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West Virginia now hopeful spectator in Big East

November 2, 2010
AP

CHARLESTON (AP) - In a span of two weeks, mistake-prone West Virginia has gone from being ranked contender to a hopeful spectator in the Big East race.

Turnovers have taken a heavy toll. The Mountaineers lost four fumbles in a 16-13 overtime loss at Connecticut on Friday night. The week before, quarterback Geno Smith threw three interceptions and Syracuse beat West Virginia 19-14.

The Mountaineers (5-3, 1-2 Big East) are dealing with their first losing streak in two years that has dropped them into a five-way tie for last place.

West Virginia doesn't play again until Nov. 13 at home against Cincinnati. Coach Bill Stewart is using the bye week to focus on fundamentals and some mental lapses.

First-place Pittsburgh has yet to lose a Big East game and for West Virginia to make up the two games in the loss column with four regular-season games remaining, it will need to clean up some glaring problems on offense.

That includes avoiding a repeat of fumbling seven times against Connecticut.

"I did not think we performed as well mentally as we had in the past," Stewart said Monday.

"Hopefully our players will learn and grow from this and figure out we need to take care of the ball. You can't fumble the ball seven times in the Big East and expect to win, I can assure you that."

West Virginia ranks near the bottom in the Bowl Subdivision in terms of holding onto the ball. Only UCLA, with 13 lost fumbles, has more than the Mountaineers.

Fullback Ryan Clarke lost the ball on fourth-and-1 at the Connecticut 26 in the third quarter Friday to stop one potential scoring drive, and he fumbled the ball away at the 1-yard line on West Virginia's overtime possession.

Smith and Noel Devine and quarterback Smith also lost fumbles on offense and the other, by Shawne Alston, came on a kickoff. The cases of slippery hands and bad exchanges overshadowed an otherwise decent effort on offense.

The Mountaineers outgained Connecticut 414-278, the first time in four games they'd surpassed 400 yards. But counting the overtime, West Virginia has scored just one touchdown in its last seven quarters.

The end zone-challenged offense has been more than outplayed by West Virginia's defense, whose 109 points allowed are by far the fewest in the league.

And many of those points allowed over the last month were field goals that could have been touchdowns. The defense often has had to come onto the field to try to stop opponents with good field position.

Stewart met with offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen on Monday and the pair meticulously went over play calling and individual performances.

The bright spot may have been the running of Smith, who entered the game with 14 rushing yards all season. He was consistently mobile for the first time all season and ran for a career-high 64 yards on 15 carries.

"That really opened things up for us," Stewart said.

"We had them confused, and we are going to try to run him some more."

But Devine was limited to 67 yards on 16 carries. And Brad Starks scored on a 53-yard run and Tavon Austin had an 13 yard rush, but neither got another carry.

"We are going to call what we need to call to win football games, with the players that can do the best," Stewart said.

That includes the possibility of throwing downfield more. Smith averaged just seven yards per completion against Connecticut and Stewart said his offensive line needs to do a better job blocking both on running plays and on pass protection.

"We have done well (defending against) sacks," Stewart said. "But how many hurries have we had? I want to move the pocket and see what we do best."

Stewart said he plans a similar meeting with defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.