Picking Up the Pieces

Even though the Mountaineer football team will not practice again until Friday, there is still plenty of business to take care of for Rich Rodriguez and company.

Monday in Morgantown was greeted with the first snow of winter, and with it the cold reality began to settle in that West Virginia's oh-so-close bid for a national championship game berth was as long gone as the summer sun.

The Mountaineers fell to arch-rival Pitt on Saturday night by a final of 13-9, and roughly two days later, the pain apparent in Rich Rodriguez's postgame remarks didn't look like it was going away anytime soon.

"You think every scenario 20 times over, that is natural for all of the coaches and competitive players," Rodriguez told assembled media at the Puskar Center Monday afternoon. "The really competitive players are probably living the plays that they played numerous times over, but you eventually have to move on.

"It's obviously disappointing, and I am shocked at the way we played, but I've said it many times, these are kids and sometimes professionals don't play at their highest level and these guys are amateurs."

Now, somehow, Rodriguez and his team must pick up the pieces, toss out the woulda, shoulda, coulda scenarios that danced in their heads all weekend, and begin preparing for a very talented bunch of Oklahoma Sooners. The Mountaineers will square off against the Big XII champions in January's Fiesta Bowl. While the pain and heartbreak still evident on the faces of Rodriguez and many of his players on Monday will not just naturally go away, the Big East champs must find a way to channel that sadness and anger into a positive as preparations for a second BCS bowl in three seasons begin.

"We can't let that game beat us twice, so we have to move on," said the Mountaineer mentor. "There are things that we can get better at though. We have a good group of men as far as being conscientious and wanting to be good."

Simply wanting to be good will not cut it against Bob Stoops and the Sooners, a team that many argued could have and should have been a part of that very same BCS Championship game West Virginia waved goodbye to with the loss to Pitt.

The Mountaineers convened Monday afternoon at the Puskar Center for a team meeting to go over travel plans, practice schedules, and a variety of other odds and ends that will be addressed in the coming weeks. Senior linebacker Marc Magro termed the meeting "business-like", adding that the main focus now is to begin the process of moving on and shifting focus solely to the Sooners.

The team will not practice for a bulk of this week, though lifting and other daily activities at the Puskar Center will still take place. Rodriguez expects practices to take place Friday and Sunday before the players are given another long break from on-field work next week in order to focus on final exams for the University's fall semester. Practice will start up again for good on the Friday of finals week (Dec. 14).

One year ago at this time, Rodriguez spent much of the week off following the regular season finale entertaining an offer from the University of Alabama to take over the once-proud Crimson Tide program. Ultimately, the Grant Town native inked an extension with his alma mater. This season, he says, no such courtships are on the horizon, not even with the plethora of BCS conference jobs currently vacant or expected to be freed up in the near future.

"The impact of your name being thrown about is sometimes a little overrated," he said of the coaching carousel. "It probably makes for a lot of angst among families and we don't want that."

"Sorry but you all are stuck with me here," he told Mountaineer beat reporters with a chuckle.

Several Mountaineer players, including junior running back Steve Slaton, are expected to fill out evaluation paperwork for the NFL, and will likely hear back from the league on their possible draft status within the next month or so. Underclassmen such as Slaton have until January 15 to declare their intentions to enter the NFL Draft. Rodriguez encourages his prospective pros to fill out the paperwork, if for nothing else than to receive constructive feedback regarding a possible future at the next level.

"I think it's a good service the NFL puts together, and it is very eye-opening to the players," he said. "Every program does it every year with several guys. They fill the form out before the bowls and give it to the NFL committee, and they give them an honest assessment."

Senior defensive lineman Keilen Dykes was one of several Mountaineers who took part in the process a year ago. Receiver Darius Reynaud and defensive end Johnny Dingle are both listed as seniors, but could gain an additional year of eligibility by graduating on time. Both players are currently on track to do so, but will at the very least file the aforementioned evaluation paperwork in order to make a well-informed decision, whether it be to stay or leave.

Reynaud filled out the same paperwork a season ago, but faces no obstacles to doing so again. The NFL allows any player three years removed from high school graduation to inquire via the proper forms.

"Darius filled a form out last year, and I've already talked to him a little bit, and I will talk to the guys who are thinking about it," Rodriguez said. "Now they have a little bit of time to think and explore, and we'll help them in that regard. Hopefully they can make the best decision for themselves."

In the meantime, Rodriguez and his coaching staff will hit the road recruiting while the players have time off from practice. West Virginia coaches are a week behind in recruiting due to playing a game on the first Saturday of December.

"We are recruiting this week, and we have a hand full of visits coming in this weekend," he said. "I think we are in good shape recruiting wise, and we have a small senior class. We have several commitments and that is going very well."

Hovering above all of these odds and ends such as recruiting, finals, and NFL paperwork is the challenge waiting in the desert. By the time practice kicks off on Friday, Rodriguez expects himself and everyone else in the program to have left the stinging emotions resulting from the Pitt game to be a thing of the past.

"We are fortunate," he said. "We played our worst game of the year but we still got a BCS berth, and we are going to a tremendous bowl."

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