Stew's Views: Gator Bowl Bound

While most of the headlines will revolve around the Mountaineers' opposition in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, WVU head coach Bill Stewart said that won't bother his team.

Indeed, national headlines have already been made by the marquee pairing for the New Year's Day match-up in Jacksonville, Fla., as the Gator Bowl will serve as the final contest for Florida State's legendary head coach.

The game will represent a chance for Bobby Bowden to come full circle in many ways, as he will end his career playing against the last school he coached before beginning his lengthy tenure in Tallahassee.

Bowden's legendary streak of 28 consecutive bowl appearances at FSU began with an appearance in the 1982 Gator Bowl against West Virginia -- a game which the Seminoles won 31-12.

"All of the attention is going to go to coach Bowden and the Florida State Seminoles -- and it should, for what he's done for the game," said Mountaineers head coach Bill Stewart. "But they can't forget our team. I can assure you that would be a mistake on anyone's part, to ignore the Mountaineers."

The play of WVU (particularly on defense) down the stretch will likely draw the most attention from Bowden and his staff as they began the process of scouting their bowl opponent.

After hitting a low point in a 30-19 loss at South Florida at the end of October, the Mountaineers refocused their efforts.

The results came in the form of a narrow 24-21 loss at then-No. 4 Cincinnati, a 19-16 upset of arch-rival and then-No. 8 Pittsburgh, and a 24-21 win at Rutgers to close out the regular season.

"We got tougher," Stewart said of the reason for improvement towards season's end. "We got tighter. We got more bonded. That made us better."

"We had a 9-3 season, and I'm pleased that we started gelling towards the end -- particularly the way our defense has played the last three games."

The reward for those efforts came in the moments immediately following Saturday's victory in Piscataway, N.J., when Gator Bowl selection committee chairman Brian Goin (a WVU and Morgantown High alumnus) came into the West Virginia locker room to formally extend an invitation to the team.

"When they looked up and saw those green jackets (worn by Gator Bowl representatives) enter the room, it was like Christmas for our players," Stewart said. "That will stay in my mind until they lay me down. That's why I'm so proud. These players laid it on the line."

While the Mountaineers come into the Gator Bowl on a hot streak, the same can not be said of FSU.

Bowden's resignation announcement came after he reportedly was given a choice to come back as a figurehead and cede control of the Seminoles to coach-in-waiting (and West Virginia native) Jimbo Fisher.

That ultimatum came as a result of Florida State's poor play this season, as the team started 2-4 before rebounding, earning a sixth win and bowl eligibility in a 29-26 home triumph against Maryland.

That momentum was short-lived, however, as the team failed to earn a huge upset in Bowden's last game against arch-rival Florida, as the No. 1 Gators thrashed FSU 37-10.

Those facts didn't lead Stewart to say that a game against the 6-6 Seminoles would be easy.

"We have a tough challenge against us," said the second-year WVU coach. "You can throw out all the record books. They'll be healthier and we'll be healthier. It should be one heck of a football game in Jacksonville on New Year's Day."


  • For Stewart, the game has added personal significance, as Bowden was his coach at West Virginia for one season.

    Stewart was a freshman on the legendary coach's first Mountaineer squad in 1970, but ultimately transferred to Fairmont State, where he played for the remainder of his career.

    Still, he said Bowden left an imprint on him that lasts to this day.

    "I can only tell you how proud I am to coach against coach Bowden," Stewart said.

    "I was on the scout team and I just saw how the players loved coach Bowden here at West Virginia and how revered he was by his staff. I've seen that over the years at Florida State. He'll have them ready as only he can do. He's the master and the best at that."

    "I was honored to be in his daily, weekly and seasonal presence in those days. He's one of my heroes. He's always been one of my idols, and he's truly an icon in college football."

  • It was interesting to note that Gator Bowl officials extended their invitation to West Virginia while the de-facto Big East Conference championship game -- which pitted an undefeated No. 5 Cincinnati squad against a Pittsburgh team ranked in the top 15 -- was still going down to the wire.

    In fact, the Bearcats were still trailing as Stewart and the green-clad Gator Bowl representatives walked into their post-game news conference at Rutgers Stadium.

    That means that Tony Pike's 29-yard touchdown pass to Armon Binns with 33 seconds left was the difference in UC being 12-0 and playing in a BCS bowl game and winding up 11-1 and playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

    "It's a real compliment to our players at this school and great university we have," Stewart said of the quick decision of the Gator Bowl reps. "We're pretty special. People love West Virginia, and we play hard."

    "We'll go down there and fight our hearts out. I promise you that. These guys of mine, they'll go fight. There's no doubt in my mind."

  • Stewart also has experience with trying to get one last win for a legendary coach.

    He was a first-year member of Don Nehlen's staff in 2000, when the long-time WVU head man and College Football Hall of Famer ended his career with a victory in the Music City Bowl.

    The current Mountaineers coach drew comparisons between what Florida State will experience in the lead-up to the Gator Bowl to that victory over Ole Miss.

    "I fought my heart out and coached as hard as I could for (Nehlen) that day, and I'll never forget that game down in Nashville," Stewart said. "All of those people at Florida State will do the exact same thing."

    It was a theme that was borne out in recent history, as Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr's final game in the maize and blue came in a 41-35 Capital One Bowl upset of then-No. 9 Florida.

    "What does that telling you about playing the last one for the ol' coach?" Stewart asked. "That worries me big time."

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