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For West Virginia, it's hit 21 or bust

11/11/2010

After West Virginia beat South Florida 20-6 to open up Big East play, receiver Jock Sanders made a pronouncement.

If the Mountaineers' offense could just score 20 or 21 points every game, a win would be "in the books," he said confidently. Sanders had no way of knowing how painfully right he was.

Since that game, West Virginia has lost two straight, with the offense scoring just 14 points against Syracuse and 13 in overtime at Connecticut. The Mountaineers haven't reached the end zone in their last three second halves. The defense has yet to allow more than 21 points all season, but the team still has three losses.

"All we had to do was score 21 points and we'd be 8-0 right now," Sanders said. "That's the crazy thing about it.

"It's been frustrating. We've been horrendous the last couple of games on offense. And that made me feel bad because I'm a part of the offense not being able to score points. It made me think, 'God, am I that sorry that I can't help my team produce?'"

The Mountaineers have done a lot of soul-searching in the two weeks since that UConn game. Head coach Bill Stewart promised a total re-evaluation of the offense during the bye week. Stewart hasn't revealed many details of what that study illustrated, but he did drop some hints this week about being more aggressive with the play calling.

"Sometimes in protection we help certain linemen on certain plays," he said, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. "Maybe that guy can handle it himself. Then we can get a (running) back in the flat. That pulls a linebacker out and opens a hole. We saw some things that can help."

Another thing that can help is this week's opponent. Cincinnati is allowing 32 points per game in Big East play and hasn't given up fewer than 27 points to a BCS conference opponent this season. If West Virginia can't get going against this yielding defense, all hope may be lost.

There's also ample motivation for the Mountaineers. The Bearcats have won two straight in this series, knocking off West Virginia in overtime two years ago in Morgantown and getting some help from a controversial replay call last year at Nippert Stadium. Cincinnati took over West Virginia's Big East throne both years.

This, then, would normally be a spot for some revenge. But the Mountaineers can't think about that, because they're more concerned with just getting themselves right.

Stewart ran them through some hard practices last week, with the ones-on-ones doing full hitting.

"At first, there were a lot of guys walking around with their heads down after that UConn game," Sanders said. "But now, you can't even tell that we lost because of how hyped we are and how we're bouncing around.

"We've been going up against our defense, and I think that was what we needed. We've been fired up in practice. We're amped."

Sanders has not shied away from bold proclamations. At Big East media day in August, he openly questioned how Pittsburgh could be the favorite over West Virginia. He says he thinks the race is still "wide open" despite Pitt's cushy lead in the standings, but he knows his team needs a lot of help.

"Even though we have three losses and we're not the front-runners for the Big East, I still feel good about my last year and the things we've accomplished as a team," the senior said. "Even though it's not much, I've enjoyed it and wouldn't take it back for anything. All we've got to do is take care of ourselves and everything will be good."