WVU football: Mountaineers end regular season with strong finish
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The finish to West Virginia's regular season did a lot to make people forget about what was in the middle.
The Mountaineers won their final four games and can match Coach Bill Stewart's longest winning streak by taking the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl against North Carolina State.
WVU started 1-2 in conference play and scored just 42 points. The first conference losing streak since 2004 made the worst conference record since 2001 very possible. Yet the Mountaineers are 9-3 overall and 5-2 in the Big East, co-conference champions with UConn and Pitt and ranked No. 21 in the coaches' poll and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.
"It's been a fabulous four weeks, the ride of my life, and I'm so grateful we've come out the way we have," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said.
He began his postgame press conference by brandishing a blue T-shirt declaring WVU conference champions.
"Not many people thought that shirt right there would have been handed out," he said.
The shirt was about as unexpected as the cause. WVU has scored 35 or more points in three of the past four games after doing it five times in Stewart's first 34 games. The offense is averaging 31 points and 390 yards of offense during the winning streak. The Mountaineers even managed to beat Rutgers on Saturday, 35-14, in spite of three turnovers inside the Rutgers 15-yard line.
WVU won early-season games with at least three turnovers against Coastal Carolina and Maryland, but lost consecutive games with at least three turnovers against Syracuse and UConn.
"This says a tremendous amount about us and a lot about the head football coach and the job he's done the entire season," WVU offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. "When you see a team get better, I think that's a really good indication of a guy doing things right. I'm really proud of the staff, but even more so the football team and the fact we were able to face some adversity, take ownership of it and get better from it."
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WVU WAS one of the last teams in the country to get a sack and actually had none in the first two games.
Not that anyone was worried.
"I think more gets made of that than there needs to be," said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. "Do we want to go two games without one? No, but are we effective? There are a lot of things that go into it. If you're making the guy move his feet and he's not throwing strikes, you're still successful."
That same defense has 40 sacks in the past 10 games and finished the regular season ranked No. 3 behind Boise State and Florida State.
Defensive end Julian Miller had three of the team's six sacks against Rutgers. Junior college transfer Bruce Irvin had two and is No. 3 nationally with 1.00 per game.
"We didn't have him in spring practice and we get him in and he's trying to learn what it is we're calling," Casteel said. "I think the more comfortable he got the more his athleticism came out."
Irvin had a sack in seven games. Only four players in the country had more than his 12 sacks, led by Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, who had 15.5.
"They brought me in to get the quarterback," Irvin said. "I came in late and couldn't learn the playbook as fast as I'd like, but I made the best of the situation."
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THE DEFENSE finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 11 in pass defense. WVU is the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that didn't allow more than 21 points in a game this season.
"The only stat that really matters is to win," Casteel said. "We've won nine times. Is it great to be second, third, fourth, whatever we are? Sure. I think it helps the kids and helps them go to work when it's 30 degrees out there. I think there are bonuses to those things, but those aren't the things we discuss and harp on with the players."
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NOSE GUARD Chris Neild started against Rutgers despite a hamstring injury, but couldn't go for long. Cornerback Brandon Hogan left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter. Neild was replaced by Josh Taylor while Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins combined to fill Hogan's spot.
"How you make up for it is by executing," linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "If you call a stunt, execute the stunt. Don't worry about who's back there in coverage. Pat Miller and Jenkins stepped up and did a good job. Josh stepped up and did a great job for Chris. You won't see a nose guard on the stat sheet, but Josh himself was responsible for a majority of those tackles made around the line of scrimmage."
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LINEBACKER J.T. Thomas III ran out of the tunnel onto the field for the final time on Senior Day wearing his father's No. 41 jersey. Thomas' father, also J.T., was a linebacker at WVU from 1994-95, but was hurt late in his senior season and didn't play on his Senior Day.
"Now he got to see his jersey grace that field one last time," Thomas III said.
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QUARTERBACK GENO Smith completed 23 of 28 passes for a career-high 352 yards and a touchdown while the offense finished with a season-high 523 yards against the Scarlet Knights.
"He's going to be phenomenal," Stewart said of the sophomore Smith, who passed or 2,567 yards and 23 touchdowns in the regular season. "He's got a chance to be really, really special."