While former head coach Rich Rodriguez increasingly errs on the side of conservatism as his career progresses, Stewart coached three seasons in the Canadian Football League, where teams get just three downs to gain 10 yards. He showcased a wide-open style as head coach at VMI, as, thus far, seems more willing to throw, and throw downfield, that did Rodriguez.
"Coach Stewart told the receivers that we are going to open up the pass game in this bowl game, so be prepared," said receiver Darius Reynaud, by far WVU's main threat with 59 catches for 691 yards and 11 touchdowns. "I think this is going to be the biggest game of the year for us because of what happened with coach Rod leaving. We're conditioning to be prepared for that. We knew (Oklahoma) lost a couple of players in the secondary. We've got to take advantage of that."
No. 4 Oklahoma (10-2) will be without junior cornerback Reggie Smith, the Big XII preseason defensive player of the year. OU announced Dec. 6 that Smith will not play in the Fiesta Bowl because of a fractured toe suffered during the league championship game against then-No. 1 Missouri. Smith started all 13 games at cornerback and punt returner. He ranked fourth on the team with 78 tackles; he also had 11 pass breakups, three interceptions and one fumble recovery. The latter came against Miami and was returned 61 yards for a touchdown. A native of Edmond, Okla., Smith tallied 30 of OU's 42 punt returns, with a 6.8-yard average.
Fellow junior Lendy Holmes was originally expected to slide into the spot. Holmes, who was at corner but moved to safety for much of this season, was ruled academically ineligible after gaining just five of the six credits needed, according to hi father, Lendy Holmes Sr. Oklahoma will now start redshirt freshman Dominique Franks, who has just three tackles in limited action this season. Franks, who will also return kicks in place of Smith, is listed as the backup corner behind Marcus Walker, who starts opposite Smith.
The No. 9 Mountaineers (10-2) have thrown just 246 times for 1,891 yards this year while rushing 589 times for 3,515 yards, an NCAA-fourth best 292.2 yards per game. West Virginia was limited in its last outing versus archrival Pitt, however, and had no other answer when both the Panthers and South Florida stopped the running game in WVU's two losses this season.
"We watched film and we saw how physical these guys are," said tailback/receiver Jock Sanders, one of the players who would most benefit from a more balanced attack. "We know we have to match up with them. With the speed, the physicality and the caliber of the game."
West Virginia's 157.58 average yards of passing offense per game ranks 113th in the nation, virtually the opposite end of the spectrum from the Texas Tech team that shredded the OU secondary in an upset. Oklahoma is 18th in total defense, but just 65th in pass defense. The stats are skewed, however, by the success each team has had playing to its strengths. The Sooners have has been ahead by significant margins, forcing teams to throw often. Only Texas Tech, the nation's top passing squad, ripped the Sooners while being ahead. West Virginia rushed so well that it didn't need to pass except in a few situations.
Stewart did caution that the offense "won't change a bit, it will be like we have done all year," but that seems a stretch considering Stewart's style varies from that of Rodriguez. Stewart, quarterbacks coach Rod Smith and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee will call plays. Rodriguez had final say before his departure.
"I feel very confident," Stewart said, "just like I do about the defense. I don't know why I'm getting all of this hype, because I certainly don't deserve it. This football staff is a team. They have done a tremendous job buying into that theory and philosophy. They seem to be in pretty good spirits."
West Virginia drilled in full pads Friday, their first day of contact since arriving in Arizona Dec. 26. It started with special teams, then did individual and group position work. Quarterback Patrick White was more animated than normal, perhaps a sign of his excitement over the passing game – but more likely a continuation of his leadership following Rodriguez's announcement.
"He was the most vocal leader," Stewart said. "And leadership is just not about being vocal. Pat had this crowd jumping through hoops. I was trying to stay on my best behavior because he looked at me a couple times. I thought maybe I'm not doing as quite as good as I ought to be. Pat White, along with some other upperclassmen, has done a tremendous job keeping these young people focused. Pat White has done a great job not only with the offense, but he is doing a tremendous job with this football team. As a player he is for real. He's really good. He's been blessed with some great gifts."
Note: Stewart, on coaching the defense: "I watch film and I kind of glance down there when I can. But that is not my role. I have the most trust in (defensive coordinator) Jeff Casteel, (line coach) Bill Kirelawich, (safeties and now secondary coach) Bruce Tall and those young grad assistants. I don't even have to worry about them. I'm glad they are here because I am riding those coattails. I have not even glanced and I won't in the football game. That defense is in great hands."