Mountaineers Continue Bowl Preparations

Believe it or not, we are just a little more than two weeks away from the Gator Bowl.

In Morgantown, the snow has started falling and final exams are in full swing. By the end of the week, most of the University City will resemble a ghost town, minus the tumbleweeds. All that will be left will be the year round residents of Morgantown, and the Mountaineer football team preparing for their second straight appearance in the Toyota Gator Bowl.

"This is a big week for our guys academically. Football wise we have a couple of workouts in the weight room in between finals. Friday we will practice at 6:00 o'clock, most of the finals will be done by then," said head coach Rich Rodriguez on Monday during his second pre-bowl game press conference in Morgantown.

It's an odd week for everyone in the Mountaineer football program. The players are expected to focus almost exclusively on academics and studying for their final exams. The coaching staff has been out on the road recruiting, and has picked up verbal commitments from Georgia defensive lineman Thor Merrow and New Orleans tight end Selvish Capers. Rodriguez remains in Morgantown to prepare for Florida State. Come Friday evening though, everything will return to the normal game prep routine.

The Mountaineers will practice, as Rodriguez mentioned, Friday night. They will then practice Saturday-Wednesday, including at least one two-a-day practice, which will probably occur Monday. The players will then be dismissed for a mini-Christmas break and congregate again on Christmas Day to travel to Jacksonville.

Junior wide receiver Chris Henry, who was suspended by Rodriguez for the Pitt game, appears to be back in good graces with the Mountaineer mentor.

"He's been doing all the right things, and most reports I'm getting from the guys academically have been pretty solid."

Henry's presence will be a big boost to a Mountaineer offense that struggled to find consistency against the Panthers.

While going to a bowl game is a good treat for everyone involved with the program, Rodriguez knows what a Mountaineer win over Florida State would do for the program, particularly recruiting. Rodriguez sees two positives in particular that would affect Mountaineer recruiting.

"One because it's national TV, two because it's Florida State and those guys have recruited some of the best in the country. It catches your attention if you beat Florida State."

On the injury front, a number of Mountaineers ended the season limping around or facing some sort of injury issue. The coach is confident that everyone will be ready to go for the bowl game, except tight end Josh Bailey and quarterback Adam Bednarik who are both recovering from shoulder surgeries.

"Ryan Thomas is back, Kay-Jay Harris is back, Eddie Jackson is still a little bit limited but he's been practicing in the couple of practices we've had. Right now we don't have that many injuries. Ernest Hunter is limited in practice until he gets his pin out of his hand, but we expect that to happen before we go down there."

Harris has struggled all year with various leg ailments, and being healthy for his final game in Blue and Gold will be important for the Mountaineer offense.

"He's had bad luck all year. He got off to a great start. He took a really good shot against Boston College. It's just been bad luck for him," says Rodriguez of his senior running back.

Against Pitt, Harris lined up in the slot on more than one occasion. Rodriguez left that possibility open for the Gator Bowl.

"It really depends on how much he can learn and grasp when we get into our heavy practices. When finals are over this week, we'll really get into it and see how much he can pick-up from the slot receiver position."

Rodriguez has spent countless hours watching film of the FSU defense, and says there's something a little bit different about the scheme from coordinator Mickey Andrews this season as opposed to years past.

"He's doing a lot more than I ever remember him doing, and that makes them tough to prepare for. They've always played tough, athletic, and up in your face, but you had an idea of what to prepare for. Now it's a little different. I don't know what they finished nationally, fifth or sixth and first against the run, but they've done a good job this year.

"They've got players, and then they play hard. Mickey's been doing this for a long time, and been in a lot of big games. They know what they're doing. Their linebackers might be the most athletic group that I've seen them had. Their defensive line has always been deep, like five six or seven, but now they have about 10 of them," sums up Rodriguez.

Make no mistake about it, the Seminoles win games with their defense. Rodriguez, though, points out that quarterback Chris Rix is a weapon that the Mountaineer defense will be left to account for.

"Rix is still a good quarterback. He hasn't had a great senior year, but if you look back over his career he's had some great, great days."

Having coached with Tommy Bowden at Clemson, one might think that Rodriguez's former boss would be the perfect coach to get a scouting report on Bobby Bowden's squad.

"I don't know," chuckled Rodriguez. "Blood is thicker than water. I doubt I'd get the right information out of him."

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