West Virginia: Questons never end for 9-3 Mountaineers

Gator-bound, but doubts still surround the team's offense

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Some people just don't get it.

That is what West Virginia coach Bill Stewart wanted to get off his chest.

In a cramped media room in the underbelly of Rutgers Stadium yesterday in the aftermath of a not-too-pretty 24-21 victory for his No. 24 Mountaineers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) against Rutgers (8-4, 3-4), and a subsequent accepted invitation to the Gator Bowl, the negativity finally got to the normally congenial Stewart.

He's a man who subscribes to the whole "a-win-is-a-win-is-a-win" school of thought.

He's a man who has never apologized after a triumph, no matter the margin of victory or the perceived strength -- or weakness -- of an opponent.

Most of all, as Stewart winds down his second full season as head coach in Morgantown, W.Va., he's a man who will never apologize for guiding his team to a New Year's Day bowl game.

When a question paralleling yesterday's win with how this season has gone, with a number of near-misses, and high and lows, was presented, Stewart's wits were worn thin for the final time.

"Listen to me, we are 9-3," he said, and then raised his voice, repeating himself to drive the point home. "We are 9-3. Do you understand how many teams in America would like to be 9-3? I'm not scolding you, I am telling you. I have been keeping this in for too long. Bill Stewart is going to push back a little. We are 9-3. We are going to the Gator Bowl. ... Don't tag my name to anything other than this is a 9-3 football team."

A 9-3 football team that received a visitor to its locker room just after they funneled in off a snowy, wind-buffeted field where they had built a 21-3 advantage, only to see it dwindle.

Immediately after the win, Brian Goin, the chairman of the Gator Bowl selection committee -- who is a 1983 West Virginia graduate and was born in Wheeling -- extended an invitation to the Jan. 1 Jacksonville bowl game.


West Virginia swiftly accepted.

The Mountaineers are expected to play Florida State in the Gator Bowl, with an official announcement coming as early as late last night, or as late as today. That matchup would pit Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, who is retiring at the end of this season after amassing 388 wins, against a program he coached from 1970-75 before moving on to Florida State in 1976.

Yesterday's regular-season finale win, and the ninth step to getting to the Gator Bowl, was a game in which, early on, West Virginia looked as if it were going to throttle past the Scarlet Knights. With the win, West Virginia has beaten Rutgers 15 consecutive times, and after the first quarter, it had the makings of a runaway, as the Mountaineers went 86 yards in five plays on their first drive and 80 yards on nine plays on their third drive.

A 6-yard Noel Devine touchdown run made it 7-0, and after Rutgers cut it to 7-3 on a San San Te field goal, West Virginia bounced the lead to 14-3 when Ryan Clarke dived in from the 1.

At the end of the first quarter, West Virginia was showing masterful balance on offense, running for 84 yards and throwing for 85 as quarterback Jarrett Brown connected on his first six passes.

It looked like the Mountaineers were headed for a day with an offensive upsurge.

It was all a mirage.

In the second and third quarters combined, West Virginia accumulated 16 yards.

"We have had a lot of fast starts and what we need to do is sustain," West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. "The defense did a wonderful job today and you have to give them all the credit in the world."

It was a West Virginia defense that held Rutgers to 65 yards rushing, starting quarterback Tom Savage to 9 of 27 with two interceptions and the Scarlet Knights to 1 of 15 on third down.

As the West Virginia offense was sputtering -- going 2 of 14 on third down -- the defense scored a big touchdown when Sidney Glover returned an interception 24 yards to make it 21-3 in the early portion of the third quarter.

On the subsequent kickoff, Rutgers' Joe Lefeged went 91 yards for a score, the Scarlet Knights got another field goal from Te and, all of a sudden it was 21-14.

But a Tyler Bitancurt 41-yard field goal in the fourth pushed it to 24-14 and was enough to fend off a touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 8:31 left.

"I am frustrated because we lost a football game," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "And I don't want to sound disrespectful to them, but I thought we should have won."

Rutgers didn't, West Virginia did.

And Bill Stewart isn't going to apologize for as much, or getting nine wins this year, or getting a spot in the Gator Bowl.

Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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