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West Virginia riding wave of confidence

10/29/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
West Virginia offensive lineman Greg Isdaner remembers the first season-redefining win he played in. The year was 2005, and the Mountaineers rallied from 17 points down in the second half to beat Louisville at home. They went on to sweep the rest of their games, including the Sugar Bowl.

Isdaner got that same kind of feeling from last Thursday's win over Auburn. Down 17-3 in the first half, West Virginia scored the game's final 31 points.

"Hopefully, this win can help us do the same thing this year," he said.

The Mountaineers (5-2, 2-0 Big East) have a long way to go before they can match the accomplishments of the 2005 or the 2007 league championship teams. But for the first time this season, that feels possible.

After struggling to get on track, the offense finally reached Rich Rodriguez-era levels of production against Auburn. Quarterback Pat White finished the game healthy for the first time in more than a month, and Noel Devine ran like he did in the Fiesta Bowl while piling up 207 yards on 17 carries.

The biggest difference, however, was the play of the offensive line. Coming into the season, the group was considered one of the strongest positional units anywhere in the Big East, returning all five starters from last year.

Early in the season, though, the line wasn't opening up its usual gaping holes for White and Devine to dart through. Head coach Bill Stewart said a lack of cohesion hurt the group. Isdaner, tackle Ryan Stanchek and center Mike Dent missed most of spring practice with injuries. Meanwhile, the linemen had to learn a new offensive system and deal with its third position coach in as many years.

"You combine all that, and it's certainly not the easiest transition," Isdaner said. "We knew it was going to be a challenge. But we also knew it was going to click at some point, whether that was game one or game 12."

The turning point, Isdaner said, came near the end of the Syracuse game. Clinging to a 10-6 lead late in the fourth quarter and backed up near its own end zone, the line cleared the way for a game-sealing 92-yard touchdown run by Devine out of the I-formation. Then last week, the big uglies pushed around Auburn's imposing defensive front, creating spaces the size of coal mines for Devine.

"(Against Auburn) was the first time that all five played together the whole game," Stewart said. "That's why they're getting better. They're really jelling and knowing each other now. Maybe, hopefully they're back to last season's form, but I don't know that yet. We'll find out in the next five games how tough we are."

The first test will come Saturday at Connecticut, which is motivated to prove that it can play with the Mountaineers after four-straight lopsided losses in the series. Stewart said he's not sure yet which West Virginia team will show up. He's worried about the early noon start, because his players seem to be at their best in night games for whatever reason.

One thing's for sure: The team has never felt more confident this season, even if the players deflect talk that "West Virginia is back."

"We hadn't gone anywhere," receiver Alric Arnett said. "We're just coming together as a team right now. (Beating Auburn) gave us a big confidence boost and let us know that we can play at a high level."