Different Feel for Mountaineers

The surroundings are the same. The team is lodged at the Sawgrass Marriott, just as it was a year ago. The media is set up near Jacksonville Landing at the Adams Mark Hotel, and many of the same faces are filling the lobby that filled it last December. Even the team's practice site, North Florida University, is the same, except for some new sod that the NFL put down in preparation for the Super Bowl.

Something, though, feels different. It isn't the air, the temperatures are holding steady in the 70s just as they were in 2003. The difference is in the Mountaineer players. Questions about suspensions and a rematch are not cluttering this team's brains, and no dissention can be detected anywhere. This team is happy to be in Florida, they are happy to be together, and they are focused on accomplishing one mission.

"It is just a lot happier scene," said WVU cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones. "People want to be here. It is not like a couple of years back when folks didn't want to be in the bowl game. Everybody is up-tempo, and we want to do this. I feel really good about this one. The coaches and the players have gelled, and everyone is feeling good right now."

"The players want to be here this year," agreed senior center Tim Brown. "I think we enjoy each other's company a lot more than last year's team did, and the chemistry is just a lot better."

The positive vibes floating around North Florida have even affected Mountaineer coach Rich Rodriguez.

"I feel better this year than I did last year," admitted West Virginia's fourth-year head coach just prior to Thursday's final practice. "I hope that is a good sign. I even asked some of the players how they feel, and they say they feel better. Maybe we are all just hoping we feel better and play better, but I do think the practices have been a little more crisp and I think our guys are a little healthier."

What is the reason for the good feelings? Everybody has a different theory. Maybe it is some lingering Christmas spirit. Maybe Rodriguez had his team brainwashed. Is it possible that the team has gotten mental advice from Dr. Phil or Mrs. Chloe gave them a good prediction on her psychic hotline?

All of these are possibilities, but Rodriguez believe that it has more to do with the fact that the team is back in a familiar situation.

"This is our second year here, so we are more comfortable with our surroundings," said Rodriguez. "We are not freshmen at the Gator Bowl anymore. We are sophomores. I think that has helped our routine and I think our guys understand a little more about getting off their feet and relaxing some."

But the city of Jacksonville is not the only thing these Mountaineers are familiar with. The men wearing old gold and blue are back in the role where they have made their living for years. Some of the biggest wins in WVU history, the Peach Bowl win over Florida 1981, the win at Oklahoma in '82, the Miami victory in '93 and even the wins over Virginia Tech in 2002 and 2003 have come when nobody expected West Virginia to pull it off. Now, after a season spent in the unfamiliar role of favorites, the Mountaineers are back to their comfort zone.

"I would rather be a heavy favorite," laughed Rodriguez. "That means you have to screw up to lose. But we have played better as an underdog. Our program has been better throughout the years in every sport when we are overlooked a little bit and we have something to prove. I hope that we take that approach because we should be a heavy underdog and we do have something to prove."

"It is the role that we are used to," agreed Brown. "Being out front was a little different for us. Now we are sort of back to the role we are used to, and it is a comfortable fit for us."

That "something to prove" that the players and coaches have mentioned comes not only from the late-season woes that have caused many to question this team's ability, but also from the name on the jerseys of West Virginia's Gator Bowl opponent. The name Florida State means as much in college football as the name Duke means in college basketball, and that has the Mountaineers foaming at the mouth to take the field.

"I think that can sometimes be a little over rated, but I do think the fact that it is a challenge to play Florida State has helped," said Rodriguez. "We are playing somebody that everybody knows. They are a national program and they have had great success is bowl games. We know we have to play at a high level to compete, and I think that has helped our preparation."

"It is a lot more special," added Pacman. "You probably haven't seen the type of intensity that we are going to have on Saturday. Florida State is a program that everybody knows, and we are going to be ready. All my friends will probably be at this game since it is so close to home. They haven't had a chance to see me all season. There are bragging rights on the line. I have a couple of friends on their team, and I want to show everybody what I can do."

The Seminoles tradition can be a motivator, but it can also be intimidating if a team thinks too much about it, but Rodriguez and his staff have taken steps to prevent any sense of awe from the Mountaineers.

"We have talked about that a little bit," said the former Mountaineer defensive back who was on the field as a player the last time WVU and FSU met on the gridiron. "They can watch them on film and see what great athletes they have, but I don't want them to be intimidated. They may have been a little bit more highly recruited than our guys, but we have some talent too. We have to play within ourselves and not try to do things that we can't do."

The man on the other sideline, the winningest coach in college football, can be intimidating too, but Bobby Bowden is the furthest thing from the West Virginia players' minds.

"Bobby has always been one of the best coaches, but he can't get on the field, so I really don't pay any attention to him," said Jones, who never fails to say exactly what is on his mind. "I have a lot of respect for the Florida State program, it is one of the best programs in the nation, but I am putting my money on Coach Rod."

"We don't talk about the coaches," agreed Brown. "We talk about the players."

So what will all of this confidence and focus mean on Saturday? That remains to be seen. But win Pacman looks into his crystal ball, he sees nothing but good.

"I don't want to put anything on the record, but I have confidence that we will have a chance to win this game," said No. 9. "We are playing to win the game. We have had our ups and downs this season, but we have stuck together as a team, and we are ready to play."


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