Taking a Moment To Interpret Stewart’s Words

MORGANTOWN – There was some talk after West Virginia’s 19-14 loss to Syracuse on Saturday that coach Bill Stewart might have let himself and his coaches off the hook, while placing much of the blame on the shoulders of student-athletes.

First of all, there’s a little perspective to keep in play here. Rarely, in any of our jobs, succeed or fail, do we have a press conference 15 minutes after we conclude our day having to answer questions from 50 or so media members in which we stand there, still stuffed with emotion, toeing a fine line on anything.

The coaches, as was the case during each of West Virginia’s five victories, did not make a block, a tackle, a run, a throw, or a catch in this Homecoming loss.

Still, Stewart’s comments left some room for some interpretation. Let’s review some of them and see what we can come up with.

1. “Maybe I have a football team now, as I said at halftime, that will worry about doing the little things right, will read a few less press clippings. And will take care of business when it has to.”

Hmm. Seems like a coach’s job to keep distractions to a minimum. Stewart talked for roughly 10 minutes and never really did pin blame on the coaches. He said they warned the players not to take anyone lightly – respect all, fear none, were his words – and he did say it was a total team defeat. “From me, to staff, to players – anyone involved. Total team defeat,” he said.

But there was nothing specific about coaches not having guys prepared. Other coaches, like offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, did shoulder a lot of blame, saying if quarterback Geno Smith had a rough day, it’s on him for not having him prepared as his position coach.

2. About Smith, Stewart said: “We had a case today of a young man that’s a big feature in our offense that just had a rough day at the ranch. He had a real tough outing. When that happens, he needs help. You cannot have an offsides here, you cannot have a hold there. You can’t have a dropped ball here. When this young man, who people are writing ballads about, is not clicking. First interception, you can’t throw a slant over the middle. He’ll learn that. Seventh collegiate start, first time that happened. Bootleg down at the goal line, you can’t throw across your body. He’ll learn that.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. There were more than 58,000 fans at the stadium watching the game and countless others viewing it on an ESPN2 audience. It doesn’t take a coach with more than 40 years of experience to see that Smith struggled mightily in the game. It wasn’t entirely his fault. He was playing behind an offensive line that looked like turnstiles at times and one that admitted it wasn’t figuring out what Syracuse was throwing at it until it was too late. That leads to failure. Sure, Stewart mentioned it, but he wasn’t making something up as an excuse. It happened before all of our eyes. Smith had three interceptions before halftime. He had two the entire season going into the game. Just as he said. It wasn’t his day. There isn’t a quarterback on the planet who doesn’t go through it.

What happened with the offensive line? “That guy beat this guy. Just like South Florida had three sacks on us.”

Again, it was a specific answer to a specific question. No need to dig further into that.

”The intelligence side of our game was not good.”

Here’s a coach’s problem. Simply saying ‘respect all, fear none,’ isn’t going to get a bunch of 18-22 year olds to believe it can’t continue to beat up a team that it had beaten eight straight times and was coming off a 30-point loss. “Young people in life have to have heartache to get their attention sometimes,” Stewart said.

Nearly all the players who met the media after the game – and there weren’t that many – admitted they weren’t prepared.

“We didn’t look focused out there at all,” senior nose tackle Chris Neild said. “They came and they played real hard. They deserved that win right there.”

Said Smith: “I just think they were more physical than us. We didn’t come out with the right mindset. We didn’t come out with an attacking mindset. We were taking a lot of punches. I think they were more physical than us. That’s something we have to work on.”

Plain and simple. That’s on the coaches.

So, in the end, Stewart was right. Total team loss. No matter how he said it, or what the interpretation was, everybody involved is second-guessing themselves this morning. That doesn’t happen because of one person or one group of people.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: elliott@theintelligencer.net