Shifting Sands

When the WVU football team fell to South Florida in Tampa at the end of October, the squad's head coach emphasized that people would remember what the Mountaineers did in November. Few will forget the quick turnaround the team's secondary had from that point forward.

"We could've went in the tank, but there's too many competitors on this team that love to win," said safety Robert Sands of the team's response after that 30-19 loss to the Bulls.

"Everybody was putting the blame on us in the secondary and with me being the free safety, I've got a lot of responsibility back there. I just took the burden on my shoulders and told my corners and the other safeties that we've got to step up."

The improvement of the secondary was marked from that point forward, as the defense completed its "November to remember" by turning in its best performance of the season in a 19-16 upset of No. 8 Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl.

The same defense that had been torched by myriad receivers all season long suddenly found itself running lock-step with star Panthers pass-catcher Jonathan Baldwin -- while still being able to limit the gains of freshman running back Dion Lewis.

In the process, Sands picked off Pitt quarterback Bill Stull and had three pass break-ups. For his efforts, he earned Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors.

Still, the sophomore saw several mistakes after examining the film of his performance.

"I think I could have did better. It would have been the best game of my career if I had caught all those interceptions," Sands said with a smile.

"I had a couple of MAs (missed assignments). It wasn't too bad though. It was my highest grade since I got here. I got a 95 percent or something like that when I graded out. I still had some MAs, so that means there's still room for improvement."

WVU head coach Bill Stewart has said the main reason for the defense's improvement down the stretch has been the fact that all 11 starters are truly healthy for perhaps the first time all season.

For Sands and the rest of the secondary, that has meant the complete return of bandit safety Sidney Glover. The rest of the defense has enjoyed greater contributions from middle linebacker Reed Williams and defensive lineman Scooter Berry.

While backups performed admirably in the absence of the starters, Sands said there is no substitute for experience on defense.

"It brings back the chemistry," he said. "All 11 of us have chemistry and we know we're we're going to be at. If somebody goes down, it throws off the chemistry a little bit. At the same time, we've still got to be able to play if somebody goes down."

"It helps a lot. With Reed, he's patrolling that middle of the field and those other linebackers can get out in the flats. That's about it. We've been able to cover a lot longer than we have in the past."

While the West Virginia defense is finally healthy, the offense of this week's opposition, Rutgers, is dealing with one major injury issue.

Scarlet Knights receiver Tim Brown, the most prominent deep ball threat for RU, has been hampered by an ankle issue in recent weeks that may keep him from being full speed for this Saturday's game.

That could limit the passing attack of freshman quarterback Tom Savage -- and increase the chances of success for the WVU defense. Still, Sands said there are other threats in the RU arsenal.

"They still have No. 6 and No. 3, two pretty good receivers," Sands said. "Even with (Brown) hurt, you've got to know they're going to find a way to get him the ball. He's their big play guy, and you've got to expect him to come up with the ball."

While talk of a potential bid in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl has swirled this week, Sands said that Stewart and the rest of the Mountaineer coaches have kept the focus on closing out the regular season with a victory.

A win against Rutgers would almost assure WVU of a trip to Jacksonville for the New Year's Day bowl game in the final year of the Big East's contract with the Gator.

"We try not to worry about that," Sands said. "We're focused on the game that's coming up ahead against Rutgers and the bowl game will come when it comes. When that happens, we'll get prepared for that."

"(Coaches) are emphasizing that (RU) can come out and beat us. If you see film, they destroyed South Florida and we went there and lost. That shows that Rutgers is a pretty good team. If we don't go out there ready to play, they could potentially do the same thing to us like they did to South Florida and some other teams."

While the season has had its ups-and-downs for Sands, the secondary and the Mountaineers as a whole, the safety has seen more positives than negatives in only his second season as a college football player.

"It's been a big momentum season for me," he said.

"I came out there this year and got those interceptions, those pass break-ups, those tackles. All those came from hard work in the offseason."

"It just tells me that hard work does pay off, because you can see the results every week. I'm getting this much closer to the ball and stuff like that. It keeps me humble and makes me work even harder, because I know I can make even more plays than I have been making."

The sophomore said he has personally found much more success in his second season than he did as a contributor a year ago as a true freshman.

"A year ago, right now, I had zero picks, (zero) pass break-ups," Sands said. "I wasn't even really on the field. Unless a running back broke, you would never even hear from me. You would think we were playing with ten people."

"Now, this year, now that I know the defense and am familiar with it and not having to think about stuff, you can see me react a lot quicker and make those breaks on the balls and get those interceptions and pass break-ups. It's been very rewarding."

With the regular season finale looming large and the chance to potentially play in a New Year's Day bowl game still on the horizon, Sands said he is still expecting more from himself before closing the book on the 2009 season.

"I'm extremely happy with the success I've had so far this season, but I know the season isn't over," he said. "We've still two more games where I can get some more picks, some more pass break-ups and do more things for the team. I wish it could have gone better record-wise, but that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes."

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