WVU football: Midseason woes brought team together
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There had been low moments in each of Bill Stewart's first two seasons as West Virginia's football coach.
In 2008, his Mountaineers were beaten down in Greenville, N.C., in a 24-3 loss to East Carolina and followed that with a 17-14 overtime loss at Colorado.
The Mountaineers won their next five games.
Last season, WVU lost at South Florida and then rallied around Stewart's "Remember November" vow. Those Mountaineers won three of four to end the regular season and would like to believe things might have gone differently if not for one video replay at Cincinnati.
This year, WVU experienced the lowest of their lows, first losing at home to Syracuse for the first time since 2001 and then losing at Connecticut for the first time.
WVU was in last place in the Big East Conference and stuck with a clumsy offense that couldn't do even a little to help a fantastic defense.
"After UConn, in that locker room, there wasn't one finger pointed. It was all thumbs," Stewart said, claiming nobody extended a finger to spread the blame to others, but instead peeled back a thumb to direct blame at themselves.
But, oh, was it close to going the other way. The players admit as much. It would have been easy to let it spiral out of control. It was going to be harder to spin it back and bind the team tighter than it had ever been.
The Mountaineers know this because they stood at the intersection of the right way and the wrong way.
"We didn't handle adversity as well the first couple of games - excluding the LSU game, because I do think we did a great job fighting to the end there," said quarterback Geno Smith. "But the UConn game and the Syracuse game, we got down and kind of turned on each other and separated."
Not completely. Kind of. The difference was and is a key.
The divide was present, though, and threatening to grow. There's no easier way for a football team to fall apart than when one half of the locker room cannot help another. In WVU's case, a defense was carrying the team while the offense couldn't carry the ball.
And the offense wasn't exactly inventing ways to lose games. It was the same stuff, as turnovers came in bad spots on the field and at even worse times in the game.
The problems were transparent, which actually was good for the team.
The offense insisted it could rack up yards and score points as long as it didn't give away possessions. The defense believed it. Rather than make things difficult and get down on the offense, the defense chose the simple solution and believed what it was seeing and hearing.
"It wasn't really the offense or the play-calling," said linebacker J.T. Thomas, who was named the Big East's defensive player of the week Monday. "Syracuse had a very good defense. UConn, not as much, but the turnovers hurt us. It wasn't that the offense was bad. As you can see, they can put up plenty of points."
The Mountaineers totaled 42 points in their 1-2 start in Big East play. They've averaged 31 in the four-game winning streak that's pushed the team into the national polls, a tie for the Big East championship and a spot in the Dec. 28 Champs Sports Bowl.
It didn't have to be this way, though. WVU followed the UConn loss with an open week and it was a decisive - and potentially divisive - time for the team. The prospects did not look good and with 15 days separating games, it was hard to predict which way the team would go.
WVU knew then what it knows now. The eventual outcome could have been different.
"It could have after we lost that UConn game," Thomas said. "We got a chance to figure out what kind of team we really were. Not what people were writing about, but who we actually were. Do we have the resolve? Do we have the grit? Can we come together and pull it off?"
They did, and for one reason.
"You have no choice," Smith said. "Everyone out there wants to win. We all want to win. We all work our butts off in practice. You have no other choice but to come together in a situation like that. We had our backs against the wall and we fought back."
That open week turned out to be a blessing for the Mountaineers.
They looked at themselves and had time to separate sense from nonsense. They got a feel for who they were and who they should be. They believed they were far better than the numbers would indicate and were anxious to get back to proving it.
Would it happen? No one confessed to what they were thinking would happen in the final four games, and, say what you will about the Big East, but that wasn't an easy conclusion.
Cincinnati was a two-time defending conference champion with a formidable offense. WVU took its road woes to Louisville and the Cardinals' defense had success against WVU's surging offense. Pitt and the Backyard Brawl speak for themselves, and while Rutgers proved to be Rutgers, Saturday's game was also a test of WVU's focus knowing the BCS was within reach.
"We bonded," Stewart said. "We blocked everything out but ourselves."
As swiftly and severely as failure can split a locker room, it can also bring it back together. It happened at WVU, where the team chose a union over a division. Tricky to explain, it's been a treat for the Mountaineers to experience.
"It takes a special bond," linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "It takes a special chemistry. It takes a coaching staff to make sure it doesn't happen. It takes leaders to make sure it doesn't happen. I can't draw it up for you nor put it into words. You have to have it. Whatever it is, this team had it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.