“We’ve kind of grown together, this senior class and myself,” said Stewart at his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I admire, respect and, most importantly, appreciate all these seniors have given this football program, this university and to the people of West Virginia.
“In my opinion, our senior class has carried the banner quite well. We’ve set a high standard for remaining senior classes, but that being said, we have one game to play.”
That “one game” is against the aforementioned Scarlet Knights, a 4-7 football team that has won only a single Big East Conference game this season while battling adversity.
RU head coach Greg Schiano and his players have had to deal with the emotions that came with the injury to defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. The junior was making a tackle in a game against Army earlier this year when he suffered a severe neck injury. He has remained paralyzed since that day.
It’s likely not coincidental that Schiano’s squad has failed to win a game since that 23-20 overtime triumph over the Black Knights on Oct. 16.
“We really respect this team, Greg Schiano and his staff and what they’ve done, and certainly what they’ve gone through here in the last few weeks,” said the Mountaineers’ third-year coach. “That’s always tough when you have a certain injury that leads to a difficult situation. But I admire them. They’ve fought. They’ve battled.”
Stewart’s seniors have battled and fought adversity this season as well, albeit of a different sort altogether. WVU sat at 5-3 overall and 1-2 in Big East play at the start of November after a 16-13 overtime loss at Connecticut.
Some fans and observers were calling the 2010 season a lost cause for the Mountaineers. But with the help of a few breaks along the way, West Virginia has rallied to the brink of a Big East championship with three consecutive wins.
Stewart and company can claim a share of the title with a win over Rutgers on Saturday in Morgantown. With a victory and a UConn loss to South Florida, WVU would represent the league in a BCS bowl game.
“People didn’t think we had enough resolve,” Stewart said. “This senior class stepped up to the plate and said, ‘Resolve? Yes, we have it. Yes, we have resolve.’ We’ve gone out and played some pretty good games these last three games.
“We’ve been through some tough times in ’08 and ’09 and even in the middle of the year here in 2010. But boy, these guys have never, ever doubted. They just jutted their jaws. Our seniors have bowed their backs. They’ve delivered up to this point. We have one more game to play, and I couldn’t pick a better senior class than this group to be led by.”
Stewart was reluctant to talk about the addition of TCU to the Big East Conference on Monday, but he opened up much more Tuesday since the news became official in the interim.
Some in the national media have said the invitation to the Horned Frogs was extended to bring some football credibility to a league that has, in the minds of some, lacked it lately. But Stewart, a staunch defender of the league, didn’t agree with that assessment.
“We have credibility,” the head coach said. “What Texas Christian University brings is added credibility. So note the key word ‘added.’ They have a tremendous school. It’s in a tremendous media outlet area. It’s in one of the hotbeds of not only college football, but certainly high school football, where it starts, and the NFL, where it ends. That being said, TCU, to me, is a home run. I’m thrilled.”
And while West Virginia has dipped into the Lone Star State to get the occasional football recruit over the years, (notably grabbing quarterback Jeremy Johnson in last year’s class out of Silsbee High and holding a verbal commitment from Houston native Jermichael Selders for the class of 2011) the program’s added presence in Texas in the coming years could further bolster those efforts.
“A lot of youngsters do like to go elsewhere,” noted Stewart, who recruited the Dallas-Fort Worth area as an assistant coach at Air Force and Arizona State. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to go roaring into Texas and I’m going to start knocking off the Longhorns, the Aggies and all those other people, but it just adds to our vast recruiting efforts, what we have to have to be successful.
“We won’t go sign 10, 15, 20 guys out of Texas, but if we can get one, two or three every other year or so, hey, that adds to the family. It’s great football, great grades -- they’re very, very strict, from what I remember being down there -- but most importantly, I like the people. I like the way they’re raised. They are nice people, and they’re very much into being a good guy in society, being a good person of faith, no matter what your faith may be. They’re into academics and they’re into football. Football, football, football. It’s big in Texas.”
While Stewart gave an update on the injury status of nose guard Chris Neild as part of his weekly teleconference on Sunday, he apparently did so in error.
The head coach said Sunday that Neild had a third-degree hamstring strain, but corrected himself Tuesday after WVU trainer Dave Kerns and his staff informed the head coach he had things backwards.
“I think I got the degrees goofed up the other day,” Stewart said, drawing laughs. “He’s got the lesser. I thought third was the lesser [degree of severity] of the hamstring [injuries].
“I was reminded by our medical staff to be the football coach and leave the doctoring to them. Therefore, I apologize to our medical staff. He is of the lesser degree, a first. He will play [Saturday], unless something just totally jumps out at us.”