Each team has, to this point, failed to live up to rather lofty preseason expectations. Both the Bearcats and WVU are part of a logjam in the Big East Conference standings, as each squad is part of a cluster of seven league teams that each have two Big East losses.
“As always, I’m sure it will be a very interesting match-up,” Stewart said. “Both teams need a win and both teams haven’t played as well, I guess, to this date.”
Fans in Cincinnati had gotten used to running roughshod over the Big East, as the Bearcats had claimed the last two league titles coming into this season. But after an undefeated regular season in 2009, head coach Brian Kelly departed to take over at Notre Dame, and former Mountaineer receivers coach Butch Jones took the reigns of the UC program.
That task wasn’t totally unfamiliar to Jones, who left Morgantown to become the head coach at Central Michigan in 2007, where he also had to replace Kelly (who had left the Chippewas program to become the Bearcats’ leader).
But while Jones kept CMU rolling along rather well, winning two Mid-American Conference titles in his three years on the sidelines there, he’s found a bit tougher time of things at Cincinnati.
The Bearcats sit at 3-5 overall and 1-2 in Big East play and come into Saturday’s game at Milan Puskar Stadium still smarting from a 31-7 loss to Syracuse in their last outing on Oct. 30.
While West Virginia’s main problem has been issues on offense, Jones has had to deal with the opposite, as his defense is statistically among the worst in the Big East.
Add in occasional issues at quarterback, where starter Zach Collaros had to sit out the game against Syracuse due to injury, and a program that had only lost five regular season games in the last three years combined already has five setbacks in 2010 with four more regular season games to go.
“There’s reasons for that -- a fumble here, a big play by someone there,” Stewart said, trying to explain UC’s struggles this season. “Much like us, they haven’t finished, haven’t closed, haven’t put the fire totally out of the opponent when the chance was there.”
“They just haven’t hit on all cylinders, like us. There’s some youth on their defense. Zach’s been hurt. There’s just things you can’t predict sometimes in football.”
Regardless, Stewart and the Mountaineers aren’t likely to take Cincinnati lightly.
The Bearcats have beaten WVU in each of Stewart’s first two seasons as head coach, with both defeats coming by a mere field goal. West Virginia comes into Saturday’s contest smarting from back-to-back losses, just like UC.
Toe earn his first victory over Cincinnati, Stewart with have to get the better of Jones, a man he still calls a friend after the latter’s tenure as the receivers coach under former Mountaineer head man Rich Rodriguez.
With both head coaches needing a win to allay the concerns of their respective schools’ fans, their personal friendship will have to be put to the side at least for a few hours on Saturday.
“You never like to coach against your buddies,” Stewart said. “You don’t have enough time for me to go through how the Stewart family feels about the Jones family. My wife and his wife Barbara are dear friends, as Butch and I are. He’s a great coach. He’s a great master of attention to detail. I just love him. I think he made me a better coach here and hopefully I rubbed off a little bit on him.
“Any time you work with someone, you get a special bond and a closeness that people who have never been in sports don’t understand. Going against your buddy is always tough, but it won’t be tough Saturday, as I know it won’t be tough for him either, because that’s what we’re supposed to do in this business is beat the other team. So we’ll block all that out on Saturday. For a few hours, the friendship is on hold, and may the best team win.”