WVU: 2008 Look Back, 2009 Look Ahead

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IJanuary 2, 2009

If you thought WVU was going to make a national championship run this year, then the 2008 season was a huge disappointment. Not as big of a disappointment as losing to Pitt last year, but big.

If you think it was a disappointment, then you probably also think that Coach Bill Stewart was the wrong hire, wasted Pat White’s senior season, ruined the offensive line’s ability to run-block -- particularly on third-and-short -- completely ignored or perhaps even sabotaged his duties as special teams coach and looked like a clueless Goober on television.

If, however, you think the 2008 season was not a disappointment, you may believe that a 9-4 season with a bowl win at the end during a year of major transition -- only three major coaches, including the head coach, returned from 2007 -- is not so bad. Just look to Michigan to see what transition seasons can look like. Prior to the bowl season, only Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson had a better transition season than Stewart did, and his team got obliterated in its bowl game.

And consider this shocking fact that just wandered under my nose the other day: Bill Stewart and Rich Rodriguez have exactly the same number of bowl wins and BCS bowl wins at WVU: two and one, respectively. Amazing, right?

It is extraordinary that it took WVU’s offense 12 games to learn how to put together four full quarters. And it is true that Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen could not figure out how to use White all season. Every game, it seemed, they had a different idea for how to use White.  Further, Stewart’s plan to protect White by reducing his number of carries didn’t work -- he was knocked out of several quarters and one full game with injuries. To White’s credit, he gamely played on.

And this may be the worst of Stewart’s mistakes: WVU kickoff coverage and returns got worse as the season went on. In the offseason, Stewart must relinquish his special teams duties, either hiring a special teams coach or handing off the duties to another coach already on staff. WVU kickoff coverage was dreadful even in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

All that being said, the makeover of WVU’s offense this season, or next season, was necessary. Stewart is dead right on that.

Rodriquez’s offense was a perfect match of time, place and athlete: The zone-read option, as WVU fans saw in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, when run with quicksilver athletes such as White and Steve Slaton, looked like it had arrived from Mars, especially to Georgia. And to most of the teams that faced WVU over the 2005-2007 seasons.

The only 2005 loss came when Adam Bednarik was running the offense. The first 2006 loss -- at Louisville -- was caused by WVU turnovers, not the Cardinals’s defense. The second loss -- home against South Florida -- was caused by White’s injury and the Bulls’s defense.

Turnovers had a hand in the 2007 loss to South Florida, but so did their defense. And Pitt’s defense completely solved Rodriguez’s spread-option attack in 2007’s loss. It was time for a change. In the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, you saw WVU run the zone-read option, but you also saw them under center, running the sweep and throwing vertically. Exactly what you saw in the Car Care Bowl.

So, what does that mean WVU fans can look forward to in 2009? Some guesses:

- Expect WVU’s offensive line to beef up. The zone-blocking scheme depends on mobility and athleticism; fatties are liability. But that offense is gone. Expect WVU’s offensive line -- remember, o-line coach Dave Johnson came from Georgia, a classic I-formation team -- to get heavier and take up more space, as they are asked to run-block in the road-grader fashion that Stewart is accustomed to. Which means WVU fans should expect to see...

- ...more I-formation on offense. Stewart said last week that he wants to take WVU’s offense back to 1988-89, when Major Harris was under center -- literally -- and had a fullback and tailback behind him. This suits the skills of Jarrett Brown, who gets the offense now. I hesitate to say that Brown is a better passer than White, who is near the top of all-time efficiency ratings at WVU and just managed to go 26-for-32 for 332 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl game, but I will say he may be a more natural passer. And don’t forget this: Brown is not as fast as White, but he’s not slow, either. Remember the long run he ripped off against Rutgers in 2006, as well as those this season. He is plenty fast. The zone-read option with Brown in the shotgun and Noel Devine or another back behind him will still probably be in the toolbox, but much in the way it is in the NFL these days, with the various “Wild-” formations.

- More downfield passing. Alric Arnett has proven himself to be a reliable receiver, somewhere between a possession and downfield type, as has Bradley Starks. Not quite a game-breaker like Chris Henry, but more than a 10-yard-and-turn guy. Wes Lyons (still with the program, somehow) will never be a downfield threat. But incoming freshman Logan Heastie may be. And Jock Sanders also is a legitimate downfield weapon, especially when exploiting the middle of the field. Speaking of...

- ...look for more, more and more of tight end Tyler Urban. Stewart has anointed him a folk-hero-in-waiting and he has shown he can catch passes. Touchdown ones, too. Question is, can he block?

There are other big questions and holes to fill.

Chief among them is: Whole will punt and kick? Will it be Scott Kozlowski, who has never seen daylight since punting a touchdown against Louisville in 2006, or someone we’ve never heard of?

Wither Brandon Hogan? As of this writing, his mysterious illness remains a mystery. No one -- not WVU, not his high school coach, not his hometown folks, not the players -- is talking. The team response in the Car Care Bowl -- essentially dedicating the game to him -- speaks to Hogan being victimized by something; a disease, rather than self-inflicted boneheadedness. The disease could be physical or mental. It’s unknown to the outside world. There appears to be plenty of talent at corner, however, even with the loss of Ellis Lankster, as long as WVU doesn’t have to face UNC’s Hakeem Nix again.

Overall on defense, WVU should be solid. Lankster is a loss as is rock-solid linebacker Mortty Ivy. But linebacker Reed Williams returns, as does a bevy of other talented linebackers, including Pat Lazear, Najae Goode, Anthony Leonard and J.T. Thomas. There is a surfeit of talent there. The defensive line should be solid, as well, with the return of Scooter Berry, Chris Neild, Julian Miller and incoming JuCo monster, Tevita Finau, who is expected to compete not just for playing time but a starting spot.

Will WVU find a third-down and short-yardage solution? To the coaching staff’s defense, it was not their fault that big back Zach Hulce got injured and big back Terence Kerns couldn’t pick up the playbook. But to their discredit, they did not devise any other consistent ways to pick up short yardage.

Despite the gentle prodding of fellow college football blogger Lisa Horne, I am not ready to proclaim Stewart’s hiring -- as emotional as it was -- a failure yet. Nor am willing to call it a success. It simply is too soon to say. And, as loyal readers of this blog know, it will not rush to judgment.

So far, Stewart is 10-4 with two bowl wins, one a BCS bowl.

His recruiting class looks pretty impressive, including incoming quarterback prospect Geno Smith, who WVU picked up when Taj Boyd flaked out and is performing better in all-star games than Boyd, I am told.

The 2008 Mountaineer team was at times frustrating and heart-breaking. Nine wins and a non-BCS bowl is, frankly, not what I expected or hoped for. But I have to say the team won my affection with its grittiness and spirit. Gone, probably forever, is the Beautiful Machine of the 2005-2007 season, when WVU scored effortlessly. Gone, probably forever, are the 45-14 blowouts.

But this team managed, while being pulled in several directions, to scrape out -- often in ugly fashion -- nine victories including a fourth straight bowl win under, with and for White. And it was a pure delight to have one more opportunity to watch him play as a Mountaineer.

Now, it’s time for a new team and a new era.

When does spring football start?


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