Finals Week? A Time To Reflect

It is exam week at WVU, the most miserable time of the year. Every college student across the country has his or her own complaints and horror stories about the grueling week, but my disdain is for a different reason.

What could be worse than all-nighters and exam piled on top of exam? The week of tests means no Mountaineer sports. I know, I know, academics have to come first, but for those of us who follow West Virginia's athletic scene day in and day out, the lull in the action leave us pacing the floor as we count down the days until the teams return to the court and the field.

With the boredom overtaking me, I began to think about the magical football season that we have just witnessed. I remembered the long ride back from Maryland, where I, along with two of the most die hard Mountaineer supporters that I know, sulked about the painful loss and pondered whether or not there was any way that WVU could get the train back on track. The offense racked up fewer yards than Ralph Friedgen in a distance run, and the defense was on the field longer than the hash marks as the Blue and Gold was pounded to the ground. The only person smiling after the loss in College Park was Lee Corso, as finally he was able to see an offense worse than the ones that he coached.

Since that time, Rodriguez's troops have made a complete 180-degree turnaround, as they captured their first Big East title since 1993. Now, fans are coming out of the woodwork claiming that they saw the turnaround coming and never gave up on their beloved Mountaineers. I have spent much of my dead time this week trying to find out where these fans were in September. That certainly was not the talk that I was hearing.

Most of the fans that I talked to were ready to drape Mountaineer Field in a black cloth to signal the death of the program. But the turnaround came and I, along with the entire football staff, am ready to welcome everyone back to the bandwagon for our New Year's trip to Jacksonville. As we scrub the tires and process the tickets, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how we got to this point. A look back at my Good, Bad and Ugly story from September 23rd provides a clear picture of just what has taken place in the last two months.

When evaluating the season to that point, I listed four major areas that I considered to be strengths on this squad.

#1 – Improving special teams: At the time that I put the original story together, the reaction to my impressions of Bill Stewart's troops was far from positive. My credibility with most of West Virginia's fans dropped to an all time low, but I really felt that they were on the right track. It was probably closer to divine intervention than my own foresight, but since that time, the unit has really become a strength. Returns on both kicks and punts have given WVU great field position all season long, and Todd James and the Mountaineer punt team has kept opponents deep on their own end of the field. Think back to the Central Florida game when the WVU kick team chose to pooch kick after a penalty instead of booming the ball through the end zone. The heady decision pinned the Knights deep into a hole that they could not crawl out of. Think back to Frazier's punt returns against Pitt and Temple that set up big scores at crucial points. This often overlooked dimension has been strong, and Stewart and company should be commended for their efforts.

#2 – Defense: Again, this was a controversial pick at the time, but Wiley, King, Frazier and the rest of the WVU defense have stepped up all season long. True they have given up some points, but time after time they have made the plays when it mattered, and with the offense finally giving them some rest, they have continued to become more and more dominant throughout the season.

#3 – Fans: Citing fan support as one of the biggest bright spots of the young season reflected just how bad things were, but I do believe that it was extremely important. 56,319 rowdy fans in gold and blue believed in a 2-4 West Virginia squad against an undefeated flock of turkeys from Blacksburg, and the players fed off of that excitement. Players have commented all season long about how much easier it is to play in front of a fired up group of supporters, and there should be no change in Jacksonville.

#4 – Attitudes: The members of this team may never earn the credit that they deserve for keeping their heads up and never giving up this year. Standing at 1-3 with tough battles left with Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, and Syracuse could have a lot of teams tucking their tails and running, but the Blue and Gold took the challenge head on and made the most of the possibilities left on the table. To talk about a turnaround is one thing, but having the confidence and ability to pull it off is quite another.

The list of negatives at that point of the season was much longer, but West Virginia has found a way to overcome the doom and gloom.

#1 – Injuries: When the original story was written in late September, WVU's training staff was looking into trying to expand the training room to accommodate the number of injured athletes that needed treatment. That trend has changed very little, as the Mountaineers are still nursing injuries to Quincy Wilson, Kay-Jay Harris, and Josh Bailey, just to name a few. What has been impressive, though, is the way that the backups have filled in. Jason Colson, Lawrence Audena, Charles Hales, Pat Liebig, Bryan Wright, and many others have all played roles in keeping this team on the track toward its postseason goals, even as injuries have attempted to hamper the finish. This squad has not been as lucky as they were last year, as far as injuries, but better depth has limited the drop off.

#2 — Offense: After the loss at Maryland it was easy to wonder if Morgantown High could move the ball better than the Mountaineers. West Virginia recorded a whopping 156 yards of offense against the Terps, with much of that coming against the Maryland reserves late in the contest. The performance was so bad, we were forced to name Todd James the offensive player of the game. When the punter wins this honor, you know it is a scary picture. Since that time, however, Kay-Jay Harris has emerged as a rushing threat, Chris Henry has added a new element to the passing game, and the offensive line is now giving Quincy and Rasheed a chance. Criticism for Rasheed was abundant early on, but with time to throw, he has performed quite well.

#3 – The Record: I know reading this heading the first time around produced a chuckle from many of you, but the fact remains the same. The 1-3 start limited what this team could achieve even with the spectacular finish. With just one or two plays against both Wisconsin and Cincinnati, this team could have been 3-1 instead. Imagine what things would look like now if that were the case.

The final spot in my look at the slow start focused on the one aspect that had to be labeled as ugly.

The offensive line: This was the focus of much of the long, dreary, car ride that I mentioned earlier. How could this team have any success with such a ragamuffin group up front? If you saw this type of turnaround coming, go buy yourself a lottery ticket, because you have powers that the rest of us simply do not possess. The work that this group has done is simply remarkable, and every Mountaineer fan owes this unit a debt of gratitude and a pat on the back.

There has been much talk about Rodriguez being named coach of the year, and I certainly agree, but if he is presented with the award he owes a chunk of the hardware to offensive line coach Rick Trickett. The results that he has achieved with this inexperienced bunch of "big uglies" are worthy of any praise that he is given, and we are lucky to have him in Morgantown.

But even with Trickett's expertise, nothing could have been done without the hard work and dedication of the men that he coaches. In your travels to Jacksonville, if you happen to run across the team, do not head straight to Quincy or Grant, but find an offensive lineman and thank him for the memorable season that they have given us all.

What an amazing year it has been. I have to admit, I made the journey to Miami, in the week following the embarrassment at Maryland, thinking that it could possibly be the closest thing that I would get to a bowl trip this season. Boy was I wrong. Not only is the Mountaineer Nation headed to a bowl, it will be on New Year's Day back in the Sunshine State. It is strange how things come full circle. My next car ride will again focus on the Terps, but this time it will be a much different picture. Look out Franklin and Myrtle, this is an entirely different group of Mountaineers, and they are looking to make some turtle soup.

Despite our best efforts to drag Cam down to our depths of despair, the youngest member of the staff kept his optimism during the dark days of the 2003 season. A lesson for us all!
-Kevin Kinder

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