Out of the Spotlight

West Virginia understands one thing about this Gator Bowl matchup with Florida State: It is definitely second banana.

INSIDE SLANT

With Bobby Bowden, 80, coaching his final game for FSU and doing it in the state of Florida, the Mountaineers will be viewed as nothing but the Washington Generals to Bowden's Globetrotters.

That shouldn't affect WVU, though. It's nothing new.

The Mountaineers played Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, only to have Hurricane Katrina wipe out New Orleans and have the game moved to the Georgia Dome in partisan Atlanta.

Then last year, West Virginia was matched up with North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Anyone want to guess where that game is played? Charlotte, North Carolina.

It sort of figures that if you are Mountaineer, you spend your life trying to climb mountains.

"Wait 'til we walk in there and there's 75,000 people and 15,000 of them are for us," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said.

"We'll be the villain. That's just the way we like it."

Stewart understands the situation.

After attending a press gathering in Jacksonville in mid-December, Stewart said: "It was like Bobby Bowden Day in Jacksonville. It's like I told our team, the only people there on our side are those who love the old Gold and Blue, just our faithful."

NOTES, QUOTES

--West Virginia is heading into the Gator Bowl to play Florida State, aware it will be favored to win but hardly the center attraction.

That honor will belong to Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who will retire after the game as the second winningest coach of all time.

"I'm just a drop in the bucket compared to him," said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart. "He was my coach and I love the man. I'll be there clapping as much as anyone when he's there on the podium."

Stewart actually played for Bowden, or at least was on the freshman team during Bowen's first year at WVU, 1970.

While he understands Bowden will be the center of attention, he offers a warning.

"They can't forget our team. That would be a mistake," Stewart said.

Certainly, West Virginia belongs in the game. The Mountaineers have nine victories that include a narrow triumph over Pitt and a narrow loss to undefeated Cincinnati.

Gator Bowl officials were thrilled with the matchup, especially from a box office standpoint.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: West Virginia's offense has evolved over the season. The Mountaineers went in thinking it would pass more than it ran, spreading the field from sideline to sideline, throwing deep, and opening up wide gaps for Noel Devine to run through. But after QB Jarrett Brown suffered a concussion, his performance slipped for a couple of weeks and the Mountaineers went more to a running game that included Devine and fullback Ryan Clarke as both a runner and blocker. They head for the bowl emphasizing the run a bit more than throwing, but the passing game remains a staple. WB Jock Sanders is the key possession receiver and WR Alric Arnett is the chief deep threat. But the offense needs to be retuned, having managed just a grand total of 16 yards combined in the second and third quarters of a regular-season ending 24-21 victory over Rutgers.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: It took nine games to get the expected starting defense on the field as a unit, but when it got there it really played well. The first game was against Cincinnati and it held the Bearcats two touchdowns beneath their scoring average, but WVU still lost, 24-21. The Mountaineers use a unorthodox 3-3-5 odd stack, which allows them to do blitzing from many different places. The linebackers and safeties are designed to make most of the tackles, and senior MLB Reed Williams is the leader. The secondary became special after 6-5 safety Robert Sands, a sophomore, got the hang of it, leading the Big East in interceptions and being a sure tackler. CB Brandon Hogan is one of the conference's best. The defensive line -- pass-rushing DE Julian Miller, NG Chris Neild and DT Scooter Berry, who is outstanding against the run -- may be the best in the conference.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: CBs Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy vs. Florida State receivers -- Hogan and Tandy have improved greatly over the course of the season but will face a big challenge from the Seminole receivers. Rod Owens and Bert Reed each caught 58 passes.

OTHER KEY MATCHUPS:
--WVU's running game vs. FSU's run defense.

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has wanted to run a pass-first offense since he took over. But he has come to realize that, against Florida State, it is best to run the ball and drain the clock.

"That is a Mickey Andrews defense over there so we are going to have to establish the run and make hay on first down," Stewart said.

That WVU has the manpower to run the ball regardless of opponent is indisputable. The team led the Big East in rushing, averaging 183.7 yards a game, and has one of college football's most dangerous breakaway threats in Noel Devine, who scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. What's more, the Mountaineers present a danger on reverses with either slotback Jock Sanders or Tavon Austin carrying while FB Ryan Clarke is a load inside and came into his own as the year wore on, both running and blocking. QB Jarrett Brown is big and mobile and will run both on broken pass plays, quarterback keepers and designed bootlegs. Florida State had a rough time handling the run, giving up 203 yards a game and 5.3 yards a carry.

--WVU's pass defense vs. Florida State's passing game.

QB Christian Ponder would be the ideal option to be the starting quarterback for the Seminoles in the Gator Bowl. But a separated throwing shoulder after making a hit following an interception against Clemson ended his season prematurely. FSU will instead go with redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel, who started the season's final three games, two of them victories over Wake Forest and Maryland. Manuel played well, completing 63.4 percent of his passes, but he threw just two TDs to six interceptions, showing his inexperience.

"We must disguise our coverages," Stewart said, "and try to confuse Manuel."

The Mountaineers' pass defense came on well as the season progressed and safety Robert Sands proved himself to be quite opportunistic with five interceptions to lead the team.

--WVU punter Scott Kozlowski against FSU PR Greg Reid.

Bobby Bowden-coached teams have always had great returners and Reid has the ability to join that fraternity. A freshman, he saved FSU from a terrible upset against Maryland with a 48-yard return and averaged 18.4 yards on 19 returns. Kozlowski, however, was the nation's sixth-ranked punter, averaging 44.8 yards a punt with a nifty net of 39.1 yards.

"He has to do what he has done all year," Stewart said. "We have to win the battle of field position and he's been doing that for us all season."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm going to slow this down for you. Listen to me: We are 9-3. Do you understand how many teams in America would like to be 9-3?" -- Coach Bill Stewart, reacting to criticism of his team.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: WVU vs. Florida State, Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, Jacksonville, Fla. -- This is sure to get plenty of national attention as Florida State's Bobby Bowden will coach his final game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jarrett Brown -- He was on the spot entering the season, replacing Patrick White. Brown is elusive and strong-armed and would have had a much better season were it not for a mid-year concussion that took him out of his game for about a month. Brown's passing opens up the running game for WVU.

RB Noel Devine -- One of the best runners in the nation. His 88-yard touchdown was the only score against Pitt this year, and his 92-yard touchdown run last season clinched a hard-fought home win over Syracuse. Devine can go wide or run between the tackles. He finished the regular season with 1,297 yards, an average of 5.8 per carry while scoring 12 touchdowns.

MLB Reed Williams -- He is a second-team Academic All-American who played through pain in his shoulders this year after missing most of last year due to a shoulder surgery that was still bothering him. Williams felt better toward the end of the season and played full time against Cincinnati and Pitt. He is the glue in the WVU defense.

S Robert Sands -- He emerged as a potential high NFL draft pick down the road. Only a sophomore, he is unique in that he stands 6-5 and hits like a linebacker, but he covers passes so well that he led the Big East in interceptions and breakups. Sands' play allows some gambling out of the other defensive backs.

ROSTER REPORT:
--MLB Reed Williams, whose shoulders forced him to miss most of last year and limited his play through much of this season, is back at full strength. He was a force against Pitt and Rutgers, playing nearly complete games. He will be eager for his final game as a Mountaineer in the bowl.

--DT Josh Taylor missed a lot of time with a leg injury but he returned and played against Rutgers as the backup to Scooter Berry. He should be full speed by the bowl.

--WR Bradley Starks was held out of the Rutgers game due to post-concussion symptoms. He is expected to return for the Gator Bowl.

--DT Richard Ash, a 6-4, 270-pound player out of Pahokee's great program in Florida, became that school's eighth commitment. He is the fifth player from Palm Beach County landed by WVU this year.


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