Stew's Views - Connecticut

West Virginia hits the road on Saturday for a pivotal Big East game at Connecticut.

To hear WVU head coach Bill Stewart talk about Saturday's tilt against the Connecticut Huskies, you would think that the Mountaineers were heading back in time to take on the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

To be fair to Stewart, UConn is certainly among the best teams in the Big East. Last season was a breakthrough year for the Huskies and head coach Randy Edsall as they earned a share of the conference title.

Of course on the way to that co-first place finish, the Huskies ran into a buzzsaw against West Virginia, dropping a lopsided 66-21 decision in Morgantown over Thanksgiving weekend. Were it not for West Virginia's loss a week later to Pitt, the Mountaineers would have won the league outright.

The lopsided nature of the score a year ago might be what has Stewart most concerned.

"I'm just hoping that that win last year, a very convincing win over Connecticut by a final of 66-21, will not be detrimental to our squad this year," Stewart explained on Tuesday during his weekly press briefing inside the Puskar Center.

The logic behind's Stewart's concern stems from an earlier defeat this season at East Carolina. Just as they did to Connecticut, the Mountaineers throttled the Pirates in 2007 by a final of 48-7.

"Then this year we go (to ECU) and get embarrassed – flat out embarrassed – by a final of 24-3," Stewart recalled. "The players were embarrassed. The coaches were embarrassed. Your head football coach was embarrassed in Greenville. This school was embarrassed and this state was embarrassed. Anyone involved with the old gold and blue was embarrassed. I don't understand how you can beat somebody 48-7 and then go get beat 24-3.

"I'm trying to figure out how to make that not happen again."

To motivate his team in the days leading up to Saturday's trip, Stewart is pulling out a couple of golf analogies from two of the sport's all-time greats, Gary Player and Tiger Woods.

"You know why Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods? Because he does not hit the snooze button. Plain and simple," Stewart said. "Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods because he does not hit the snooze button. Gary Player, somebody asked him how he was so good. You know what he said? My daddy taught me to get out of bed. Take that however you want. I grew up with the same kind of parents. You get out of bed, then what do you do with the rest of the day?"

Thus on Saturday, Stewart simply wants his team to be awake and ready for Saturday's game.

"We better be ready to play at 12:00 in Connecticut or (Donald Brown) is going to run through us like you've never seen," Stewart said. "Their defense is going to get after us like we've never seen. That's how much I respect Randy Edsall (and the UConn coaching staff).

"Is football golf? Nope. Is the mindset the same? You bet," he explained. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Connecticut Huskies. If we can stay healthy, we've got a chance. But, it's a whole other mindset going in there. I have no idea (today) what is going to happen on Saturday. I haven't figured that out yet. I need some help. I need our coaches, our seniors and I need this football team to help us out."

***

Stewart the special teams coordinator has been hard at work in the days since the Auburn game. Against the Tigers, two problems were apparent on special teams. The first was on the punt return team, where returner Ellis Lankster had trouble catching and holding onto punts for much of the night. Stewart does not anticipate a continuation of those problems on Saturday.

"He's a thrill a minute," Stewart said of the senior. "He's going to be fine. We changed something Sunday night in practice. I'm doing something just a little bit different in his approach to catching punts. David Lockwood is working hard with him. I trust Ellis Lankster. He's going to take one back, hopefully someday soon."

The other special teams problem against Auburn is one which has been a constant thorn in Stewart's side all season. The Tigers had enormous success on kickoff returns, twice returning WVU kickoffs past midfield and nearly returning a third into Mountaineer territory.

"The situation is I guess they just have better players than us," he shrugged. "I've been so frustrated with our kickoff coverage. The punt team and kickoff team has been the pride and joy of our special teams for seven years. I was really mad. We're just not getting off blocks. We have to work on that this week, getting off blocks and going to make plays."

***

West Virginia's defense has certainly shored up since early-season struggles against Villanova, East Carolina and even in the first quarter at Colorado. The Mountaineers are now 11th in the nation in scoring defense, and check in at No. 34 in total defense.

"I think it was accountability. I really do," Stewart said of the turnaround. "I think, to me, I look back at the East Carolina game and let's not take anything away from what Coach Holtz and their staff did. They fed off of their defense that day. We had the fumble, the fourth down at midfield.

"What happened after that (loss to the Pirates)? Those guys got to thinking that maybe Bill Stewart was right," he said. "Maybe you have to play a little harder when you put on the old gold and blue. Maybe he's right that there were seven guys gone. Reed wasn't there early. I think Reed brought our defense alive out there at Colorado. And when they saw that, I think it just kind of took over."

The Mountaineers have also seen improvement along the offensive line, particularly in Thursday night's win over Auburn. West Virginia's starters up front played the entire game against the Tigers, the first time all season that there hasn't been any substituting up front.

"They were gelling and coming together," Stewart said. "They were playing so well. That was a tough, tough Auburn front seven. They just didn't get to us. Our offensive line should have been the player of the game. They really should have. They played their hearts out and were gelling together.

"David (Johnson) has those guys playing so well and so together right now," he continued. "I hope they can keep doing it. They're tough, tough against Auburn. Our offensive line came of age."

***

Things look to be in good shape on the injury front. Offensive lineman Josh Jenkins did not dress for the game against Auburn, but could be good to go by Saturday. Jenkins, who injured his knee in the win over Rutgers, has returned to the practice field this week.

Defensive lineman Scooter Berry limped off in the first half of the Auburn game, but an MRI over the weekend revealed no damage. Berry has been given a clean bill of health, and should not be limited against Connecticut.

Quarterback Jarrett Brown dressed but did not play against Auburn due to an injured shoulder. Brown is still not 100 percent, but Stewart hopes the big righty will be able to return to the field as soon as this weekend.

"When he starts showing us that he can run at full speed, we'll get him back in there."


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