News, notes and observations from West Virginia's Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in preparation for the Champs Sports Bowl.
WVU's first practice in Orlando was conducted on McCracken Field, which is basically a glorified open field outside the Citrus Bowl. Although the field is marked off, and has extra room to allow each position group plenty of warmup room, it's not the best surface around. The field isn't leveled off well, and while it would be an exaggeration to call it potholed, it does have some surface irregularities in spots.
It's also not a stretch to imagine that the coaches are none too happy with the exposed and open nature of the field. While it is fenced off, there's nothing to stop anyone from walking by and watching from the public street that runs just behind one end of the field. It is, by far, the most open practice venue of any at WVU's recent bowl sites.
McCracken Field doesn't include goal posts, so a portable set, towed by a home-welded contraption that looks like a modified boat trailer, was brought in for kicking work.
Head coach Bill Stewart was none too happy when he heard the term "distractions" used by one reporter in a question to one of his players. Stewart, who was clearly wound up, said more than once that any further mention of the word would result in an end of his interview. Stewart also bristled at the suggestion that West Virginia had "wasted" some of its practice sessions, as WVU apparently did not use all of the practices sessions that it could have. (according to NCAA rules, there is no maximum number of allowable practices for teams preparing for a bowl game). While Stewart could have easily said that he wanted to ensure his team was fresh and ready for its game, as opposed to some previous years in which the team looked to be burned out and heavy-legged, he did not, instead insisting that this week's practice schedule was just like a normal game week.
"We practiced just what we needed to practice," Stewart said by way of explanation.
Stewart did address the shuffling along the offensive line, created by the absence of Joe Madsen.
"Eric Jobe will be our starting center, (John) Bassler and (Jeff) Braun will also play. Cole Bowers will be our starting right guard. There will be a chance for Bassler to get some time in there. We will have to pick up the saber and march on. These guys have all played. Jobe has played center here for two years so he has experience to get the job done. We are going to play just as if someone got hurt on the first series of a game."
With WVU wearing its Pro Combat coal-themed uniforms, it also will wear the eye-catching canary yellow shoes with them. Most, but not all, of the team wore the shoes for practice on Saturday.
"I do need to break them back in some," wide receiver Brad Starks said prior to practice. "I need to get used to them again."
One player that might have concerns about any changes in footgear, quarterback Geno Smith, said the gold footwear was not a problem. This, despite his twice-broken foot, that might be sensitive to any changes.
"It's not a problem at all," Smith said of the switch. "I didn't have any problems with them when we got them and wore them [for the Pitt game], so I don't think there will be any problem with them now."
Kicker Corey Smith wore a different version of gold shoes, but apparently tried to find a pair of kicker's shoes that were as close as possible to the Pro Combat gear.
While the absence of fans and the spread out nature of Orlando has resulted in a very low-key bowl experience, it hasn't been a problem for the players. Starks indicated that the trips the team has taken have been very good – as good or better than any previous bowl trip. That, combined with the $420 credit at Best Buy as the team's primary bowl trip, along with a very posh team hotel, have made for a good trip to date.
One other noticeable difference on this trip is a drastic reduction in the number of people in the WVU traveling party. Many that were included in previous trips were not brought along on this one. Expenditures for the trip are also being watched far more carefully, as the University is not paying for nearly as many families to make the trip.
WVU has been trying to make the time away from home over Christmas as family-like as possible. The team and traveling party had a Christmas Eve dinner, and enjoyed full spread meals before and after practice on Christmas Day. Visits for the team have included trips to Universal Studios and Sea World, as well as a scheduled visit to Disney Quest on Sunday. The Mountaineers will practice again on Sunday afternoon, then have a walk-through on Monday before Tuesday's game.
"We'll hit today and run today, and hit again tomorrow," Stewart said of the practice schedule. "But they were on their feet all day yesterday [at Universal Studios], so we'll be careful with that."