Stewart Shows Savvy

West Virginia landed in Arizona a team surrounded by many yet unanswerable questions. Among those isn't leadership.

Interim head coach Bill Stewart is proving as adept as any at dodging bulletin board fodder and playing up a foe. He has an easy test in No. 4 Oklahoma (10-2), winner of consecutive Big XII titles and stockpiled with national-championship level talent. Playing up the abilities of the Sooners is like selling studios on the capabilities of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And Stewart has taken to the part.

"I look at all of these rushing touchdowns, passing yards and passing touchdowns and gee I don't know what to do," Stewart said shortly after landing in Arizona. "I hope we can just hang with them. They are No. 1 in the country in kickoff returns. They have had 19 interceptions, which is just absolutely remarkable. They have been very good in the punting game. Their third down conversions is fifth in the country. I can just go on and on. So looking at this press release, I hope our players don't see this. I hope they just give it to the coaches."

They have thus far. At least in the short term, Stewart has been the mix of confidence and tranquility No. 11 West Virginia (10-2) needs. His concoction of short, crisp practices, focus on what can be controlled and the early release and late assembly of team has further vaulted his already high standing with the players. What remains now is for Stewart to dial his team in not on themselves, but on No. 4 Oklahoma.

"This game at a glance, and I am taking this right off of a press release, provides to be a very interesting match-up," Stewart said. "As I look at the opponent, whom I am very respectful of, I see they are No. 3 in the country and scoring 43- plus points a game. Their scoring defense is ninth. The total offense is about 450 yards a game. The defense is totaling 325. They are very high in the national rankings. This is the seventh of Coach Bob Stoops' nine teams to have won 11 games. That is unheard of in today's college arena. Their players are tremendous. Their offense, defense and special teams have no flaws. This is a very fine football team we are about to face. It's a juggernaut. I'm an old defensive guy and to me, I just shake my head.

"Everything you see here is just at the tops of the charts. Their opponents have converted 65 of 198 third downs for an average of only 32.8 percent. In the fourth quarter, their opponents are 6 of 41 on third downs. That's 14 percent. I've never heard of that. I talked to one of my former coaches, coach Dick Crum, who was also one of the coaches for Bobby Stoops at Kent State, and Kevin Wilson, the offensive coordinator and one of my good friends, and they said you just have to keep close for four quarters and see what happens."

Then, after typical overemphasis of opponent strength – a hybrid of the bait-and-switch techniques mastered by most football mentors – Stewart countered with comments about his own team.

"It's an honor to be here representing the Mountain State," Stewart said. "It is a real pleasure to get off that plane and see such excitement and see such reception for what we think is the finest bowl today. … We had a great travel out. We were early so that is always a good sign. It is a game we have very much been looking forward to. We did not end the season on the note we would have liked to. We played against a very aggressive and very fired up University of Pittsburgh football team. They played a tremendous game and had a heck of a game plan. We didn't play what we thought was our best. I think coming out here we will have a chance to regroup and probably put on a great show for all of you great people.

"It is very special for me. I lived here in 1988 and 89 so I know what the Fiesta Bowl is all about. I was very blessed to be on Coach Larry Marmie's staff (at Arizona State) in the '88 and '89 seasons. I had the privilege to watch the West Virginia Mountaineers play Notre Dame in the national championship game here. I wore a cowboy hat that day and I remember I was aching that day because the Mountaineers got beat. I tipped (the hat) down over my eyes so not so many people could see me because I was having a pretty tough day."

Stewart noted that West Virginia had "tremendous" practices prior to departure. The Mountaineers drilled this morning at Scottsdale Community College and will hold four more practices before the Jan. 1 walk-through.

"We went right to work," Stewart said. "They gave us a great effort. It was spirited. It was crisp. We banged around a little bit. I thought we had some very good practices. The state of the union in West Virginia right now (is that) everyone is excited about another chance to play a football game. About the West Virginia football team, I've been doing this 33 years and we probably have the finest chemistry as I've ever seen. I've been blessed to coach at some of the service academies, and there you think of the bonding, the brotherhood and the togetherness. I can assure you at the state flagship school in Morgantown, West Virginia, our players have bonded like any other."

The Mountaineers are 1-2 all-time versus Oklahoma, with all three games being played in Norman, Okla. WVU upset the Sooners 41-27 in the last meeting, in 1982, and are again considered the underdog. Oklahoma has put up more than 50 points three times and once scored more than 70. It also defeated Missouri twice, once when the Tigers were No. 1. OU is 18-2-2 all-time against teams from the Big East.

"It has been a total team effort," Stewart said. "It started with our coaching staff. They I compliment so very greatly because our coaching staff stepped up to the plate. I'm just a guy they happened to name interim (head coach). We've all rolled up our sleeves and worked hard. The players have responded magnificently. That's not hype. I can't tell you how proud we are of how our players went right to work. (Former WVU head coach) Don Nehlen came and talked to the team last Wednesday. He talked about distractions. Coach Nehlen told our players that he thought his team was distracted 20 years ago. He cautioned them on that. He said, ‘Guys, don't let distractions eat at you the rest of your life.' It hit me hard. It's something that's passed. It's gone. It's over. It's been a real tribute to our players. It started with our coaching staff then our players jumped on board. Then the entire state and community have jumped on board as well. I don't look at it as adversity. I look at it as old news and we are ready to go.

"I think 20 minutes after Coach (Rich) Rodriguez's meeting, that Sunday, we had to step up and take some action. We have a group called the Apostles and they are elected by their peers of each class. Those guys are our leaders. They talk and do things throughout the year in a leadership role. They are voted on and looked upon as leaders. We have a tremendous group of seniors, who are very few in numbers, but they did a tremendous job. From day one, we were just honest. If you are honest with people and honest with yourself, then I think people respond in a very quick fashion. Young people today are a whole lot more resilient than when I was a young man. I would have probably thought that my world fell apart. They know when you do a good job people get opportunities. That was really a good life-altering lesson for our players."

Note: Stewart also commented on quarterback Patrick White, who sustained a dislocated thumb in the game against Pitt: "He is good to go. He got a little nick on his thumb. Patrick White is good." He also mentioned the though process behind WVU's balance of fun and preperation: "We did some things different the past two years than the previous three years {a sentiment Rodriguez denied earlier}. It was practice things we did. Time restraints and things like that. Listen, these guys are going to run the streets of Phoenix. I can promise you that. But they are going to work. They know what to do. We've all learned as coaches. We know them and they know us. We know what to expect. It's going to be business at hand. We think we have the right formula and we are going to continue to do that formula.

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