WVU football: Jock Sanders still not sold on Panthers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Late in the summer and before his West Virginia football team met for the first time in the 2010 season, Coach Bill Stewart wondered how his team could develop an attitude he thought his first two squads had lacked.
"I want a little swagger back," he said, "but I want arrogance and not ignorance."
The trick was to trust his players to perform with the appropriate level of confidence. Once the genie was out of the bottle, he knew it wasn't going back inside.
Two weeks later, his star receiver, Jock Sanders, was at the Big East's media day and openly questioned why the media picked Pitt to finish ahead of WVU.
"The crazy thing about it to me is Pitt's got everybody back and we've got everybody back and we beat Pitt - so those polls, to me, don't really mean anything," Sanders said.
He wasn't done. Sanders said the Mountaineers were "hands down" the best team in the conference.
"We'll show that this year," he said. "It is all about politics. For Pitt to get all those votes and we got just as much back as them, it is crazy, but, like I said before, at the end of the year after we play them, they'll regret it. They'll regret it all."
Four months later, Sanders doesn't regret a thing. In fact, he kind of relishes it all.
"You've got to rub for that magic genie," he said.
"I was rubbing for that magic genie."
Pitt enters Friday's Backyard Brawl (noon telecast on ABC) as the first-place team in the conference and ahead of WVU, though the Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) can win and prevent the Panthers (6-4, 4-1) from clinching a share of the conference title.
If WVU wins Friday and Dec. 4 at home against Rutgers and UConn loses one if its two remaining games against Cincinnati and at USF, the Mountaineers are the Big East's BCS representative and at least own a share of the league championship.
Nothing is guaranteed, but what Sanders said in Newport, R.I., back in August at least maintains the potential for truth.
He knew it would come up this week, but he knew that when he first said it.
"There was a purpose behind it," he said. "I already knew the championship comes through West Virginia. Pitt is in first place, as they projected, but the game hasn't been settled yet."
Sanders, who with 191 career receptions is tied with David Saunders for the school's career record, leaves no secret about how he feels about the Panthers.
"You just can't be friends with those guys," he said. "After the game, yeah, but during the game? No. That's Pitt."
His motivations are just as obvious. He's 1-2 against the Panthers and that 13-9 game in 2007, when he was a freshman, taught him all he needed to learn about the series.
"We go to the national championship game," he said. "All we had to do was win the game. We went to the Fiesta Bowl and we had a great game, but just think: Fiesta Bowl or national championship game? It's a big difference.
"Now we've got to go ahead and spoil what they've got at the top right now."
Sanders is equally out front about why he doubted the preseason prediction. It wasn't a slap in the face to be picked to finish behind Pitt. He was offended WVU, with everything it had returning to its team, was picked second to anyone.
Not only that, but the Panthers received 190 points and 22 of 24 first-place votes in the poll, and matched the standard set by Louisville in 2005 as the most overwhelming favorite. WVU, which won the Big East in 2005, and Cincinnati had 142 points each. WVU had one first place vote, Connecticut the other.
Sanders didn't care for the apparent consensus.
"People took it the wrong way," he said. "I'm pretty sure they were offended. I heard they wrote something about it in Pittsburgh, but I wasn't saying it that way. I was saying with this conference being so balanced, how can you give it to a team that lost to us and Cincinnati?
"That's where I was coming from. I wasn't trying to talk down to them. I'm not that type of person. And congrats to them for having the No. 1 spot for now."
Sanders amped up the anticipation for the annual meeting between the rivals well before the season started, but he also triggered something within the Mountaineers.
Stewart wanted bravado. Sanders branded it.
"Why run away when they're running toward you?" WVU linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "That's our motto. We aren't backing down, regardless if it's Marshall, CMU, whoever. It doesn't matter. We're running toward you and if we can land the first blow, we're landing the first blow."
If nothing else, what Sanders did was initiate the 2010 team's swagger and define the rules the Mountaineers have mostly followed through the ups and downs this season. He thinks it's helped the team and especially recently as WVU has followed back-to-back losses with back-to-back wins to again emerge as conference title contenders.
"I say things on purpose and if there's truth to it," he said. "I don't say stuff if there's no truth to it. At the end of the day, I know what type of team we have and the way we're capable of playing. The truth will show at the end."
He didn't stop his predictions in the preseason, either. It was Sanders who made a similarly startling statement following a 20-6 victory against USF in October that has nevertheless proved true.
"I bet everyone was saying I was crazy when I said early this year if the other team doesn't score 21 points, put it in the books. We win," the senior slot receiver said. "We've showed that all we have to do is score 21 points and we win.
"Our defense is that strong. There's always supposed to be meaning. I don't mean to talk just to talk. I want to talk and have a meaning to it."
Hardly any of Sanders' teammates were aware this week of what he'd said at media day. None of them were worried about the words catching up to the Mountaineers. Linebacker J.T. Thomas was with Sanders at media day and heard about the quotes soon thereafter, but as was the case then, he isn't concerned now.
"Anything said won't change the outcome of the game," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, we're going to play every team in the Big East. It's not like they're going to just give the trophy away. Now we get a chance to see who's the better team.
"We're not worried about what was said or who was picked to do what. If you stopped right now, Pitt would be the best Big East team, but all that isn't going to matter. We'll know who the better team is Friday."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142.