Offense Keeps Foot On the Gas

MORGANTOWN – After struggling in a big way offensively in the second half of their first five Big East games – where they combined to score fewer than 20 points – the West Virginia Mountaineers have opened it up the last two weeks.

The result? Two 21-point second halves, two victories, and a share of the Big East title, their fourth since 2004.

Contrary to popular belief, the coaching staff didn’t suddenly wake up and realize you have to score after halftime.

They’ve been well aware of what’s taken place, but risky plays were one-part not necessary, one-part a trust issue.

By the time the Backyard Brawl rolled around last week, they felt they’d seen enough maturation in sophomore quarterback Geno Smith and young wideouts like Tavon Austin to take a few more chances.

And, as offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen likes to say, they rolled the dice and hit sevens.

”This is the third quarterback in the third year in this offense,” West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. ”I wish they could all play every game like this, but they can’t. That being said, the sky is the limit. We’re going to get better and better and better.”

On Saturday, everyone was all in.

”We just kept coming and coming and throwing,” Stewart said. ”I said, ‘I’m not playing this game close to the vest, I’m not playing this game not to lose. I’m playing this game to win.’ You’d have seen it, if they’d have onside kicked, I was going to throw the ball at the end.”

In his first three seasons at West Virginia, Stewart has rarely, if ever, talked like that.

”I wanted all I could get (Saturday),” he said. ”I wanted these seniors going out happy. With all do respect to (Rutgers coach Greg Schiano) as well. Greg didn’t onside kick, I ran the clock out.”

How intense was it?

Smith had already thrown for 306 yards midway through the fourth quarter when he hit Brad Starks on a 46-yard bomb on a third-and-19 call.

”The call to Starks I made,” Stewart said. ”I thought they were going to hang me. I said I want it thrown, and I want it thrown now. I’m not asking. I want the ball thrown to No. 2. And we did. Sometimes head coaches will take precedent.”

That set up Ryan Clarke’s third rushing touchdown and put the Mountaineers up 35-7.

There was more evidence of WVU keeping the pedal to the metal earlier in the third quarter when, gasp, Mullen called a designed pass to tight end Will Johnson. It went for 37 yards on third-and-6, though it amounted to nothing as Smith fumbled the ball away while trying to get into the end zone, one of three red zone turnovers for the Mountaineers.

”That shocked all of you, I know,” Stewart said of a pass to a tight end.

Smith loved it. He threw for a career-best 352 yards, as he completed 23 of 28 passes, adding to his league-best passing efficiency lead. It was his second 300-yard passing game this season, the first WVU quarterback to do that in a season since Marc Bulger in 1999.

”Our passing game was on target,” he said. ”We continued to do it and did a good job of executing. All praise goes to the offensive line, because they protected me pretty well.”

Throwing the ball with a big lead, praise for a maligned offensive line? No desire to put the game away with 22 consecutive running plays? What’s going on here?

”Our football team has gotten absolutely better,” Stewart said. ”We were 1-2 in the Big East at one time. We’ve come back. And now we’re Big East champs. I’m very, very pleased.”

After a long-awaited offensive output like that, so might the fans be.


Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: