Some coaches work their teams like it was early fall practice, with the idea of getting them back into game condition after what is often a month layoff since their last contest. Others view the time and the trip as more of a reward, and think that a laid back approach works best. There are just as many objections to each of these approaches as there are supporting data points, so finding a consistent pre-game preparation schedule that ensures success has been as elusive as the search for the Holy Grail (Indiana Jones notwithstanding).
At West Virginia, we've seen varied approaches under an array of coaches over the years. WVU's 1982 Gator Bowl team, which lost to Florida State, drew criticism for a too-loose approach after a photo was published of a Mountaineer riding a scooter along the beach. It was inferred from that one snapshot that the Mountaineers weren't taking the game seriously (a totally incorrect assumption, by the way), but the loss was associated with too much fun and too little work. The opposite end of the spectrum was seen in a pair of Gator Bowls in the mid-2000s, when the team reassembled on Christmas and put in several grinding practices leading up to the game. Dead legs and fatigue as a result of that work was ctied as the culprit in those losses.
Perhaps, then, the key to bowl preparation isn't the same approach each time, but rather a tailoring of pre-game work that's keyed to the needs, make-up and character of the team. Certainly, each team has its own feel, its own chemistry, so it might be foolish to assume that a one-size fits all plan will work each time out. This does fly in the face of commonly-held views of many coaches, who believe that consistency and sameness before each game put players in a routine and a comfort zone, but again, the best plan might lie somewhere in the middle between identical and adaptable.
For WVU defensive line coach Bruce Tall, a veteran of six bowl games, mixing the two primary factors prevalent on any bowl trip is the foundation of building a successful environment. "Focus and fun," Tall notes, are both important in a game which is different from regular season contests. The trick, of course, is to find that correct balance, match it to the temperament of the team, and have the rust removed from the layoff since the last game of the regular season, all while not having the team peak too soon.
That last factor was a reason cited by head coach Don Nehlen after that 1982 bowl loss. He noted that three days before the game, his team was honed and ready to go, but by the time the game arrived things had gone stale. Dealing with the layoff between games -- one that stretches to lengths unmatached by any other collegiate sport, is at the root of many of the bowl prep issues. If players haven't been running and lifting on their break away from the game, or simply have put aside the competitive edge, can any number of practices restore that? Or, if it is reached, can it be preserved so the team is ready to play at the right time?
With that also comes the issue of desire. Which team wants to be at the game more? Which team needs to win the game? Again, WVU history shows incidents of this sort, most notably in the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl, in which the Mountaineers folded up shop early after appearing in pre-bowl practices to be ready to go. The disappointment of playing in frigid Charlotte rather than a warmer bowl destination certainly played a part. Suspicion also lingers on the moribund effort in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl, which was a Mountaineer egg-laying of prodigious proportions. Counter that, of course, with the all-out effort in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, in which West Virginia was clearly more intense and motivated than its foe.
Finally, there's preparation for the game itself -- the routines of scouting, developing tactics and playsheets and the like. Tall notes that one of the things he is concerned with is facing the tempo of the Arizona State offense after the layoff, and the varied offensive sets his players will see from the Sun Devils.Getting players back into the routine of studying video and scouting reports, and putting in quality work on the practice field while not burning them out, remain as big factors in Tall's equation for successful game preparation.