"They worked hard and got after it, and we are going to let them go," said Stewart, who has also cancelled some of the pre-practice fitness and other routines ran by former WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Stewart remains heavily involved with special teams, but is also expanding his overall approach. Stewart also had Gov. Joe Manchin and former West Virginia head coach Don Nehlen speak with the team about perseverance. Nehlen spoke on Tuesday, with Manchin coming to Morgantown on Wednesday. That's been the extent of the rah-rah speeches from Stewart, whose style is much calmer than that of Rodriguez, a major change from players that might be what is needed at this time.
"Coach Stew is a great coach and it's quieter with him, more laid back," said tailback Noel Devine, who announced his decision to return to WVU after considering a transfer when. "With coach Rod there was a lot of yelling. We are doing what we do and using our skills on the field without getting yelled at."
West Virginia will practice Friday. The players will then be released one day early – WVU was originally slated to hold a Saturday session as well – and reassemble Dec. 26 in Arizona for the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl versus No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1). The Mountaineers will hold three practice sessions at Scottsdale Community College before scaling back on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
"We know the task at hand," Stewart said. "We are not going out there to just hang in there and play not to win. If the speed limit's 55, we don't want to be going 35. We want 70 or so. We have to take pride in what we do on offense, defense and special teams. We won't play it close to the vest, but we'll play it smart. I think Oklahoma is the best team in the country. Really, and I told the Fiesta Bowl folks this yesterday, with the talent level on the field this could be a national championship game."
Stewart will match wits with a former graduate assistant. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson was a GA under Stewart at North Carolina in 1985. He heads a Sooner offense that ranks third in the nation at 43.8 points per game and fourth in red zone efficiency at 88.5 percent (54-61). Oklahoma averages 451.2 yards of total offense per game and is second in the nation in pass efficiency. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford is first overall individually. He did not play in OU's lone loss. Stewart is aware of the challenge.
"I am just so impressed with Kevin Wilson and his play calling and strategy," Stewart said. "Kevin Wilson and (OU head coach) Bobby Stoops – who I tried to recruit to another college when I was there – we are all great friends. We visited out there a couple years ago. That quarterback and offensive scheme, they are flawless. That sounds like I am throwing in the towel, but I am not. That is more of a challenge. We have to find chinks in the armor and attack it. We cannot go out there with a sledgehammer. We have to be surgeon-like, take a nick here, a nick there, up-tempo, fast, no-huddle, another nick and try to slay the dragon that way. You do not go at Oklahoma with a sledgehammer, because they will knock you out."
Note: Stewart also made a brief comment about the WVU head coaching vacancy.
"I am very proud and humbled by this, and this is my dream job," Stewart said. "I know how I am and what I stand for and what I can do to lead this team. I will not politic for the job. That being said, if they want to continue this same offense with the same kind of strategies – and we are up there in the nation pretty good – and the same defense and special teams with the coaches that I know will hang with me (they can). I have been in charge of the special teams for years, and we are pretty good in that. Again, I won't politic. We are doing whatever we can in terms of recruiting and recruits. We are trying to hold this ship afloat and we are doing it with a passion. These assistant coaches we have at West Virginia University should be applauded. I am getting the limelight for it, but they are doing all the work."