Distractions Aplenty

ATLANTA – West Virginia's focus and execution improved despite an increase in distractions as 2,500 students unexpectedly – to WVU – poured into the Hyatt Regency team hotel.

The No. 11 Mountaineers (10-1) were disrupted throughout Monday night by a youth group, but handled the myriad of mid-morning wake-ups and lengthy elevator lines to piece together its best practice since arriving in Atlanta for the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl versus No. 8 Georgia (10-2).

"It caught me off guard. I knew I had to worry about crowd noise at practices and during the bowls. I didn't know I had to worry about it at 1 a.m.," WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But we are working with it right now and trying to get the situation resolved. Our players have handled everything beautifully. That is what I am most proud of. Everything we have thrown at them they have handled. All the adversity, if you can call it that, all year, they handled well with as young as they are."

Before the Sugar Bowl, normally played in New Orleans, was rescheduled to Atlanta following Hurricane Katrina, the Peach Bowl had already selected the best team hotels for Miami and LSU. That left a pair of very good facilities for WVU and UGA – but groups in town previously booked those hotels for the New Year, including many bands that will play in the Dec. 30 Peach Bowl and the youth convention group that disrupted WVU.

Rodriguez and WVU officials have handled the situation, and West Virginia is expected to continue to stay at the Hyatt and practice north of Atlanta at Westminster High School. Problems could arise there as well if the north Georgia area continues to receive rain. Intermittent showers Wednesday were fine, but any increase in rain (unexpected over the next two days with just a 20 percent chance of showers) could force WVU to move to a location that has artificial turf.

There are several private high schools in the northern part of Atlanta that offer such facilities. Westminster is a natural grass surface. That won't be enough to slow West Virginia as it readies for just its fourth major bowl ever.

"Every college player dreams of a BCS bowl," Rodriguez said. "It's like the Final Four in basketball. Even though it's not the national championship, it's the four biggest bowl games of the year. The BCS is big. It's used all the time in recruiting, in conversations. It was important as the season went on, our goal were to win the Big East conference. You could see the excitement in our guys. After we beat Pitt and South Florida lost to wrap up the BCS bid, there still was not the excitement until after they beat South Florida.

"They like being around each other. That has helped with chemistry. Guys from all around the country come to Morgantown, WV to play. You hope you develop chemistry."

Several media members also noted that West Virginia has played especially well in night games against Louisville, Cincinnati, UConn and Pitt. Georgia, however, will be an entirely different match-up in terms of speed, skill and size. That could equate any time advantage, real or imagined.

"Our guys have gotten excited and we have played well. But playing in the dome is a little different. Let's not kid ourselves," Rodriguez said. "We have a great task in front of us against a team almost on its home field. I just want us to play well. We are playing one of the best teams in the nation. I just want Georgia to get our best shot. I am trying to keep our guys focused.

"If they play well and we play well, and we lose, we will be disappointed. I'll promise you that. But we can hold our heads high. This is a great city and the Sugar has done a great job of relocating here. But we have to stay focused."

That will include attempting to execute Rodriguez's main keys of stopping big-play attempts and establishing offense to control the clock. And that does not necessarily mean a pure running attack, though that lends itself to more realistic opportunities to manage time.

"The thing you look for is to look for what part of their phase can we take the most advantage of," Rodriguez said. "Is it offense, defense or special teams? The reason they won the SEC is that they are the most complete team in the SEC in all three phases. There are no true weaknesses.

"We have to establish some things offensively. It doesn't have to be in the running game, though that has been our method of attack all year. We have to be able to get some first downs. We can't go out and make our defense defend for three-fourths of the game. We have to control the game with our offense.

"The second part is to not give up big plays. You are going to face a lot of speed in a fast environment in the dome. They are going to take some shots deep and we have to limit that and tackle well. We have tackled well all year, and that will be one of the biggest factors in this game.


* Offensive lineman Travis Garrett missed a handful of practices prior to the team reassembling in Atlanta for academic reasons. He is 100 percent healthy and will play.

* Jason Colson took more reps and should be available, though trainers are not sure to what level. Fellow slot wideout Jeremy Bruce is still limited. His status, Rodriguez said, is probably doubtful. Bruce "would have to get better in a hurry to play."

* Brandon Barrett has practiced well and is expected to get his most playing time of the season in the Sugar Bowl.

* Rodriguez, on 6-7 tight end Leonard Pope: "He'll be eating peanuts off our guys' heads, he is so big. I hope they don't send him out for the coin toss, because we might get intimidated."

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