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Stewart likes what he sees out of Mountaineers in new-look Big East

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bill Stewart had things figured out well before the Big East rolled into Newport, R.I., for its annual media days today and tomorrow.

 

The way he looks at it, the preseason media poll will be unveiled tomorrow with Pitt at the top and UConn not far behind and then Cincinnati and his West Virginia, in some order, at Nos. 3 and 4.

This is not to say he agrees with it, of course. Stewart thinks his third team can be the best in the Big East. Has for a while. Not because of his optimism or because that's what a coach is supposed to think and say. Stewart took a look at the Big East and what it might be and realized his Mountaineers look good in what might be a new-look league.

"I'm telling you," Stewart said, "the game goes through changes."

For years now the Big East has been an offensive league. The coaches were stars, guys named Petrino, Rodriguez and Kelly, who could assemble and move parts like few others, who had talents that were so good they were desired elsewhere.

There were All-Americans and Heisman Trophy candidates and the most recognizable ones were on the offensive side of the ball. And in charge were the quarterbacks, guys like Brohm, White and Pike.

Look around the 2010 Big East. Of the eight teams, only UConn and Rutgers will start the season with the quarterbacks they started with last year. The Huskies, Scarlet Knights, South Florida and maybe Louisville will start with the quarterback who started their team's final game last year.

The Mountaineers are omitted from both groups as they hand off to Geno Smith, a sophomore who played a bit as a true freshman, but less than, say, Cincinnati's Zach Collaros, who didn't make either list.

"I'm counting on our defense to lead us early and to be the strength of this football team," Stewart said of the group that returns nine starters, many who started or played an awful lot in 2008. "I'm counting on them to excel and lead this charge until our offense gets gelling. You might say, 'Why wouldn't this offense gel?'"

Part because of the quarterback situation and Smith and other relative newcomers at the position around the league will need a little time. The other part is actually the larger part.

"Defenses have caught up," Stewart said. "The deal is this: People have caught up to the spread because they see it every day with their own teams and then they see it every week from the opponents. We're going to evolve back to where you have to out-block them and out-tackle them or most of the time you're going to lose. This is going to become more of a defensive ballgame now."

The membership insists as much. There are new coaches - Charlie Strong at Louisville, Butch Jones at Cincinnati and Skip Holtz at USF - and Stewart believes they'll trend toward the basics.

He's been there twice before, first at Virginia Military Institute when he was "extremely conservative," and then at WVU when, you'll remember, he took flak for trusting a defense that turned the corner in an early loss at Colorado.

"You have to start winning on defense," Stewart said. "You cannot - cannot, cannot - build a sound program with just offensive flair. All the guys know that. Charlie Strong is going to be strong defensively. Skip Holtz is going to be strong on defense and Butch Jones, even though he's an offensive guy, he knows. He'll be the same. He'll be strong on defense."

They bring different things to different situations. Jones inherits a team that won the Big East last year without losing a regular-season game as well as a quarterback in Collaros who seems to fit what Jones has done at other stops in the past.

Holtz gets the coveted recruiting market and a roster with some experience, but he's overhauled his roster already. Strong has more of a total turnaround on his hands, but had been one of the most respected assistants in the country while at Florida.

"Butch is going to be very, very innovative at Cincinnati," Stewart said. "He's going to be innovative and do stuff that'll make their fans say, 'Wow, we shouldn't drop off.' Charlie Strong is going to be very tough. A Charlie Strong team is going to be very disciplined and very tough, which is what they've lacked. And my buddy Skip Holtz down in South Florida is going to be what I'd like to think people would say about us. They're going to be very sound and have a handle on what they can do and what they can't do. That's three damn good football coaches. We lost three good coaches, but these are three damn good football coaches."

Stewart believes they'll enhance the league's quality over time, if not right away. For now they'll take on the personality of their surroundings.

Pitt, UConn and Rutgers have head coaches who were defensive assistants in college and the NFL. Stewart will follow his defense and Syracuse's Doug Marrone, in his second year, cannot expect to score five touchdowns every week.

Add the three new coaches who, as predicted by Stewart, will align themselves with defense and that's all eight of the Big East's teams trusting the side of the ball that hasn't recently defined the Big East.

Times are changing and if the game will not apologize, neither will Stewart.

"I'm not going to apologize for winning football games with no flair," Stewart said. "What they've hired me to do is win football games. If we've got an offense that can put points up on the board, we're sure going to try that, believe me. But when everyone is doing the same things on offense, it's easier to stop because you see it every day. So why would you do that? You have to change and there's nothing wrong with that. 

"People want to see the spread offense go up and down the field and score all these points, but that's not happening. We've seen that stuff and practiced against that stuff so now we've gotten to where the players understand it, the coaches understand it and we may go back a little bit to the more conservative, defensive kind of game you used to see. Look at Alabama. Worked for them, didn't it?"

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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