Asked for his thoughts on reports that the Big East will add the Horned Frogs to the conference in time for the 2012-13 season, Stewart said he hadn’t heard the news (which broke in multiple outlets Monday morning).
Instead, he had been busy preparing for the regular season finale against the Scarlet Knights, echoing sentiments he expressed on his conference call Sunday about focusing entirely on Saturday’s game all week long.
“I’ve been in the film room all morning,” the third-year West Virginia head coach said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about [in terms of TCU]. I came in early, and this is my first break. I’ve been in the film room. I’m intensely spending every waking minute on trying to figure out a way to beat Rutgers.”
On the surface, it would seem as though that shouldn’t be an overly difficult task. RU stands at 4-7 overall and has won only one of its six Big East contests thus far (though that victory did come against Connecticut, the only team that controls its destiny for the league’s BCS bowl berth heading into the last week of the season).
Head coach Greg Schiano’s squad will not be going bowling this year, a first his program since the 2004 season. Rutgers had won a bowl game in each of the last three seasons coming into 2010, but has taken a bit of a step backwards this year.
Of course, even when the Scarlet Knights have been good, they haven’t fared well against WVU. RU’s last win against the Mountaineers came in 1992, a 13-9 victory in Piscataway, N.J. Rutgers has never beaten West Virginia outside of New Jersey, holding an 0-16 mark all-time in Morgantown (and even dropping a 1923 game on the old Polo Grounds in New York City).
That doesn’t mean Stewart is taking this game any more lightly than the first six “rounds” of the Big East fight.
“Everything we get from them is full-effort, full-intensity,” he said. “Every year, it’s a dogfight.”
“I don’t expect this one to be any different. It’s going to be a dogfight. Rutgers is going to come in here and play hard. Greg’s kids always play hard. They’re tough and they’re physical. They’ve got more blocked kicks than anybody in the league, and they can turn the football game around with a blocked kick in the blink of an eye. I’m not feeling good about this. I’m telling you, I hope I’m not the only one in the building who feels that way.”
And while some might say the Scarlet Knights have nothing to play for with a bowl game out of the question, Stewart and others don’t have to dig too deep to remember a similar regular season finale that turned out poorly for the Mountaineers.
“I’ve never been in a game where someone doesn’t have something to gain,” Stewart said. “The ’07 game against Pitt [a 13-9 loss to a Panther team that failed to earn bowl eligibility but kept WVU from the national championship game], I would imagine, would be a great reminder for these seniors. They were freshmen when that happened.”
While he didn’t directly discuss the possible addition of TCU to the Big East, Stewart did say he is “all for” whatever the leadership of the league, including commissioner John Marinatto, decides.
Asked if the football conference needed some help from the No. 3 Horned Frogs to regain credibility nationally, Stewart bristled, repeating many of the statistics he has previously noted to combat claims that the league is not competitive.
“It seems like it’s always okay for the so-called great football leagues to have a three-loss team or a four-loss team [in the BCS] with all they went through,” Stewart noted. “Our league is tough. It’s very, very tough.
“The last I looked, we were 16-6 in [our last 22] bowls. We’ve won three of our last five BCS bowls. We won two of them here at West Virginia. It seems like every time we go up against people, we do pretty well. Our [non-conference] winning percentage is second to the SEC in the last five years ... so I’m going to keep telling it on the pulpit. I’ll stand up and tell it whenever anybody asks me. We don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”
But this time he went a step further and simply pointed to the BCS formula, which guarantees the Big East champion an automatic bid to one of the four major bowls through 2013.
“To me, everyone agreed to that formula,” Stewart said. “Now, if they didn’t want to agree to that formula, they can get out of it and go play somewhere else. But right now, the Big East, by the formula, is guaranteed a spot and should be guaranteed a spot and it will always be guaranteed a spot, in my opinion, because we play great football, tough football.
“We knock each other off and people say, ‘They’re a basketball league.’ Yet those guys [in other conferences] are 9-3 and 8-4, ranked, just because they’re in a certain league. We’ve done well. Our track record speaks for itself.”
The statistics for the Mountaineers’ defense continue to improve. After Friday’s 35-10 victory over Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl, WVU is now No. 3 in the nation in total defense (255.73 yards per game allowed), No. 2 in rushing defense (87.09 yards per game allowed) and No. 2 in scoring defense (allowing 12.64 points per game).
Coincidentally, it trails TCU in two of those categories, total defense and scoring defense, as the Horned Frogs are the national leader in both of those statistics.
But while West Virginia’s defense remains the only one in the Football Bowl Subdivision to not allow any opponent to score more than 21 points in a game this season and its statistics only got better after the Pitt performance, Stewart isn’t so sure that was a sign of the defense continuing to get better.
“We’re always attacking. We’re always coming downhill. I did not see that,” Stewart said of his evaluation of the defense against the Panthers. “I saw too much sideways stuff. Now, I saw [cornerback] Brandon Hogan get a wonderful pick and I saw some stripping of the ball, but I did not see Mountaineer football on defense in that first half.
“People say, ‘He’s just picking on them,’ but I know what I saw and what I didn’t see. I was not pleased with our defensive effort in the first half. It got better. But Pitt had 79 football plays. We had 56. So credit Pitt for that and discredit our defense. So, are we getting better? Maybe stat-wise. But we did not play well the first half of that football game. They had 23:00 of ball control, and we were lucky we were ahead [14-7 at halftime].”