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The Mountaineers begin a new era amid concerns about their ability to shut down opponents
It's easy to get distracted when taking stock of the Mountaineers. This is a program, after all, whose off-season was defined by one of the nastiest divorces between a coach and a school in recent memory. It was only on July 9 that departed coach Rich Rodriguez and Michigan, the school that hired him away, agreed to settle a breach-of-contract lawsuit and pay the $4 million buyout that West Virginia sought from Rodriguez after he quit last December.
Then there is the uncertainty of whether new coach Bill Stewart, promoted from associate head coach, is up to the task of running one of the country's top programs. In his only previous stint as a head man, he went 8-25 at Division I-AA VMI from 1994 through '96. "What's done is done," says middle linebacker Reed Williams. "I assure you, this team is not living in the past."
Williams's focus on what lies ahead is important, because more than anything else the play of the defense will determine the team's fortunes. A 6' 2", 225-pound senior from Moorefield, W.Va., Williams is one of only four returning starters from a unit that ranked seventh in the nation in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. Among those missing from coordinator Jeff Casteel's unique 3-3-5 scheme are two starters from the line and four from the secondary.
Casteel, one of only two holdover assistants from Rodriguez's staff, will be counting heavily on Williams, a finance major with a 3.8 GPA who led the team in tackles last year (107), and senior Mortty Ivy, who in the spring moved from weakside linebacker to the strong side, to set the example for the new starters. "If we don't play downhill, if we don't race to the ball," says Ivy, "we'll get gashed."
If the defense comes together, then West Virginia should win its third Big East title in four years and make another run at the national title. That's because the high-scoring offense still has quarterback Pat White (a first-tier Heisman candidate), all five linemen and fleet-footed tailback Noel Devine, who averaged 8.6 yards per carry as a freshman last season.
A surprising 48-28 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl put Stewart on the right track and boosted the players' confidence. They'll need it, with a road game at Colorado and a home date against Auburn on the nonconference schedule. -- Mark Beech
Issue date: August 11, 2008
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