The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

College Sports

December 28, 2010

Offense looks to maintain consistency

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s rugged defense against North Carolina State’s explosive offense.

That’s the official prelude to today’s Champs Sports Bowl pitting the Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) against the Wolfpack (8-4, 5-3 ACC) at 6:30 p.m. in Orlando, Fla. The game will be televised live on ESPN.

But it might be what the other side of the ball does for each team that decides the game.

Can West Virginia’s resurgent offense (31 points per game in four wins after scoring just 27 points in back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut, losses that kept WVU from winning the Big East outright and going to the BCS) score against a fast N.C. State defense?

“We’re playing good right now,” said slot receiver Tavon Austin, one of the Mountaineers’ leading receivers (53 catches for 757 yards and eight touchdowns). “We’re just coming together at the right time.”

Quarterback Geno Smith has had a stellar sophomore season, his first year as a full-time starter.

Smith has thrown for 2,567 yards (219 of 333 passing) with 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He wasn’t picked off in the Mountaineers’ last five games, after throwing half of his picks in the Syracuse game (a 19-14 loss).

Keeping the offense on the late-season roll is important, Smith said.

“We have to get back in the groove of things,” Smith said. “We have a big game coming up, and we have to get our minds right.”

He’s had an arsenal of wide receivers, in addition to Austin.

Slot receiver Jock Sanders, the career leader in receptions (201), has 64 catches for 670 yards and four TDs. Brad Starks has 19 for 317 and four TDs, Stedman Bailey 20 for 256 and three TDs and running back Noel Devine 30 for 237 and a touchdown.

Devine, a Heisman hopeful when the season started, should be as close to 100 percent as he’s been since getting injured in the LSU game in week four.

Devine has rushed for 886 yards on 201 carries and six touchdowns. Ryan Clarke has added 291 and eight touchdowns and Shawne Alston 242.

The Florida native is looking forward to his final game as a Mountaineer in his home state.

“This is just a homecoming,” Devine said. “It’s about coming out and playing football and just enjoying every minute of it.

“This time has just been about bonding with my team and enjoying our last few days together. I’ve been speaking to the younger guys and telling them how it is and that they need to keep the tradition going. They need to be Mountaineers and work hard.”

Stewart thinks his team will retain the offensive swagger with which it ended the season.

“Here’s the biggest problem I see with them — if their front seven can get to us before we can get the ball to our playmakers in space, then they will be very successful,” Stewart said. “If we can keep those guys from getting to us and get the ball in the flat to Jock and Tavon, I don’t think those guys can tackle them. That’s going to be the key. We can also pop them with our run game if they loosen a little. Geno has to run the football for us to be successful, and he will run the football. What you’ve seen over the last four games is what you’re going to see (tonight).”

Of course, there is the possibility of distractions — WVU hired new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen and announced he will succeed Stewart after the 2011 season, and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and offensive line coach Dave Johnson aren’t being retained — hindering the Mountaineer attack.

Smith isn’t concerned with that.

“We have to focus,” the quarterback said. “I don’t think the distractions are going to bother us and we will come out ready to play. We had some time to enjoy the holiday season but now it’s time to get back to work.”

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