Mountaineers All Business in Gator Bowl Prep

The 2003 Big East Co-Champions look to be a football team ready to face someone other than themselves on the football field as practices wind down toward the noon kickoff on New Year's Day in the Toyota Gator Bowl against recent nemesis Maryland.

The Mountaineers were dressed in helmets and shorts for their practice on Monday, and practice looked crisp at times and not so crisp in others. It was difficult to tell whether the offense was clicking on all cylinders as they faced the first team defense in several drills throughout the afternoon practice. The defense looked to be in top form as Adam Jones swatted away at least four Rasheed Marshall passes, Lance Frazier picked off a long pass to Aaron Neal and Brian King swiped a bomb headed for Brandon Myles.

However, then the first team offense ran against the twos, they moved the ball up and down the field. It is sometimes hard to tell what the offense struggling against the top defense means, as they have faced each other in practice every day for five months. It is quite evident, however, that the offensive line is working well together as a unit, the running game seems to be in top form, and the passing game is on tap to be opened up wider than ever before in the Rich Rodriguez era.

Several small nicks and dings enabled some of the lesser known offensive players to get reps with the first squad, as Myles, Aaron Neal, Nathan Forse and Jubal Thomas all caught balls in full squad drills with the first team offense.

The Mountaineers worked on several drills on offense and defense, but the work was different for both sides of the ball.

While it is impossible to prepare for everything that another team has done throughout the year, it is possible to prepare for the areas that a team you have already played exploited in your last meeting. The defensive coaching staff was hard at work getting the defense in position to face a tough Terp offense led by former Mountaineer Scott McBrien.

Dwayne Thompson was used by Coach Casteel to QB the Maryland offense. His athletic style and his left-handed throwing ability enabled the coaching staff to run plays that had troubled the Mountaineers in their September shellacking at the hands of the Terps.

The offense, however, seemed to be working on what they do best. Multiple formations, multiple personnel packages and a lot of different looks marked the day's offensive drills. The offense looks quite confident in the package they are running, and preparation seems to be going smoothly. Marshall's passes were crisp, the offensive line seemed to all be on the same page, the receivers were catching balls and the runners were hitting their holes.

When asked about the defense and the way they were whipping around the field on Monday, Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel indicated he was happy with their progress.

"I think our guys are ready to go out and hit someone else at this point. It is like being in spring practice. We've had good practices the last couple of days and I think we're at the point now where I think we're wanting to get a chance to hit a different color jersey."

Coach Rodriguez's assessment was a little more subdued, but equally as upbeat.

"Practice was alright. We took the pads off. The energy and enthusiasm has been good the whole week. That's something you hope and expect for in a bowl game, but you don't always get it. I think we have gotten it so far.

"We're done with full contact. The next people we hit will be wearing red jerseys."

Coach Rodriguez understands the party atmosphere that is getting ready to hit the Jacksonville area, but insisted to his players that the fun will be ruined with a poor performance in practice as well as the upcoming game.

"The fans are here to enjoy themselves, which they should, and they don't have to work. Our players have to remember the main thing is to come down here to work and try and win a ballgame. We've got to maintain our focus. The day before the game, I don't worry about it, but we have some time the next couple of days, and our players don't need to get caught up in all the hoopla surrounding the ballgame."

Rodriguez indicated one difference will be the team hotel. The team hotel for last year's Continental Tire Bowl was located right downtown, and was also the team headquarters. This season, the team hotel is located about 20 minutes from downtown, and the WVU alumni hotel is downtown. There will be limited fan activity at the Sawgrass Marriott, and that should enable the players to remain focused and not get too caught up in the pre-game celebrations.

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