West Virginia: Sophomore safety shows up to protect home turf
West Virginia's Alric Arnett, top, celebrates with Noel Devine.
West Virginia's Brandon Hogan knocks a pass away from Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin Friday night at Mountaineer Field.
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- All through the two weeks leading up to West Virginia's game against Pitt Friday night, it seemed everyone wanted to look back into a certain moment in history:
Dec. 1, 2007 -- when Pitt dashed West Virginia's chances at playing in the national championship game, slipping past the Mountaineers, 13-9.
West Virginia sophomore safety Robert Sands was still a high school kid in Florida when that loss -- perhaps the most bitter in West Virginia history -- happened. No matter.
"Last week in practice, they showed when some of the Pitt players were bouncing on our logo and stuff like that after they beat West Virginia," Sands said. "They kept showing that over and over and over in practice until we got sick of seeing it. And then we were just like, 'Where is Pitt at? We want them right now.'"
West Virginia got them.
More to the point, Sands got them.
In what was one of the finest defensive efforts turned in by any West Virginia player over the past few seasons, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound safety made seven tackles, secured a key interception and had three pass breakups in the 19-16 victory against Pitt, and on the same field in those videos.
Funny thing is Sands was almost on the other side of the Backyard Brawl, nearly choosing the Panthers out of high school.
So this one meant a little more.
"You just had your blood boiling," Sands said. "You were just ready to go out there on the field. That's what it was, it was the atmosphere for this game. People were just trying to make plays everywhere."
One of those guys was Pitt tight end Dorin Dickerson, but it would seem what Sands did Friday might effectively have ended Dickerson's shot at the John Mackey Award, given annually to nation's top college tight end.
Earlier last week, Dickerson had been named one of three finalists for the award, but, faced with Sands, Dickerson was limited to two catches for 12 yards.
"Sands played excellent," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "He's playing well; he's playing really well."
But don't tell that to Sands, as two of those pass breakups could -- and perhaps should -- have been interceptions, hitting him in the hands before dropping to the turf.
"I'd probably give myself a B," Sands said. "There were some plays I could have made. Like those two interceptions; in practice, I make them all the time, and that was the frustrating part."
As such, though, Sands served to frustrate Pitt quarterback Bill Stull and the Panthers' passing game from the early going to the final snap of a game that gave the Mountaineers their first undefeated season at home since 1993.
There's never been a question about Sands' stature -- his frame is hulking; he has got a big-time NFL build. It was just a matter of him adjusting to the college game, which he is doing masterfully.
"It is slowing down," Sands said. "I could learn more and it could slow down even more, but, right now, it is slowing down to the point where I can see how routes are developing and who the quarterback is going to throw to. It is more reaction now."
As opposed to?
"Last year," he said. "That's when I was doing more thinking before the play instead of now, where I know what I am going to do and I just have to react to the ball."
Leading up to the game, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said, "I think it's that type of game, regardless of the records, that takes on a life of its own. Throw the records out. Show up. You better be ready to play."
Be sure of this: Sands was sure ready to play against the Panthers.
First Published November 29, 2009 12:00 am