Mountaineers embrace rare December bowl appearance

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
West Virginia is trying to get used to this idea of playing a bowl game in December.

In the previous five seasons, the Mountaineers have either played in a BCS game or in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. But this year's 8-4 regular-season record meant they were headed to the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Dec. 27. It's their first December bowl game since 2002, when West Virginia also played in Charlotte.

"It's not a disappointment, because I think we had a good year," defensive lineman Scooter Berry said. "It's just different when you're used to playing after New Year's in January. This game feels like it's coming on a lot faster than normal."

If the Mountaineers had to play before 2009, at least they got one of the better destinations available. Their opponent, North Carolina, also sports an 8-4 record and was ranked in the top 20 earlier this season. All 73,000 tickets have been sold at Bank of America Stadium.

It will be Pat White's final college game and a battle for pride in the Big East vs. ACC debate. So this should have a little bit of a big game feel to it.

"This would definitely be a big win for the Big East if we could win this game," Berry said.

The Tar Heels have already taken out two Big East teams this year, whipping Rutgers 44-12 in Piscataway and beating Connecticut 38-12 in Chapel Hill.

"They have the receivers, the speed and special teams of Cincinnati," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "Their offensive linemen are a bunch of big, strong, strapping guys like Pitt. Their quarterbacks in the pocket, throwing the ball reminds me of Mike Teel when he was hot, like he was at the end of the year. Their running backs are a lot like the two we have on this team.

"Defensively, up front they remind me of Auburn. They are big, strong, get after you, uphill, sick 'em guys. In our league, Cincinnati's defense, those ten seniors they had, are a lot like UNC. They are a lot like Pitt and their safeties are sure tacklers like USF tacklers in the past."

With a shorter-than-normal preparation time -- the bowl game comes just three weeks after the Mountaineers' season-ending win over South Florida -- Stewart wants to make sure his team balances work and fun. They've been going through two-a-days in Morgantown, but the morning sessions are more of a pro-style walk-through.

Stewart said he learned from the 2002 game that working the players too hard in the weeks leading up to the game would leave them with tired legs. West Virginia lost 48-22 to Virginia in its last Meineke appearance.

The team will arrive in Charlotte on Monday, and the planned activities include a trip to Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"Only two of our chickens have signed up to ride in a sports car," Stewart said. "I said, 'Give me those controls. I can't wait to shift. I want to drive.'"

The Mountaineers have also invited family members of the team to attend a Christmas Day gathering and will stage a "Gong Show" talent contest. In the meantime, they'll prepare like a regular-game week, and the senior class will try to leave with a perfect 4-0 bowl record.

Those first three wins all came in January bowls. This one's a little earlier, but it can still be worth remembering.

"I'm looking forward to it," Berry said. "I'm not complaining at all."