It’s been two long weeks for the West Virginia football team.
The wait to get back on the field is almost over.
“I think having a week off helps teams like us because it gives us a chance to work on school and heal wounds...,” said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, one day after the Mountaineers’ 20-14 loss to LSU on Sept. 25. “It is going to be a long 10 days, because our guys want to play football.”
That will happen Saturday when West Virginia can finally quit answering questions about that night on the Bayou, and tangle with Nevada-Las Vegas in the Mountaineers’ final tuneup before Big East play next Thursday against South Florida.
“Our guys played with passion and to win,” said Stewart, of that loss that saw West Virginia fall behind 17-0. “They also played with discipline for the most part and they played a tough team in one of the toughest venues in college football...
“I hope we are healed this weekend. We got hit against LSU and we hit them. It was a hard fought battle. I talked about it last week and it is over. Now we move on to game No. 5.”
While West Virginia (3-1) will try to regroup and move forward, the Runnin’ Rebels (1-4) have played a brutal schedule, losing to current ranked teams Wisconsin (41-21), Utah (38-10) and Nevada (44-26).
UNLV, as they are better known, also lost 30-7 to Idaho, but did defeat winless New Mexico, 45-10.
“They have lost three games this season to Top 25 opponents,” Stewart said. “They are a good football team and their coach is a dandy.
“I told you guys that Bobby Hauck has won over 80 percent of his games. He is on track to be a great one and he is a winner. I like what he is doing with this team.”
Stewart is hoping the Mountaineers have left the loss to LSU in the past, and aren’t thinking ahead yet to South Florida, which will be played to a national television audience.
“I like to think that we are mature enough, even though we have a sophomore quarterback (Geno Smith), that when we get in that huddle the seniors take control,” Stewart said. “They are going to be told by J.T. Thomas, Chris Neild and Scooter Berry that our whole emphasis is on UNLV this weekend.”
Terrence Garvin, a West Virginia defensive back, confirmed that is the case.
“Right now, we’re focused on UNLV,” Garvin said. “That’s the next game that we’ve got. We have to win this game. We’ve only been watching UNLV.”
West Virginia senior receiver Jock Sanders, who could see some time at running back against the Rebels, said the week off came at the right time.
“We needed the rest. Everyone was tired after going through fall camp and then four weeks of the schedule,” Sanders said. “That’s seven weeks of football, and it kind of took a toll on the team. We’ll be ready to play on Saturday.
It remains to be seen if Noel Devine will be. The senior tailback injured his toe at LSU, and was largely ineffective against the Tigers. Stewart isn’t sure what to expect from him.
“Noel is going well. I am not going to say great because I won’t know that until Saturday in warm-ups,” Stewart said. “I was really proud of him (Monday), because he was either in class or in treatment.
“He is trying to get better. He has a bone bruise under his toe so when he pivots it aches.”
West Virginia might not need Devine against the Rebels, who have allowed nearly 33 points a game. The Mountaineers, who were expected to have potent offense this season, need an offensive explosion since they’re currently ranked 52nd or higher in all four major offensive categories among the nation’s Division I schools.
They were held to 177 total yards by the potent LSU defense, but Stewart thinks they’ll match up well against UNLV, which is ranked 101st in scoring defense, and 106th against the run.
“I feel good (about our offense) because I think it is hard to run clear across the field with a Brad Starks, Tavon Austin or Jock Sanders when you man up,” Stewart said. “We run some nice crossing routes, and if they can keep up they are going to beat us.”
If Devine is slowed, West Virginia can turn to speedsters like Sanders and Austin in the backfield.
“I’ll have to do whatever it takes to help the team,” said Austin, who, like Sanders, could play receiver and running back. “I pretty much have the wide receiver position down.
“I might see more time as a back because I’m not as used to it, but I’ll do what’s asked of me. They might put me in motion or do other things.”
Defensively, the Mountaineers have been stingy. They’re ranked nationally eighth in total defense (249.25) and 12th in scoring output (14.5). Meanwhile, the Rebels are among the nation’s worst in total offense and 88th in putting points on the board.
UNLV’s leading rusher, Channing Trotter, has just 153 yards, while signal-caller Omar Clayton has thrown for 748 yards and five touchdowns. Phillip Payne has 23 catches, including eight for 170 yards in the loss to Nevada.
Garvin expects the Mountaineers to continue to play the role of being hard to score on.
“So far we’ve been playing pretty well,” Garvin said. “We can always get better. We still have a lot of stuff to improve on. We have to get better and play faster.”
Stewart admittedly would like to rest some of his starters on Saturday since there is such a short turnaround for South Florida.
“Here is the thing — we have to first win this football game,” Stewart said. “The second thing is that we have another opponent five, not seven, days away. The crucial thing is that it is a Big East opponent.
“We are going to get some bumps and bruises because this is a physical game.”
The loss to LSU knocked the Mountaineers out of the national polls, leaving the Big East without a ranked club. Sanders said the ‘Eers aren’t concerned about those issues, but just keeping up with the Runnin’ Rebels.
“We can’t worry too much about that,” Sanders said. “We’ve got UNLV up next and we need to be ready to play.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
It’s been two long weeks for the West Virginia football team.
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