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WVU faces steep climb without White

December 31, 2008

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Bill Stewart pushed aside criticism of his hiring, tweaked West Virginia's long-successful spread offense and fell far short of expectations in his debut season as head coach.

The Mountaineers, spoiled by Bowl Championship Series success in quarterback Pat White's first three seasons, stumbled in his injury-plagued senior year. Ranked No. 8 in the preseason, West Virginia lost two early road games, handed Cincinnati the Big East's BCS berth, then beat North Carolina 31-30 in the Meineke Bowl last Saturday to finish 9-4.

Three of West Virginia's losses came by a combined 10 points and two of them were in overtime. Then again, close wins over Rutgers, Syracuse, South Florida and North Carolina could have easily gone the other way.

"Fifty percent of the people in this state want to hang me, and 50 percent want me to be governor some day," Stewart said. "For us to have the same league record, 5-2, that we had last year, I'm OK with it. Am I thrilled? No."

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A year after then-interim coach Stewart was carried off the field after a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma and was named Rich Rodriguez's replacement hours later, the good times could be over. Stewart has some work to do to restore the Mountaineers as one of the nation's top football programs.

Without White, who holds 15 school, Big East and national records, the climb will be even steeper.

Stewart knows one thing -- defenses are catching up to the run-based spread offense that Rodriguez built.

With the losses of Steve Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt to the NFL last year, West Virginia's run production dropped from 297 to 210 and the team converted only 42 percent of the time on third down. However, sophomore Noel Devine's 1,289 rushing yards were the eighth highest in school history.

Stewart needs to find a fullback who can get it done when West Virginia needs a few tough yards. The coach also wants the offense to move laterally less often on end-around runs and screen passes.

His blueprint of the 2009 offense might be a throwback to the 1988 and 1989 teams that quarterback Major Harris led to 19 wins.

"We've got to get a fullback and a tailback game back the way West Virginia used to play it, much like Oklahoma plays now, much like Texas and USC," Stewart said. "You've got to be able to run downhill on third and short, not sideways."

Three-year backup Jarrett Brown, who will be a senior, has been given White's starting spot. Brown has won both of his career starts, which came in place of an injured White.

In his first start, a 41-39 triple-overtime win over Rutgers in 2006, Brown ran for one touchdown and threw for 244 yards and the go-ahead score. In a 16-7 win over Syracuse in October, West Virginia managed only 268 yards of offense. Brown, playing with a bruised right shoulder, completed 14-of-20 passes for only 52 yards.

"He's not Patrick," Stewart said. "He's got his own thing. He can throw that ball. He can run. He's not quick like Patrick but he's bigger and stronger."

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Brown has thrown for five career touchdowns with four interceptions and has a career average of 5.8 yards per carry.

"We have to run the same type of offense with Jarrett that we did under Major Harris here," Stewart said. "We're still doing a little spread, but people have caught the spread."

West Virginia also must replace kicker and punter Pat McAfee, the school's all-time points leader, and will lose tackle Ryan Stanchek, injured center Mike Dent and guard Jake Figner on the offensive line.

The defense loses leading tackler Mortty Ivy and third-leading tackler Ellis Lankster, but is essentially intact for next season.

As much criticism as he took this season, Stewart matched Rodriguez's two bowl wins at West Virginia. And just as White gave Stewart a ringing endorsement after the Fiesta Bowl, the departing quarterback is confident the program remains on solid footing.

"They have the athletes. They've got the coaches. They've just got to stay one unit with a common goal," Pat White said. "Coach Stew is a great leader and a great motivator."

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