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West Virginia players stand by coach Stewart

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia fans have targeted coach Bill Stewart as the reason for the Mountaineers' recent struggles.

The players disagree.

"Most of those people don't know what's going on inside these walls," senior receiver Jock Sanders bluntly said this week.

Sanders and other offensive leaders said Stewart brought the team back together after back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut.

Sophomore quarterback Geno Smith said Stewart turned the team's spirits around following the Mountaineers' 16-13 overtime loss at Connecticut on Oct. 29 and said it was "do or die" for the rest of the season. Despite being tied for last in the Big East heading into Saturday's game vs. Cincinnati, West Virginia is still alive in the conference title race.

"While we knew that, when your leader tells you that, then we do it. We don't ask any questions; we just do it," Smith said. "It's great to have a guy like that, especially in a time like this. Not only is he the face of the program, but he is the leader of this team, and he's a guy that we look up to and listen to."

Smith said Stewart is the type of coach who won't get down on his players. Instead, he will "lift us up and build our confidence."

"Win or loss, you always know Coach Stew is going to be there for us," sophomore receiver Tavon Austin said. "If he didn't bring us together, I think we would've started to point fingers at each other. Everybody would've broken apart. Coach Stew made us come together as brothers."

Outside of the program in the past two weeks, Stewart has taken a beating. The third-year head coach, whose record stands at 24-11, said earlier this week that criticism doesn't bother him because he does not read message boards or blogs.

Still, upset fans have made "Fire Bill Stewart" Facebook pages and websites. One frustrated fan is selling merchandise with "Fire Coach Stewart" on it.

"If I don't know about it, it obviously doesn't affect me," Stewart said. "But, I'm sure there's a lot of things being said. That's the right of Americans. We have the right to our opinions."

Smith said the criticism of Stewart and the offense, which has struggled , is unjust.

"I can see, from a fan's point of view, it can be frustrating because you don't want your team to lose. And as players, it can be frustrating because you don't want to lose either, and you're out there playing hard," Smith said. "Every team practices hard and comes out with the intent to win every game and every play. The only thing that I can tell you is that we're going to get back to it."

Sanders said he doesn't read or listen to what fans are saying. He tells his teammates to try to do the same.

"I don't even listen to the good stuff. Why listen to the good stuff or the bad stuff• Most people don't even know what they're talking about," Sanders said. "Most of these people have never played a down in their entire life. So, why pay attention to those things and let them get you sidetracked?

"All we can do is go about it and talk to each other inside these walls — because we know what's really going on."

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