The No. 9 Mountaineers (10-2), underdogs to the Big XII champion and fourth-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (11-2) after losing a chance at a national championship, then losing a coach, have developed a relaxed attitude under interim head coach Bill Stewart. Where former coach Rich Rodriguez forced WVU to assemble for its traditional New Year's Day bowl games on Dec. 25, Stewart allowed the players to spend Christmas at home, then brought the team to Scottsdale Dec. 26. Stewart let some defensive players fume and vent about the loss of Rodriguez, not forcing them to practice when they left in anger after the decision was announced. When Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle returned the next day - the two played Monopoly instead of practicing - Stewart said nary a word, giving them a wink and a nod, and asking if they were ready to get to work. The New Martinsville native has also replaced Rodriguez's authoritative, drill sergeant method with a more mentor-like approach that's providing immediate dividends.
"These guys are men," Stewart has simply said. "They know what to do."
The change is apparent. West Virginia has a bounce in its step unseen in some time. Quarterback Patrick White, often a jokester, is now mixing in added leadership with a serious and light-hearted style. Tailback Steve Slaton and receiver Darius Reynaud have switched numbers, swapping the back's No. 10 for Reynaud's No. 2. Pat McAfee has reiterated how much Stewart has helped him, from his time as a freshman through an uneasy week after the Pitt game. And freshman back Noel Devine, who considered a transfer immediately after Rodriguez left before announcing his decision to stay, said that the players are now "free to use our skills on the field without having to worry as much."
"Everything we are doing from now in is about having fun and winning," Slaton said. "I don't know if we have a chip on our shoulder. We are deserving of this game, and we are having fun with it."
White said part of the relief is that West Virginia is no longer the favorite. The Mountaineers have traditionally played well in an underdog role. They pulled a series of upsets from 2002-05, including beating No. 3 Virginia Tech 28-7 in 2003. But since WVU upset fourth-ranked Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, it has been an underdog just once – by one point at No. 5 Louisville on a Thursday night in 2006. Now, Oklahoma is a seven-point favorite in a bowl in which the Sooners played, and lost, at the end of last year.
"I think that could be a good thing," White said, "us returning to that underdog status. We have kind of been good in that role. We have played well. It could help us."
West Virginia's lighter practice regiment – it hit in pads just once since arriving, that being Friday before shell drills Saturday and Sunday – has also helped refresh it. The Mountaineers will hold another basic practice Dec. 31, then a walk-through Jan. 1 at University of Phoenix stadium. Besides that, the players have been lounging around the Scottsdale Plaza Resort and taking in the local flavor. The Plaza Resort is a series of hotel and villa buildings across 40 acres directly in the shadow of Camelback Mountain. There are 404 guestrooms with five swimming pools, tennis courts, a fitness center, Arizona's largest whirlpool spa and a series of restaurants.
Keilen Dykes, Ryan Stanchek and Reed Williams made radio appearances on Saturday, with Dykes, who has said he wishes to go into radio, serving up a series of questions to Williams. The duo also commented on the car dealerships in the Scottsdale area, which include Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin. That followed a team outing to a local steakhouse, where players claimed Owen Schmitt consumed several cows. Schmitt said he had one 16 oz. New York Strip steak. Stanchek said he was most enjoying the beauty of the desert mountains and how clean the area was.
"Just the town and city of Scottsdale is beautiful," Schmitt said. "It's definitely first class. It's been amazing. The steakhouse was phenomenal. I'd probably take it over (any other bowl). I think the coaches have found the mix for us. Coach Stewart is letting us sleep in a little later this year than we have in the past. We have drivers to take us around to nightlife and malls. The practices have been crisp and quick, get in and get out. If we don't know it by the 14th or 15th week, we aren't going to get it."
Unlike Rodriguez, who routinely ran practices longer than expected and often froze the period clock, Stewart has reset it to the next period, or drill session, even before the allotted time as expired. It has West Virginia confidence, and brimming with enthusiasm.
"We don't have to be there any longer than we need to if we get our work done," Schmitt said. "That is how coach Stewart is handling it. I though it'd be a cold day in hell (before that would happen)."
Or, perhaps, the beginning of a much-needed warming period for the Mountaineers.