The assistant head coach and unit coordinator noted that players are simply pressing too much physically and not nearly enough mentally. Syracuse's Mike Holmes, blessed with solid speed but lacking the field vision of ace frosh returner Max Suter, who was kicked away from via a series of lofted, hang-time based kicks, burned WVU for runbacks of 41 and 64 yards, the latter of which had to be stopped by place kicker Pat McAfee. The two returns set Syracuse up at the West Virginia 45- and 25-yard lines, respectively, and the Mountaineers were fortunate to surrender just seven points on the drives. Marshall, winless on the season, returned the opening kickoff inside the red zone and had to be held by the defense to ensure the early deficit was no more than three points.
So during the open week looming, the coaching staff decided it was time to not only shore up fundamentals and basics like block steps and angles, but to allow various players chances at seeing time on the units. No job is secure save that of McAfee, and even the wedge busters, WVU's notoriously tough trio of Pat Lazear, Andy Emery and Bobby Hathaway – the latter being absent for much of the season due to a hand injury – that blows up opposing blocking schemes, had to re-earn their spots over the week. Lazear was replaced after the opening kickoff against Syracuse; Hathaway, to his credit, asked to be placed back on the units even with his bad hand still limiting the defensive snaps he can take.
"Right now, kickoff and punt return are really frustrating me," Stewart said. "We have gone from being one or two in the Big East in each category to sixth, seventh, eighth. I am not mad or upset overall, but sometimes you have to change things up some. If the knuckleheads would block for Vaughn Rivers we would be back up there. If guys don't get out of their lanes, we would be fine on kickoff coverage."
On McAfee's second kickoff in the Carrier Dome, WVU's Johnny Holmes slid too far inside and Mike Holmes was able to break contain, getting to the outside and up the sideline because of the poor angle. On the third return, Holmes hit a crease opened not as much by Syracuse blocking as by West Virginia vacating areas to attempt to loop around blockers instead of smash the setup for the clean-up guys trailing. The combination of miscues dropped West Virginia to sixth in the Big East in kickoff coverage, ahead of only Connecticut and last-place Pitt. WVU is netting a 40-yard average, more than four yards off that of first-place Rutgers and second place Louisville. McAfee ranks sixth in the league in punt average, at 37.3, and Rivers is actually first in the conference in punt return average, at 10.6. But he hasn't busted one for more than 24 yards, something he did last season.
"It's the one area where you can lose a game like that," said Stewart of special teams. "The punt team is first, because it is most important. There are more big plays there, statistically, than anywhere else. There are more punts and punt blocks because there are a lot of fourth downs in football, more so than kickoffs. Fourth down is a good play. A punt is an exciting play. Let's make it a good play.
"Then the kickoff team is No. 2. We take defensive starters and offensive guys that are tough. I ask them to get the 10-best, along with Pat. They want to be on that thing. Bobby (Hathaway) came up and asked to be back on the team. I said ok, and he was doing it in practice. Then he goes down there in the game and ‘Bam!' he hits somebody. He was all over the field because he wants to play. That's what we have to find with other guys."
No other area continually changes field position as much as special teams, and that's a reason it is a concern. Add in the speed of Mississippi State, which is better than every foe WVU has faced except South Florida, and the Mountaineers will need to improve in the majority of areas. The mental game will be worked upon as much as the physical. West Virginia, for example, stopped one Syracuse drive only to see Charles Pugh take a bad block angle and rough the punter for a 15-yard personal foul penalty that resulted in a first down. Those kinds of giveaways will drop WVU from its top two Big East rank in both opponent fourth down conversions (33.3 percent) and overall opponent first downs (14.5 per game) and its top rank in fewest penalties (26 in six games/4.3 per game) and in penalty yards per game (38.0).
"I know sometimes they are trying to make a play by getting around a block or something. You have to give them that, give them credit for trying," Stewart said. "But that's not what we want. We want a guy that goes down there and executes his assignment and ‘Boom!' hits somebody. Just like at Marshall, a couple guys tried to run around blocks, and son of a gun, they took it right up in there. They have to be accountable.
"It's the weak link if one goes this way and another this way and there (the crease) is. We held (Syracuse) to 26 yards (- actually 25.1 - on average). If you eliminate those big plays they are back at 16 or so, right where we have been and want them to be. That's why I am frustrated. It's guys just over-doing it. They are straining maybe too much. They can do it. Man, great, but they have to have the mental area. If we don't do it right, with Mississippi State's speed, they will run us right out of the stadium."