Not since WVU matched up against Miami has it faced such a solid team. No. 4 Oklahoma's tackles average 6-7 and 350 pounds. It has a triumvirate of backs and a quarterback leading the nation in pass efficiency – as a freshman. The defense is brimming with talent, and it's kickoff return team is No. 1 in the NCAA in average yards per runback.
"And, really, that's not even the best part of their team," said cornerback Vaughn Rivers. "They're good, but they are good in so many other areas that, overall, the special teams aren't even the best part of their team."
Yow. But, under interim head coach Bill Stewart – who was the associate head and tight ends coach and special teams coordinator – West Virginia has rediscovered its urgency and spunk. The players have responded to the problems, and begun preparing for a school-record fifth consecutive tradition New Year's Day outing that's being viewed as a sort of vehicle through which to reestablish the program's national image. That, after a blitz by an national media stuck on insisting Rodriguez left for a "better job" when what he left for was intense pressure, worse facilities and a rival that's legitimately among the top five programs in the nation over the last decade.
"You'd be surprised," receiver Dorrell Jalloh said of WVU's response. "We go out to practice and you would not know anything has changed. We are very motivated and positive out there. You'd think we'd be down, but we are motivated and high-spirited. We are having fun and enjoying ourselves."
The state has showed added support by largely withdrawing that of Rodriguez, and, in an effort to up morale and motivation, Gov. Joe Manchin and former WVU head coach Don Nehlen spoke with the team. Manchin informed the players that he went through a similar coaching change as a player from 1966-67. Manchin was recruited by Gene Corum's staff, then was coached by Jim Carlen for his two seasons. Manchin never lettered, but was part of the 1967 Southern Conference championship team that went just 5-4-1 overall but 4-0-1 in the league.
"We're doing fine now," said team captain Keilen Dykes, who did not practice the day Rodriguez made his announcement. "I can't lie. I was not happy. Like I said before, we still have to go play. It's been short, crisp, get in and out, get the work in and keep it fresh in practices. People aren't sure we can play with them. It'll be a challenge."
Oklahoma (11-2) ripped then-No. 1 Missouri in the Big XII championship game, the second time the Sooners beat Mizzou this season. OU is averaging more than 41 points per game while allowing just 17. They have scored 79, 51, 54, 62, 41, 42 and 52 points in games this season. Just two teams held them in the 20s.
"We have to show our character," cornerback Vaughn Rivers said. "We have done the best we can handling it day by day and we are really getting focused on our task at hand. The whole state is supporting us. It's not just in Morgantown. This is big for the program. Everybody is expecting this program to take a hit, go down. To be able to go and win would be huge."
West Virginia reconvenes Dec. 26 in Arizona. It will hold five practices, then have a walk-through Jan. 1. The Fiesta Bowl kicks off at 8 p.m. EST on Jan. 2 at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.
"We have had a lot of energy," fullback Owen Schmitt said. "We've got inspiration. I think we always go on a mission. They are a good team and we are the underdogs. That's a good role for us and we always do well. It's a chip on your shoulder, something to prove. I think we play better in that role. This isn't easy, but it happens at times. We just have to go play."