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Big East mailbag: West Virginia angst

Bill Stewart is one of the nicest people you could ever meet. So I sincerely hope his e-mail inbox doesn't look like mine this week.

I implored West Virginia fans recently to give the Stewart bashing a break at least until he lost another game. Well, he and the Mountaineers lost to Syracuse, and that moratorium was lifted in a big way. There's no sense in running all the "Stewart should be fired" non-questions, but I'll lead with a few of the more polite inquiries:

Mark from Brussels: As a WVU fan, do I have the right to be irate with the coaching staff (specifically, Jeff Mullen)? Despite Syracuse blitzing on nearly all downs in the second half, the Mountaineers stubbornly refused to keep a back or tight end in the backfield to assist with pass blocking. You said yourself that in last week's pregame prediction column that WVU's speed on offense should give the Orange difficulty. If that's the case, couldn't we have sent three guys out in patterns and still been a effective in moving the ball? Am I missing something?

Brian Bennett: As a fan, sure, it's your right to get ticked off at the coaches. We all have bad days at the office, and I didn't think this was a particularly strong performance by the WVU staff. Give credit to Syracuse for coming up with a scheme to confuse and fluster Geno Smith, mainly using more zone-blitz looks than the Orange had in the previous two weeks. But I agree that Mullen didn't succeed in countering that scheme.

The curious question of why West Virginia isn't more effective on offense is one that's on the mind of the entire fan base right now. Ultimately, I think, the Mountaineers have been relying heavily on Smith to be great in his decision-making, especially with Noel Devine not at 100 percent. When Smith finally had a bad day -- and remember, he's first-year starter and a true sophomore, so it was going to happen -- the offense couldn't overcome that. If I'm Mullen and Bill Stewart, I'm hoping for a major turnaround Friday night at UConn to change the conversation. (And I've just got to ask, Mark, because of your listed hometown: are you 6-foot-4 and full of muscles? If so, the Mountaineers could probably use you on the offensive line).

Christopher from Charleston, W. Va., writes: I am a huge WVU fan, and a Bill Stewart supporter (one of the few). I was wondering with all of the hate Mountaineer fans have for their head coach, how bad would we have to be for us to consider getting rid of him? Because overall we have been solid, and WVU is what it is, a mid-level program that is in serious contention every few years. And although the loss to an improving Syracuse team that could very well win the conference was tough to swallow, at least we didn't get Kragthorped and fall off the radar entirely when Coach Stew took over. And YES I am creating a new word ''Kragthorped."

Brian Bennett: First of all, Chris, I have to inform you that "Kragthorped" has been in the vocabulary of Louisville fans for a couple of years now, so you can't take credit for that. I think it is important to note that in no way has the Mountaineers program fallen off a cliff under Stewart. Did you know that Stewart had the second-best record through 33 games of any West Virginia coach (24-9) before the Syracuse game? West Virginia has won nine games each of his first two years and could easily hit that mark again this year, which is more than a lot of programs can say.

Yet the fact is that Stewart is just 11-5 in the Big East and needs to finish strong this year to avoid some heat for next season. I don't envision any way he is not back in 2011 unless the Mountaineers completely collapse. But if they don't do well in the final five games, next season will be a big one for Stewart.

Jim B. from Northville, Mich., writes: In your what we learned about the Big East this week you said Syracuse held the "explosive" Mouintaineers in check through the second half of the game. During the WVU-USF game braodcast on ESPN, the announcers used the same term to describe the Mountaineer offense. My question is, why would anyone consider the Mountaineers' offense to be explosive? Implosive perhaps, but this is an offense that has struggled from Day One under Bill Stewart and the scoring offensive productivity has dropped dramatically since 2007. The team's stats, 26.1 ppg and 363 total ypg, place it somewhere between 60th and 70th among all D-1 schools. There is nothing explosive or even very exciting about this offense.

Brian Bennett: The Mountaineers have a lot of speed and playmakers, but you're right, Jim. Time to take the word "explosive" out of the bag of cliches. I don't think it's as dire a situation as some do, but West Virginia needs to figure out more of an identity on offense.

Allen from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Last week WV was the class of the BE, they had talent galore etc. The writers loved them the coaches loved them and then they lose to Syracuse and suddenly they are in trouble, Bill Stewart needs to be fired etc. Pitt was all but put to rest and the coach fired, now they are the beast of the East. Why does the media (and fans) react and make snap judgements week to week rather than look at the bigger picture?

Brian Bennett: Way to sap all the fun out of college sports, Allen! Aren't the week-to-week judgments why we keep coming back?

O.D. from Miami, Fla., writes: "* Dropped from rankings: West Virginia 20, Texas 22 * Others receiving votes: Nevada 32, Hawaii 19, Michigan 9, SYRACUSE!!!! 8 ... 'Cuse got more votes than Florida. ... I can't even believe I just typed that. Feels so good to be relevant in college football again. Thank you Doug Marrone for fulfilling your promise to us. LET'S GO ORANGE!!!

Brian Bennett: Amazing, isn't it? Marrone would tell you he and the program are not there yet. But if the Orange can beat Cincinnati and other things break right, they might just sneak into the Top 25. Who would have thunk it? Marrone is making a case for national coach of the year.

Chris from Louisville writes: I noticed in your Monday video that you, as myself, seem to be a fan of Godzilla. and I was wanting to know who you think might win in a fight between Charlie Strong and Godzilla? Personally, I think if they two were to ever come to blows, The Universe would collapse. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: I just know I wouldn't want to be a Japanese skyscraper in that scenario.

Johnintheville from Louisville writes: I had a great nickname for the Cards' Bilal Powell, who is having a phenomenal year for Louisville. I was going to call him the "Silent Assassin" because he was a humble guy and didn't talk to the press. After talking to you and others after the UConn win, what should we call him now?

Brian Bennett: How about "The Face?" Strong gave him that nickname as the face of the program, and he's sure more of a face than a voice. Plus, it kinds of reminds me of the A-Team which is cool.

Jeff from LSU writes: Just wondering if you noticed that so far Syracuse has been involved in three homecoming games. In those three games, the homecoming team has lost. Syracuse defeated USF and West Virginia on their homecomings, while losing their own to Pitt. Oddly enough, the Bearcats' homecoming is this Saturday against Syracuse. Should Cincinnati think about switching homecoming until the Rutgers game instead?

Brian Bennett: Won't someone think of the poor homecoming queens and kings?

Alex from Piscataway writes: Thank you for continuing to cover the tragic situation regarding Eric LeGrand. I really do feel there was an underestimation about how much this would affect the RU players, coaches and community. I cannot imagine having to concentrate in practice or film study while the teammate that used to sit next to me is in a hospital bed fighting for basic life functions. Unfortunately, I would not expect much out of RU the rest of the year. There were several major flaws (O-line and QB play) on this team that spirited defensive and special teams play was overcoming but I just cannot see it continuing. Eric is not showing signs of improvement and I can tell you the local media is on this story day and night.

Being a member of the community myself, I can tell you the typical excitement of the college football season has been completely drained while we all worry more about Eric's fate. I think you can sense it in Coach Schiano's demeanor, we are all really worried, concerned and I hate to admit it but football is not first on our minds right now. Unfortunately, I think you saw that reflect in RU's play on Saturday and will likely see it going forward.

Brian Bennett: It's hard to tell how a situation like this will affect a team. I thought the Scarlet Knights came out strong on Saturday, but it sure seemed like they wore out in the second half, and that might have been due to the emotional toll. Or it might have just been that they have been relying on their defense and special teams to bail them out for so long that the dam finally broke against a really talented Pitt offense.

Either way, I wouldn't give up on this team yet. Yes, the offensive problems aren't going away and may end up being the ultimate flaw. But as far as the LeGrand situation goes, we saw how UConn responded last year with the Jasper Howard tragedy. It took the Huskies a few games to get over the hump, but once they did they played inspired football down the stretch.

And once again, if you'd like to contribute to the Eric Grand "Believe" Fund, here is the link.

Duane W. from Yorktown, Va., writes: WOW, BB, 'Cuse just got the best win in the conf, have only 1 loss and you project us to finish 5th. Oh, Ye of little faith.

Brian Bennett: I assume Duane is referencing my latest bowl projections, where I had Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. Putting aside for a minute how impossible it is to project the Big East bowls at this point, there's one thing you must keep in mind: outside of the BCS slot, bowl positioning doesn't really take into account how the teams finish. Bowls will take the teams that they think best suit them in terms of geography and matchups. Even if Syracuse finishes second, I think the Orange make a lot of sense for the Pinstripe Bowl given their location and the fact that no one knows how the fan base will travel after the six-year postseason layoff. A team like West Virginia with its fan base would be more attractive to the Champs Sports people regardless of record.

Brad from Pittsburgh writes: Have you noticed that for the last four weeks when you order the upcoming games by importance/interest, that Pitt has been on top of the every week? Seems to me like you just can't get enough Pitt (while trying to figure them this whole season) and it's only going to continue with the exciting schedule ahead to close out the season.

Brian Bennett: It's not that I have Pitt fever. Two weeks ago, Syracuse was really the story. Last week, Pitt and Rutgers played the only game featuring teams undefeated in league play, along with the LeGrand angle. Now, the Panthers are on top the Big East standings and worth monitoring. But their finishing kick against West Virginia and Cincinnati figures to be full of drama and interest.

Greg from Chicago writes: I wanted to first thank the College Football Gods that B.J. and USF found their stride Friday night in Cincy. Second, I wanted to recognize the fans at Nippert Stadium. I had a group of about eight USF Alumni who I attended the game with Friday. We happened to sit in the 4th row behind the Cincinnati bench. The fans were mostly mild mannered, and despite the loss they showered us with praises and good luck wishes as we exited the stadium.

This reminded us of what great fans we have in the Big East. We have been to some other stadiums in different conferences around the country that have had terrible fans. But Friday night we left with an even higher respect for the University of Cincinnati and their fans. Good luck with your predictions this week!

Nathan G. from New Brunswick, N.J., writes: I'm a long-time reader, first-time commenter, and a student assistant with the video department of the Rutgers football team. While I was working on the sidelines this past weekend, one of the Pitt cheerleaders came up to me and said, "I just wanted to let you know, everyone at Pitt, all the sports and clubs and fraternities, we're praying for Eric LeGrand." I found this tremendously kind, and hope you'll share it on the Big East blog.

Brian Bennett: We'll end the mailbag this week on these happy notes.