By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was a morning tweet from a senior lineman, Jeff Braun, one that he had to have been saving for this very moment.
“They remember November, Bill Stewart” it read.
To the freshmen and sophomores on this West Virginia University football team that will face Texas Christian at 3 p.m. today at Milan Puskar Stadium in this battle between the Big 12’s two new teams, this quote won’t mean a lot, but to the older hands, the guys playing their final year, it will mean the world.
The year was 2010, and WVU was in a hole. The Mountaineers had just lost consecutive games to Syracuse and Connecticut and were coming unraveled, 5-3, when Stewart addressed his team, much as he had three years earlier with his classic “Leave No Doubt” locker room speech before upsetting Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
The message was delivered as only Stewart could deliver a message, letting his team know that what had transpired to date was only the opening act; that the football season is played in November (and now spills into the first week of December), and that is what decides a team’s legacy.
Sure enough, that was all the team had to hear. The Mountaineers went out and beat Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Rutgers to salvage a 9-3 regular season and a 5-2 Big East season. That they lost a bowl game hardly mattered, for Stewart was right when he said, “They remember November.”
It is November 2012 now, and WVU’s season is teetering on the edge. The Mountaineers have dropped two straight games after a 5-0 start that brought it into the Top 5 in the nation, the two losses being embarrassingly one-sided, 49-14 to Texas Tech and 55-14 to Kansas State.
Two highly ranked teams, yes, but games that were so out of character for the Mountaineers as to seem to having been played by replacement players.
Now it is November again, a time when the season must be put together just as it seems it always is.
In 2009, Stewart’s team won three of four in November. That 2010 team swept three November games (and one in December), and last year’s team lost its first November game to put it in serious trouble, only to win the closing three games (the last one on Dec. 1) to get to the Orange Bowl.
Three Novembers (with two early December games) and a record of 10-2. Bad Novembers and, quite probably, they still would be in the Big East.
This will not be easy, for after TCU sits Oklahoma State on the road, Oklahoma, a trip to Ames to face Iowa State and Kansas.
A sweep really would be necessary to meet the expectations the early season built, but even four of five would salvage a decent enough year out of the Mountaineers’ first in the Big 12, a season where the league can take note that a new quality program has joined them and that it is one that can fight through the hard times as well as enjoy the good times.
It won’t be easy, but the team and the coaches know that it is the direction that must be taken.
It begins with this TCU affair.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction. We just hit a rough skid in the last couple of games,” quarterback Geno Smith said. “We have to remain humble and stay calm and continue to do the things that let us to win nine games in a row going back to last year.”
“We refocused,” Braun said, speaking of benefitting from an off-week before heading into November. “There might have been some panic the week before, but if we win out we’ll be 10-2 and that’s the best record since I’ve been here.”
Win out sounds nice, but no one connected with the Mountaineers want to hears about winning out, for you can’t win out if you don’t beat TCU, and no matter how it looks on the surface, that won’t be easy.
True, TCU has those three losses in its last four games, two of them in a row, and a freshman quarterback who began the season on the bench. True, the Horned Frogs are the youngest team in the conference and suffering from injuries.
But they come carrying an amazing legacy of success with them and with a desire to prove themselves worthy of inclusion in the Big 12. Just a couple of years back there was a Rose Bowl victory and a history of beating ranked teams, WVU being No. 21, and of winning on the road.
This, though, is not about TCU. It is about West Virginia itself. It is about a team that has to grab a season that is slipping away from it and bring it back to life, for that is what good football teams do, and no one doubts this is a good football team.
The only doubt is whether or not it has the heart to overcome its recent string of adversity to prove it.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.