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Column: Seniors ‘let it all out’ as defense rebuilds reputation


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Karl Joseph snagged his sixth interception of the season Saturday, it didn’t matter to teammates or the 44,000 fans that he was standing along the West Virginia bench in sweatpants.

“Oh yeah, Karl’s definitely counting that one,” said fellow safety K.J. Dillon, who made an actual, sanctioned interception to highlight the Mountaineers’ 30-6 win over Iowa State.

Senior Day contained all the bittersweet sentiment we’ve grown to expect, and at times, stirring the guests of honor more deeply than they anticipated. A series of raw speeches at the team’s morning meeting had players looking less like they were game-planning and more like they’d just seen “Marley and Me.”

“I thought I would be a tough guy and just walk through it,” Dillon said, “but it started at the hotel with people crying and everything.”

Nick Kwiatkoski, having watched seniors undergo ceremonies the past few years, thought he had his final home game emotionally measured. He didn’t.

“You don’t really feel it until you’re the one there,” he admitted. When the linebacker felt moved to abandon the outline for his pregame talk, he realized he couldn’t turn off the valve.

“When I started talking I just had more and more to say. I just had to let it all out.”

West Virginia’s defense, which counts 10 seniors among its top 15 players, was pumped and primed for greatness—by its own coordinator—during the offseason. Tony Gibson’s calculation looked spot-on during three nonconference games and downright preposterous during October’s four-game slide. Through the correction of a 4-0 November, while beating teams with a combined record of 14-33, the defense has flexed sturdy again.

After suffocating Iowa State, the Mountaineers have allowed two field goals in the past nine quarters. They stand second in Big 12 scoring defense and No. 2 in total defense, a rung behind conference champion Oklahoma in both categories.

“I could sit here and make a hundred excuses (about October)—but they were better than us at that time,” Gibson said. “Right now, though, I think we’re playing our best football. Is it the competition? I don’t know, but our guys, they rise up every week.

“I’d like to play any of them over right now. I think we’ve got our feet back under us.”

Because there are no do-overs, West Virginia can’t take back that crucial coverage bust in Norman. Or undo the overtime sickening vs. Oklahoma State. Or face Baylor with its third-team quarterback. Or see how much easier it is to contain a gimpy Trevone Boykin.

Because there are no do-overs, Joseph was forced to savor Senior Day with his right knee locked in a brace.

“He had a smile on but it was eating him up inside, I know it was,” Dillon said.

Joseph couldn’t pretend to smile when he poured himself out to Gibson during pregame: “Coach, this is the hardest one. I just feel like crying right now.”

As the afternoon wound to a rainy conclusion, the senior-driven defense swayed once more to “Almost heaven …” and polished off a 6-1 home record. It was the last game before renovations at Milan Puskar Stadium ramp up, with the timeworn turf being replaced and the field’s crown scraped flat.

Those aren’t the only reasons the place will look different next time.

Injured senior Karl Joseph leaves the field after West Virginia’s 30-6 win over Iowa State on Saturday in Morgantown.

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