Youthful Mountaineers off to tough start

Originally Published: October 2, 2003
By Jorge Milian | Special to ESPN.com

Following its 9-4 record and second-place finish in the Big East last season, the assumption was that West Virginia football was back on track a year after the Mountaineers had posted their worst record since 1978.

The nine victories were a six-win improvement over 2001 and raised expectations as Rich Rodriguez entered his third season as West Virginia's coach. But those hopes have been largely dashed as the Mountaineers have opened the 2003 season by struggling, losing three of four games as they enter Thursday night's meeting with second-ranked Miami in the Orange Bowl (ESPN, 7:30 ET).

Were the expectations unrealistic?

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  • "We had some success, but we hadn't arrived yet," Rodriguez said. "We were still building. It's good to win nine games while you're building. But had we gotten to the point where we could just reload? No. It wasn't even close."

    The Mountaineers haven't been awful. Just disappointing.

    They blew a 10-point lead against No. 20 Wisconsin in the season opener and lost 24-17. West Virginia followed with a 48-7 blowout of hapless East Carolina before turning in a forgettable performance against Cincinnati in which the Mountaineers committed five turnovers and missed two field goals and an extra point in a 15-13 loss.

    Still healing from the bitterness of the Cincinnati loss, West Virginia was dominated the next week against Maryland, losing a 34-7 decision.

    "We have a lot of young kids playing and you worry about what their pysche is because they've never been through this before," Rodriguez said.

    Which makes one wonder how the Mountaineers may feel after Thursday night's nationally-televised game against Miami. The Hurricanes are a four-touchdown favorite.

    So what ails West Virginia?

    You can start with a running game that is not nearly equal to last season when the Mountaineers finished second nationally in rushing with an average 283.6 yards per game. West Virginia is averaging just over 190 yards on the ground this season, but only 133 in the team's three losses.

    The Mountaineers are, no doubt, feeling the effect of losing Big East career rushing leader Avon Cobourne. But the bigger losses may have been the departure of three starting offensive linemen to graduation and the season-ending injury to offensive tackle Tim Brown two days before the opener against Wisconsin. That left only one returning starter, Jeff Berk, on the offensive line and he was switched from left guard to left tackle after Brown's injury.

    The result is a completely rebuilt offensive line.

    Rich Rodriguez
    Rich Rodriguez thinks better days are ahead for West Virginia.
    "The loss of Tim Brown was the one that hurt the most," Rodriguez said. "He was our bellwether up front. That's had us scrambling just trying to get the right combination."

    Possibly the most disappointing aspect of West Virginia's 1-3 start has been the play of junior quarterback Rasheed Marshall. As a sophomore last season, Marshall was sensational. He broke Michael Vick's Big East rushing record for quarterbacks while contributing nearly 2,300 yards of total offense and 22 touchdowns.

    Marshall's looked like a different player this year. He's rushed for only 58 yards and is last among Big East quarterbacks in completion percentage (46.5) and yards passing (110.5 ypg). Marshall had one of the worst games of his career in the defeat to Maryland, contributing only 17 yards of total offense.

    Rodriguez admitted this week that he's concerned about Marshall's mental state.

    "As a quarterback you have tendency, no matter who you are, if you're not playing as well as you're capable, that you will lose confidence," Rodriguez said. "We don't want that to happen. We know he can do it. It's just a matter of him having confidence in himself and the people around him that he can get the job done."

    The defense has had its share of problems, too. The Mountaineers are giving up 393.8 yards of total offense per game, which ranks 87th nationally.

    "Our young guys are getting worn down a little bit," Rodriguez said.

    The word "young" constantly pops up in Rodriguez's comments about his team. Rodriguez says that of the 79 scholarship players on West Virginia's roster, half are either true or redshirt freshmen.

    West Virginia's always-passionate supporters aren't very happy about the Mountaineers' start, but Rodriguez says better days are ahead.

    "There's always the (fans) that want to win every game and the vocal minority that panics when you lose a couple of games early," Rodriguez said. "But the majority of them know we only have six or seven returning starters and that we have a lot of young kids playing and that they have to be patient while we build this program.

    "We're just trying to build the right way and stay the course."

    Jorge Milian covers the Big East for the Palm Beach Post.