Youthful Mountaineers off to tough start

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

    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.

    "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

    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

    "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.