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WVU football: Mountaineers, Bearcats have been hit by turnover bug

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia, unranked and entering Saturday's noon home game in danger of its first three-game losing streak since the end of the 2004 football season, has a pretty simple, if not very convenient outlook for the matchup with Cincinnati.

"They're a team like us where they're a drop here, maybe a missed assignment there, a fumble here from having a heck of a good year," Mountaineers Coach Bill Stewart said.

WVU is 5-3, Cincinnati 3-5 and both are 1-2 in Big East play. They're tied for last place in the conference, after the preseason's media poll put them in a tie for second. Cincinnati has the Big East's best offense, WVU has the best defense ... yet both have been undone by turnovers.

In the Big East, only the Bearcats are worse than WVU in turnover margin.

The Mountaineers, however, believe they can still achieve very large goals. They know to do so they must beat everyone the rest of the way - and hope a few things break their way before the end of the schedule - but they must also not beat themselves.

"What we've got to continue to do to get better is put an emphasis on what we're getting wrong and get better at it," Stewart said.

Again, simple and convenient, and these are the Mountaineers who not only believe they are what stands in the way of victory, but have also proved that on three occasions this season.

Turnovers and a punt return touchdown allowed at LSU, turnovers and crippling penalties against Syracuse and at Connecticut were very costly.

These are things everyone knows and nobody is more painfully aware than the Mountaineers. They choose not to bleed, but to believe.

"If we don't fumble at the 1-yard line, if we don't throw an interception in the end zone, the mood would be a lot different and the sensationalism wouldn't be what it is today," Stewart said.

You ask how the Mountaineers chose to recover from their nasty habit of giving the ball, if not the game, away this season? There is your answer.

Stewart and his coaches and players are not ignoring the problem. They worked on it in practice and, in essence, went back to not just the basics, but to the beginning and did a lot of the things during the open week they do during the opening week of spring or fall practice.

And it's not just for the offense. WVU has created only 12 turnovers, which ranks No. 91 out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Two of those were turnovers forced on kickoff returns.

Stewart is asking his defense to produce more than it already has in ranking as one of the top defenses in multiple categories.

"Our players, every time we catch a ball as a receiver, get whacked with a dummy," Stewart said. "Someone is ripping it out of their arms. I told the defense - the scout defense, the first and second defense when we go against each other - rip the ball out.

"I told them they've got to get it. We've not gotten the ball on defense. I'm very disappointed at our defense we're not getting the ball.

"I'm very pleased with the interceptions, but when teams can control the ball and our offense isn't scoring, therefore we're not getting ahead, the ball isn't going in the air because they're safe throws (by the opposition). We're not getting the picks we had earlier in the year. We have to strip the ball from the opponent."

If you've seen WVU play this season, you'd know it's not difficult. The Mountaineers have lost 11 of 19 fumbles and also thrown six interceptions to rank No. 101 in turnover margin. Only four teams have lost more fumbles. Only 37 have lost more turnovers.

Combine that with a defense that's only recovered four fumbles and forced 12 turnovers and the Mountaineers have a problem. An offense that doesn't' score a whole lot to begin with isn't getting many extra opportunities.

By fixing the turnover trouble, WVU could cure many ailments. The offense would have the ball more and maybe score more points. At the very least, it takes pressure off the defense and keeps the other team's offense on the sideline, from where it cannot score.

Yet WVU is not consumed by the turnover trouble, either.  It happens. It happened. The Mountaineers know both. They want to fix both, but in their own way.

"I told the guys, 'You're going to get caught with a hanging curveball. They're going to blow a 94 mph fastball right under your chin. That's life. You adjust, you overcome and you go on with your business and work on things you're not doing really well.' That's what we've done," the WVU coach said.

"Until you win, until you satisfy that which is so necessary in our culture, to have a winner - I don't want to go out there just to play. I play to win. That's our culture. That's who we are, what we are.

"That's the American way, the West Virginia way. We want to win. When you don't win you can sometimes press. I've tried not to press. I've tried to instruct. I've tried to lead in as constructive a manner as possible."

Stewart said he's played for coaches who scream and curse and he doesn't believe in harping on players. He's not as worried about the problem as much as the solution.

"The dumbest thing you can say is, 'Don't fumble,'" Stewart said. "That's not coaching. What kind of coaching is that? 'Don't miss a free throw.' Good God, show me how to make the free throw. Show me about the elbow and the finger follow-through."

In the very next breath, Stewart insists players who continued to mess up were made to run stadium steps and push weighted plates around the field. He's also introduced - or make that re-introduced - reality to the offenders.

Forget the fumbles and the interceptions, but make sure you remember, too, because Stewart will. Accidents from this point forward might not be viewed as accidents.

"It better be in your memory," Stewart said. "It can be a faded memory some day, but it's something you can never leave out of your memory bank.

"I can't have a whole lot more of that. I just can't. I'm the CEO of this outfit. I can't play a guy that's going to put the ball on the ground time after time."


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