Perception is everything, or at least that's how the old adage goes. And never has this been more evident in the annals of Mountaineer lore than the fan base's critical reception to the 2008 edition of the WVU football team.
Entering the season, expectations were at an all-time high throughout the hills of the Mountain State. And fresh off a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Championship, Bill Stewart was on cloud nine. Literally overnight he had gone from the lovable assistant coach to arguably the most important man in the entire state. His first act as the Mountaineers head man was to assemble an experienced coaching staff that would help the team prepare for the rigors of Division I football. When the dust had cleared, the staff was set and appeared to be very promising.
With the sting of the Pittsburgh game still fresh in the front of everyone's mind, Stewart promised Mountaineer nation that the offense would evolve into a new open attack which would employ the forward pass in its repertoire. A collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout the state as visions of running into eight or nine man fronts danced in the heads of fans.
Adding to the excitement surrounding this new era of WVU football were the players that this new attack would have to tinker with. West Virginia returned a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, a young electrifying tailback, and its entire offensive line. Sure, there were questions about the defense, which had to replace eight starters, and maybe even the offensive coaching staff itself, but one look at the schedule had any Mountaineer fan salivating.
Excitement, offensive balance, and returning stars, the perfect recipe for another double-digit win season and another BCS bowl. Except for one small thing. Perception doesn't win you football games.
After opening the season with a resounding 48-21 victory over the Villanova Wildcats, where Pat White threw five touchdown passes, things turned sour quickly for the Mountaineers. In week two, the honeymoon was over for Bill Stewart. West Virginia was dominated to the tune of 24-3 by the home standing East Carolina Pirates. The offense looked anemic as WVU was held to 251 total yards and scored its lowest point total in seven years.
The next game against the Colorado Buffaloes was much of the same, as the offense continued to bog down and shoot itself in the foot with drive-killing penalties. I'm not going to begin to dwell on the terrible clock decision employed in the final minutes of regulation when the Mountaineers had the ball at midfield with two timeouts remaining and one of the better kickers in the country, but instead elected for overtime. I understand not putting your defense in a terrible position in case something would happen, but that's just a situation where all the momentum you've gained goes out the window once overtime begins.
The rest of the season was much of the same as the Mountaineers continued to establish no identity on the offensive side of the ball and often played with little intensity or discipline. Stewart became a hot topic of discussion among Mountaineer fans who were convinced that he had single-handedly delivered the Mountaineers to their disappointing 8-4 season.
But it's here where I interject and implore you to take a look at the facts before you're so quick to jump to conclusions. As much as Bill Stewart constantly harps that WVU lost 60% of its scoring offense from last season, I don't think fans realize how much of an effect that was going to have on this year's squad. Anytime you lose battle tested players, you're going to feel the sting of their departure, especially when they are your leading rusher, your best receiver, and arguably the best blocker on the entire team.
Secondly, a coaching change always has adjustment periods; it just comes with the territory. Especially when the aforementioned coach plans on changing certain aspects of the offense, and transforming an option-based ground attack into a pocket passing system.
Speaking of pass blocking, another aspect of adjustment comes in the form of the offensive line. Not only have they now gone through three different coaches in the past three seasons, but they are also being asked to do things they were not recruited to do. And it's also for this reason that even though the defense has a slew of new starters, they are not having the adjustment period the offense has spent the entire season with. Couple this with West Virginia's lack of depth at key positions and it's easy to see how this year's team has been on the losing end of four of its games this season.
Although WVU's wide receivers give maximum effort on every play, they are not accustomed to running routes and catching the football. Face it, over the past couple years most of the receivers have been used as nothing more than blockers. Take this into consideration as well: two of the better receivers at season's end are a converted running back and a quarterback.
Look, everyone wants to win. Trust me, Bill Stewart wants to win as much as anyone. But to be fair, he needs to be given the opportunity to coach and let him recruit the athletes he needs to run the system that Mountaineer fans envisioned during the preseason. WVU has became accustomed to Big East Championships and top ten finishes, and to many people anything that falls short of those goals is a failure. I understand that, but also you must be fair in your evaluation of the team's season.
Things are not nearly as dark as they seem. West Virginia is 8-4, with a trip to a bowl game for the seventh year in a row. It is riding the wave of a great recruiting class that includes players that fit the most pressing needs. I'm not asking you to be satisfied with West Virginia's record, because even Bill Stewart himself said that 8-4 is unacceptable for WVU. But if the Mountaineers can end the season on a high note with a bowl win over a quality ACC team, Mr. Optimism can and should rear his head again. No one knows what's going to happen over the next couple years, so take my advice and sit back, relax, enjoy the ride, and avoid greater expectations.