BCS parade? Will BYU be able to make a solid case in the Mountain West Conference that it should be graced with BCS glory, or will Utah smash their dreams as the two teams meet for the Holy War in their respective last games of the season. Most importantly, how will West Virginia fare in the Big East Conference? Will South Florida get the best of the Mountaineers yet again, or will they finally over come the stumbling block that the Bulls have been the last two years. The West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh game on November 28th may be the de-facto Big East Championship, not that either of those teams need any more of a reason to rip each other apart. The most important question may be whether Pat White will remain healthy. Both of West Virginia's losses last year came when #5 was standing on the sidelines. It will be critical for him to stay healthy and provide that much needed leadership for the West Virginia offense.

Either way, the final outcome of the season is irrelevant, at least for now. The important thing is that college football fans can start to hope again, hope that their team just might run the table, hope that they beat that bitterly-hated rival, and maybe, just maybe, end up playing in the national championship game at the end of the season. (...except Ohio State fans. After two consecutive national-championship game thrashings, it might be time to sell your buckeyes gear and buy "In Rod we trust!" t-shirts.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Signs You Are Ready for the 2008 Season

As the dog days of summer continue to drag out, certain events are transpiring that indicate the much awaited 2008 college football season is near. As I think about the upcoming weeks before the season begins, I have come up with the top 10 signs that YOU are anxious for the start of the 2008 season.

1. You filled out a bracket and started a pool in your office for the Little League World Series. (Personally, I would rather watch Saved By the Bell reruns or angry politicians on C-SPAN, but it is refreshing to know that when this tedious tournament begins, the season is almost here.)

2. For a lack of anything better to do, you have seen the new Batman movie 11 times. Not only can you recite a majority of the lines, but your friends have noticed that you have developed a twitch of licking your bottom lip between sentences.

3. You have actually been watching the NFL preseason games just to see some football.

4. You have been wearing your West Virginia jersey any time you are going to be in public.

5. To pass the time, you volunteered to walk around your neighborhood posting, "Obama, Change We Can Believe In," signs in peoples yards.

6. Much to your spouses chagrin, you ripped the grass out of your yard and put down turf and installed a goal post.

7. You have been watching baseball.

8. You have been selling blood platelets for months trying to save up for an HDTV.

9. You changed your sons names to Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit.

10. You downloaded the "We're Coming, To Your City" song and put it on your iPod.

Let's Get This Season Started!

Monday, August 11, 2008