The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

December 5, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: This senior day worth celebrating

MORGANTOWN — They deserved better.

We’re talking about the West Virginia University Mountaineers. Your Mountaineers.

We’re talking about the seniors; this was their day and you didn’t even bother stopping in to say goodbye.

They announced 48,368 of you were there to see them win the Big East, to see them turn a season that once stood on the brink of disaster into a season that now must be considered an inspirational success.

And you, the public, took a pass. There were 9,000 more to see the Mountaineers play Coastal Carolina, of all teams.

This is supposed to be such a great football area, a school with such a great football following, and then you get this string on Facebook before the game:

“Last game of the season. I’m going to watch it in comfort…in my bed where it’s warm”

“Me, too! It’s too freakin’ cold out there for me.”

“We had tix but decided to watch it in the warmth, too.”

Here they were, these gallant players, having fought through adversity to save their season, juiced up and rarin’ to go and there you were, under the covers, staying warm.

So you missed senior linebacker J.T. Thomas coming out and honoring his father, a player at West Virginia with the same name, by wearing his No. 41 uniform jersey as he ran onto the field.

“I called my mother in Ft. Lauderdale and asked her if she had his Carquest Bowl jersey and if she did to have her bring it up for me. I changed into it in the tunnel and ran out on the field to honor him,” J.T. the younger said. “The thing was, he missed his senior day game so I wanted to wear it for mine for him.”

He would change into his own No. 30 jersey for the game, a number Rutgers would come to learn quite well during WVU’s 35-14 victory, a victory in which he made seven tackles, forced a fumble and then recovered it and darn near ran it in for a touchdown.

That’s pretty much what kind of day it was, with enough warm emotion to fight off the sting of the cold, unless, of course, you were snuggled up in your bed somewhere.

See this was not just any ordinary win to clinch a share of the Big East championship, for it came after the team had started the season 1-2 in the conference, after it had lost unexpectedly and, quite honestly, inexplicably to Syracuse and Connecticut.

“I told a story here a few years back after my first year. I was an assistant here and we’d gotten beat by Miami and we were 1-4 and bunch of guys grabbed hands down in Miami. We didn’t do very bad after that. Out in Colorado, we were 1-2, and we did the same thing; we bonded,” coach Bill Stewart said.

“This year, after UConn, in that locker room, there wasn’t one finger being pointed at anyone. It was all thumbs being pointed at themselves. I owe to the seniors and the staff. I like to think that one William Stewart had a little something to do with that.

“We bonded and we blocked everybody out by ourselves and said we’d cross our t’s, dot our i’s and take care of business and play hardnosed football. It’s been a fabulous four weeks. Its been the ride of my life.”

Stewart held up a T-shirt proclaiming West Virginia Big East champions.

“I may take this home and put it on tonight because not many people thought that shirt right there would be handed out today.”

Stewart may have been overstating the case just a bit. As his quarterback, who became a full-fledged star on this day with 352 yards on 23 of 28 passing, one a touchdown, Geno Smith would note, it wasn’t all one big brotherhood.

“After Connecticut and Syracuse we kind of turned on each other,” he said.

But a meeting following the UConn loss set the record straight, Thomas getting up and speaking to the team.

“I told them how I felt about things,” he said. “I knew we could do it. I told them we were better than Connecticut and better than Syracuse, but we just dropped the ball. I told them that I knew crazier things had happened, that I’d seen it and that at 5-2 the way the Big East was we could still win.”

And they listened, these players. They joined hands and became as one and ran off four victories in a row, getting better each week, pounding Pitt into submission in a game where it didn’t seem possible that they would win on the road.

It was really an amazing turnaround, built on what has to be the nation’s best defense, a defense that has not allowed any team to score 21 points this year and that closed out the final four games giving up 10 points in three consecutive games to Cincinnati, Louisville and Pitt and then 14 to Rutgers, the final seven being against scrubs in long after the issue was decided.

And while that happened the offense grew, scoring 37, 35 and 35 in three of the final four games, Smith and Tavon Austin taking charge, along with a magnificent senior named Jock Sanders who in this game caught six passes for 81 yards while tying Khori Ivy’s school and Big East record of catches in 40 consecutive games.

Then, when it ended, they gathered at midfield and hugged each other as John Denver sang “Country Roads,” after which the seniors took a victory lap around the field, hand slapping the students who had come out and braved the cold, saying thank you to them for coming.

Don’t you wish you’d been there, too? You might even have a smile on those cherry red cheeks.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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