On The Defensive

A sobering home loss to a Syracuse team that was a heavy underdog had Bill Stewart answering questions about his philosophy as a football coach by Sunday, as he tried to defend the decision he made to substantially change the program's offense after being hired as WVU's head coach almost three years ago.

Those who had previously questioned Stewart's decision to abandon the spread option that former coach Rich Rodriguez used to great success at WVU gained further ammunition for their arguments after the Mountaineers' 19-14 defeat at the hands of SU on Saturday.

It was the tenth time in West Virginia's last 12 games against Football Bowl Subdivision that it failed to score more than 24 points.

That inability to put up points has played a big role in the program's recent struggles -- going back to the 2009 season, Stewart's teams are 7-5 in their last 12 games against FBS opponents and 4-3 in their last seven Big East Conference games.

As the team's offense sputtered throughout the final three quarters of Saturday's loss to the Orange, the Homecoming crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium booed often in frustration. The fans' fears were realized as WVU failed to score in the final three quarters and fell to Syracuse for the first time since 2001, Rodriguez's first year as head coach.

Stewart, in his third season in control of the Mountaineer program, defended the decision to abandon Rodriguez's oft-copied spread option offense in favor of a more traditional pro-style attack that has placed greater emphasis on the passing game.

"I'm not trying to be argumentative," Stewart said in response to a reporter's question on his Sunday afternoon teleconference. "But what we did was we beat South Florida with what I put in here two [games] to one. We were 1-2 [against USF] before I took over. That's something I think should be in your equation to that."

"Things had to change because the players [from Rodriguez's system] were going to graduate. The Pitt game we lost here in '07 [a 13-9 loss that cost WVU a spot in the BCS Championship Game], the same [defensive] coordinator was at Auburn the next year, and we beat them here [a 34-17 win in 2008 after] being down 17-0.

"So I see a lot of good we're doing. I just don't see consistency. That's as calm and honest as I can answer that question. Are we masters of any one particular thing? No. We've got to get better."

While the head coach, now 23-10 since accepting the West Virginia head coaching job, defended his philosophy in one breath, he offered a possibility that quarterback Geno Smith (who threw three costly interceptions in the loss to Syracuse) could be asked to run more often in coming weeks.

That is, to be sure, a page straight out of Rodriguez's book, as his offenses were most effective with former Mountaineer quarterbacks Rasheed Marshall and Pat White -- each more apt to beat teams with their feet than their arms -- at the helm.

"I think if we, you know, put a little more on the quarterback's legs and not his arm, maybe we can get a little bit better," Stewart said.

"Geno certainly is talented, but whether we do that remains to be seen at this time. I just ... you love to have a running quarterback. It certainly adds to the staple. But the deal is we need to run the ball a bit better, and hopefully we can do that. So we'll continue to work on that."

Stewart faced questions about whether his offense, designed with the idea of being more multi-faceted than those from previous seasons, was turning into a Jack of all trades and a master of none.

He didn't directly answer those, much in the same way he dodged a question as to whether he was satisfied with the way his offensive coaching staff, led by coordinator Jeff Mullen, had adjusted at halftime and throughout the game to the way Syracuse's defensive staff chose to attack WVU.

"We had a chance to win at the end, and we didn't get it done the last drive," Stewart said in response. "We've done it other games. We didn't do it this game."

After lamenting in his post-game press conference that his team's loss to Syracuse was, at least in part, due to the fact that players had "read [their] press clippings" and failed to take the Orange seriously, Stewart stuck to his guns in terms of that argument.

He stopped short of pinning the loss entirely on his players overlooking an SU team that has been resurgent under second-year coach Doug Marrone, but his lengthiest answer of the conference call concerned that topic.

"I'm not going to retract that in any way, shape or form," Stewart said. "I think we were beaten between the ears, from the shoulders up. That's as factual as I can be."

"They were reminded all week by their coaches [to take Syracuse seriously]. It was stressed by their coaches. That's where leadership, maturity, all those intangibles and sideline things come into being, so to speak. I'm not pleased with the Mountaineers' approach to the football game yesterday after being [cautioned] and over and over being reminded by the coaching staff.

"I've coached longer than these players have been on this earth. They had better trust their coaching staff ... if they do, then that's taken care of. They work very, very hard, and I think -- I don't think, I know -- they weren't nearly as impressed with Syracuse before the game as they are now after the game. That's the last I'm going to say on it."

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