Preparation Mode

As West Virginia reconvenes for the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, the question of the proper method of preparations for the contest arises again. Is there a "best method" for getting ready for a game after a month-long layoff from action?

Of course, WVU, like every other bowl team, has been practicing since its final regular season contest. Breaks for final exams and a couple of days at home figure in, but the Mountaineers, like most other teams, tried to keep on a fairly regular schedule since defeating Rutgers on Dec. 5. Practice sessions, interspersed with lifting and running to keep sharp, have been the norm.

One of the major items in devising and running a bowl preparation schedule is just how much, and how hard, to work the team. Some coaches will keep their players on something like a game week schedule, going so far as to scrimmage a couple of times in hopes of keeping their teams sharp. Others will opt for the conditioning and rehab route, with an eye toward providing rest and getting their teams into the best shape possible for the final push.

Like many questions of this sort, there's no one right answer. West Virginia team, under different coaches, have employed different methods, and there's simply no direct correlation between the approach used and the bowl outcome. WVU's 1981 and 1982 teams, under Don Nehlen, prepared in pretty much the same manner for contests against Florida and Florida State. The Mountaineers smacked the Gators, but were outrun in the loss to the Seminoles. Criticisms flew that West Virginia "didn't take things seriously" in its preparations for that '82 Gator Bowl contest, but did it really have much to do with how many times the Mountaineers practiced? More likely, it was that WVU simply hadn't seen a team with the speed that FSU possessed. When Willie Drewrey, the fastest player on the team, was run down from behind on an 82-yard punt return (that prevented a West Virginia touchdown) everyone should have known the Mountaineers were playing a different sort of foe. However, it was easier to blame the preparation scheme.

Nehlen changed things up in subsequent bowls, but couldn't shake a long losing streak between 1984 and 2000, when the Mountaineers defeated Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. Again, it's hard to see how the practice schedule had much an effect – West Virginia just got the better of a Rebel defense that tried to go man-to-man against wide receivers that were too fast for them.

Switch to the next coach, and the pre-bowl schedule was much tougher. For Jan. 1 bowls, Rich Rodriguez ordered the team to travel and reconvene on Christmas Day, which admittedly caused some grumbling in the ranks. Very tough pre-bowl practices were also the norm, leading to some complaints that the Mountaineers had dead legs when they played Maryland and Florida State in back-to-back Gator contests. But again, were they the direct cause of wins and losses? It's hard to point the finger and say yes, because the same sort of prep schedule led to wins over Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Current head coach Bill Stewart might seem to have it all figured out, as he's 2-0 in bowls, but he'd likely be the first one to tell you that there's no magic bullet to winning bowl games. Just like any other game, it usually comes down to execution in the contest. Sure, there's more time to study film and identify potential weaknesses of the opposition, but the foe has those same advantages. Unless there's a strong Xs and Os advantage for one coaching staff, the extra time should be something of a wash.

The one thing that Stewart and his staff appear to have stressed is to keep things as normal as possible. That means practice, interspersed with conditioning work, and a normal amount of hitting. While Stewart wants his team has healthy as possible, he has often noted that a football team has to put in a certain amount of full contact work to improve and keep its edge, and he hasn't wavered from that as the Mountaineers prepare for their date in Jacksonville. Players get used to a certain routine, and keeping to that as much as possible, even with the extended break between games, seems to be an important factor. Stewart also deserves credit for allowing his team to spend Christmas Day at home, and not reconvening in Jacksonville until Dec. 26. That might seem to be a small thing, but players miss enough holidays and other special events at home, and allowing them that extra day, at least as compared to past coaching regimes, might be a psychological boost.

In the end, keeping the team on the same sort of preparation methodology that it employed during the regular season, whatever that is, would seem to be the smartest approach. Big changes in practice methods or workout schedules might simply cause confusion or adjustment problems, and add to the normal disruption that a bowl game can cause. The biggest challenge is to get a team ready to play a game after a long lay-off from game action, and there's simply no way to predict how a team will react to that, or compensate for its effects.

WVU's bowl practice schedule in Jacksonville is a balanced one, with mid-day practices offset by events for the team to relax and have fun with. Is it the right one? Many will only judge that from the results of the contest, but in reality, there's no one "right way" to ensure peak bowl performance.

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