Bowl Practices Begin In Earnest

There was a lot going on in Morgantown this week.

It was that time of year again, time for first semester final exams. The library was packed out; the stress levels of just about every student were way up; and the traffic in the streets of Morgantown got just a tad thinner with each passing day.

Meanwhile over inside the Puskar Center, the Mountaineer football coaching staff was busy recruiting and planning for the Gator Bowl. Amid all the craziness, head coach Rich Rodriguez found time to meet with the media to give an update on the bowl preparations, and lots of other topics that had to do with West Virginia football.

The first question, which as always came from veteran sportswriter Mickey Furfari, centered around internet rumors that stud wide receiver Chris Henry was no longer part of the program, and had gone so far as to clean out his locker. Rodriguez squelched that rumor from the get go.

"He's been doing all the right things, and most reports I'm getting from the guys academically have been pretty solid. Friday we will practice at 6 o clock, most of the finals will be done by then," said West Virginia's fourth year head coach.

Naturally, discussion then turned to what the exact requirements are for a student athlete to be able to play in the bowl game.

"You have to pass six credit hours when they post the grades before the bowl," said Rodriguez, adding that the athlete must pass a minimum of 24 hours over the course of two semesters to remain eligible for the regular season.

While on the subject of Henry, the question was asked about the junior's status regarding the NFL draft. Rumors, albeit rumors with little or no basis, have gone around saying Henry had signed with an agent. Again, that simply is not the case. Rodriguez did admit that both Henry and standout cornerback/kick returner Pacman Jones had approached him about getting some information on going pro.

"We've talked about it. There's a proper procedure to go about doing that. The NFL has an advisory committee that will evaluate you. Their committee evaluates your potential if you were to come out early."

While that may alarm some, Rodriguez said it's common practice in college football. Truthfully, the coach is thrilled that he has NFL talent on the roster, even if right now it just looks like two guys.

"Let's not make a big deal out of it I mean guys let's be honest, Bobby (Bowden) down there probably has 30 of them. Larry Coker down at Miami probably has 30 of them. I'm glad they asked. I'm glad we're communicating and talking about it."

Naturally though, coach Rod hopes that whatever decision Henry and Jones make, it will be well informed and thought out.

"It's our job as coaches to give them the facts. The bad part about it is that there are a lot of people out there that don't have the young men's best interest at heart."

With a lot of time off before the bowl game, it's given a chance for several Mountaineers who were banged up at the end of the season to heal and get ready to play Florida State.

"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, in particular, gives the Mountaineers a playmaking weapon that will desperately be needed against a fast, physical FSU defense. When healthy this season, Harris has performed admirably. The problem has been staying healthy.

"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."

If healthy, one area Harris could certainly help out is the receiving game. In the regular season finale against Pitt, Harris lined up in the slot on more than one occasion, and caught a 15-yard pass from Rasheed Marshall in the first half.

"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."

One interesting topic that was brought up was the current situation regarding the BCS, and bowl games in general. Rodriguez wasn't shy about expressing his opinion, and brought up a lot of valid points.

"In a sense the "national championship" game has taken some of the luster off of the other bowl games, especially the other BCS bowl games. We're kind of in a one game playoff now. Anybody's excited to be in a BCS bowl, I would think, or any bowl period. Like Auburn… there's folks at Auburn that are maybe disappointed and down...I mean what the heck? They went undefeated and they're going to a BCS bowl but because they're not in the ‘national championship' game there's a letdown. I think there's a lot of things to be considered like that. That's why I'm not sure that this is the best way to determine the champion."

When asked if it would be possible to keep the bowl system alive as part of a playoff, Rodriguez made another valid point.

"I still believe in the bowl system. I think the best (scenario) is a plus one. The problem (with using the bowl games in the playoff) is for the fans of that team in every round. Can they afford to go to the Fort Worth Bowl, and then the Gator Bowl, and then another bowl? It's hard enough going to one bowl game and have the holidays around that, but can they do that for three or four straight weeks? That's where the issue is. I thought that too…you'd have your smaller bowls be the first round sites."

At the beginning of the season, many people thought if the Mountaineers would go 11-0, they would get a chance to play in the Orange Bowl for a shot at the National Championship trophy. In reality if the chips had fallen that way, but there were more than two undefeated teams, the Mountaineers would have probably been on the outside looking in, like Auburn. Rodriguez has an idea of what he would have said to his team had the situation arisen.

"I'd probably say what Auburn's saying. I'd tell the guys they did all that they could, and they should be excited about it because it's never been done before. Our guys probably would have thought ‘what do we have to do to win a national championship?

Rodriguez summed up his thoughts on college football's postseason.

"The bowls are nice for programs and it's nice for the kids and the coaches. It's more work for your players, and more work for your staff who's trying to be out recruiting. I think it's nice for the fans, and it keeps college football in general talked about all over the country. All is controversy isn't necessarily a bad thing. People are talking about it, it's interesting. A lot of people say a 6-5 team or a 7-4 team shouldn't be in a bowl, but it's not like they're going to play in the national championship. People are interested in it, people are watching it on TV As long as schools can go and not lose money. If schools are going and losing money, then that school has to make a decision, not the bowl. Schools can turn down bowl games. If they go and lose money, then you've got some issues to talk about as an institution."

Back on the topic of Mountaineer football, the coach has liked what he's seen so far on the practice field.

"The two or three practices that we've had it seems to me that they've gotten their legs back and it's been pretty spirited. We had a pretty physical practice on Friday in full pads, and I thought it was a pretty crisp practice."

One advantage Florida State has over WVU is the fact that they can practice outside in the weather, where as snow and ice will force the Mountaineers inside for at least a couple of practices.

"Practicing inside here where you can't kick isn't as advantageous as being able to practice outside. That's an advantage that the southern teams have on us, is they can practice outside in the weather," says Rodriguez.

The Mountaineers were to resume practice on Friday the 17th, and practice Saturday through Wednesday, including a possible two-a-day on Monday, then break for a couple of days for Christmas. On Christmas night, the team will get back together in Morgantown and travel to Florida to continue practices.

For the second straight year, the Mountaineers will practice at the University of North Florida. The Ospreys, who do not have a football team of their own, have two practice fields, but one is having the sod replaced and will not be available until the Super Bowl comes to town.

In 1982 when the Mountaineers and Seminoles met in the Gator Bowl, Rodriguez was a reserve defensive back for the Blue and Gold.

"At the end of the game, they were beating us pretty bad and throwing the ball, and some guy catches the pass and I tackle him. I hear this loud roar and then hear ‘On the reception, Jeff Bowden.' It was embarrassing when the coach's kid was catching balls on us. It was a long night in Jacksonville that night."

Rodriguez knows that he'll have his hands full with this year's Florida State's defense.

"They're aggressive and in your face defensively. They have corners that will get up on you and play press man. I've followed their defense for about 10 years now. (Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews) is 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."

Make no mistake about it, this is the biggest game of the Rodriguez era. A win over Florida State would do wonders for the program, and for the conference on a national respect level.

"I think particularly the way we ended with not playing well, it's a game for us to get our confidence back. It's not going to be an easy team to do it against because they're the best team we've played all year. It would still be a way for us to feel good about the off season, and it would be a nice way for our seniors to end their careers."

Rodriguez also sees a couple of reasons why the game is important from a recruiting standpoint.

"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."

The clock is ticking, and we're getting closer to kickoff. While I'm not comfortable picking a score yet, you can bet on something. The Mountaineers know the importance of this game, and Rich Rodriguez will have them ready to play.

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