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WVU problems linked to players, too

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Bill Stewart entered the room Friday night, as ready and willing to talk to the media as one could hope for following an unprecedented loss to Connecticut, he knew exactly what to expect.

He'd just worked overtime in a 16-13 defeat and was being asked to work a little more with people who wanted to know why things weren't working out for him or his West Virginia football team. He studied his stat sheet, as is his custom before he fields questions, and saw some things he liked, but some things he did not like.

This is also something else he's come to expect.

There were 81 plays and 414 yards, an edge in time of possession and a season-high total in rushing yards. There was a better success rate on third down than the opponent. On many days, those are things to talk about after a win.

Friday was not one of those days. It was, instead, one of the kinds of days that are beginning to define a season that's slowly slipping away from the Mountaineers. What Stewart failed to mention was only one of those 81 plays crossed that chalk line near the end zone and the piles of yards produced just 13 points.

There was something else Stewart didn't say that probably needs to be said. When he looked at that stat sheet, he saw seven fumbles and four lost to the opponent. Nowhere did he see that he'd lost a fumble. Or Jeff Mullen. Or Chris Beatty. Or Dave Johnson.

He saw just 13 points and didn't see a touchdown that was negated by a chop block and a 23-yard run to the 2-yard line in overtime that could have preceded a touchdown, but was instead erased by a holding penalty.

WVU's head coach and his offensive coordinator, running backs coach and offensive line coach are the ones getting the heat today and there are just causes for just that. Stewart is paid a lot of money to make sure the eighth game of the season is not lost the same way others are and Mullen, Beatty and Johnson are parts of the highest-paid coaching staff in the Big East and in charge of specific aspects that have come up short.

You know, short like six-yard routes on third-and-7 or slides at the 26-yard line when you need to get to the 25.

The Mountaineers, who next play host to Cincinnati (3-5, 1-2 Big East) Nov. 13, are 5-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big East. They've lost consecutive Big East games for the first time since 2004. They haven't lost more than two conference games since going 1-6 in 2001.

There are issues, and - without debate - many are linked to coaching.

Mullen's offense is maligned enough that it doesn't need more bruising here, but now his quarterback is having very real, very visible trouble,

Beatty's backs are fumbling and he and Mullen come together to call plays in what they call the scoring zone. WVU has scored 20, 14 and 13 points the past three weeks and now possesses one of the nation's worst red zone offenses that ranks No. 95 of 120 FBS teams with 34 possessions and 26 scores.

Johnson's line cannot spring Noel Devine or consistently protect Smith. It commits penalties at critical moments and on Friday's final offensive play didn't execute when curiously asked to pull on a run play on the goal line.

Mullen was asked why his team can't play clean.

"We're certainly not teaching dirty," Mullen said.

This won't be popular, especially when bombing Stewart and his staff seems so fashionable, but these struggles are on the players, too. It's true, unspoken as it may be before and after games, but there's a part of this that falls at their feet.

You know, like the punts that land between two WVU players and roll around on the turf. Or punts that should be downed at the 1, but are instead sloppily handled by someone in the end zone for a touchback.

Before and after every WVU practice the team does position-specific drills intended to teach players to take care of the ball. They even gave it a name, "TCB". The Mountaineers hear that and they know it's time to take care of business.

And there's not much more the staff can do in that area. This isn't a movie where players sleep with a football or walk around campus and protect it against co-eds and their sneak attacks. Be certain every player knows he's not supposed to fumble. A coach isn't teaching butter fingers. There is no period in practice in which players do reps to master chop blocks and holding, either.

"There's no magic potion to hold onto the ball or keep your hands inside the framework of the body," Mullen said.

There's regular time spent in practice on red zone and score zone offense. Starting at the 25 in overtime, the coaches schemed up a drive that overcame a first-and-20 and survived a fumble by Jock Sanders. The calls were good enough to get to the 1 and the smartest call was to give the ball to the short-yardage back.

That ball was fumbled by Ryan Clarke, who fumbled on a fourth-and-1 earlier in the game.

Stewart said it was "unbelievable."

"You grab the ball, make the exchange and carry the ball up the field," he said.

The fourth and final turnover of the game left WVU 1-for-2 in the red zone, and that successful trip came when the offense settled for a field goal when the chop block cancelled a touchdown.

Stewart was asked who's accountable for those shortcomings. Is it Mullen, Johnson, Beatty?

"Football team," Stewart said.

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


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