Wednesday, December 23, 2009
West Virginia must beat Seminoles, sentiment
By Brian Bennett
West Virginia rolls into the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl with a three-game winning streak and victories in five straight bowls. Its opponent, Florida State, finished just 6-6 this season.
West Virginia will have to overcome the sentimental edge for retiring FSU coach Bobby Bowden off with a smile.
And yet, the Mountaineers face one of the toughest challenges of the entire bowl season. They'll be taking on the Seminoles in coach Bobby Bowden's final game. Everyone who does not have a pre-existing West Virginia allegiance will certainly be rooting for one of the game's true legendary figures to go out a winner.
"I’ve told the guys this: There’s going to be 70,000 crimson, gold and white Florida State fans, I’m sure, against about 15,000 of us," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said this week. "Our men know they’re going to be outnumbered, our men know they’re going to be up against it, and if they don’t they’re going to know real quick as soon as we come through that tunnel.
"I've probably got family at home that will be cheering for him, I don’t know."
Stewart understands what the other sideline will be going through. He was an assistant coach during Don Nehlen's final game at West Virginia, a win over Ole Miss in the 2000 Music City Bowl.
"I’ve coached a lot of football games in my time," Stewart said. "That one right there, I gave everything I had to give. I gave just a little more that night for Coach Nehlen. I can only imagine what the Florida State coaches and players are going to do, and I can only imagine what Coach Bowden himself is going to do for this last hurrah."
In one sense, the Mountaineers are honored to be a part of the last game ever coached by Bowden, who was the West Virginia head man before he went to Florida State. But they have to find a way to match the intensity of their opponents while staying focused.
"It's nice, but it's something you don't want to get caught up in," senior linebacker Reed Williams. "We know most people will be rooting for (Bowden), but we can't care about what everybody else thinks. We've played in a lot of emotional games around here, so I think we should be ready."
If West Virginia can maintain its level of play from the last month of the regular season, especially defensively, it should have a great chance to end up with a 10-win campaign.
After a disheartening loss at South Florida on Oct. 30, the defense held Louisville to nine points, helped nearly pull off an upset at Cincinnati in a 24-21 loss, kept Pitt at bay in a 19-16 win and held off Rutgers on the road for a 24-21 victory. Getting the entire unit healthy and active -- with guys like Williams, safety Sidney Glover and defensive tackle Scooter Berry returning -- proved to be a big key.
"We finished the season strong, but I still feel like we haven't played our best football yet," Williams said. "Hopefully, we can do that in our last game."
It's a game in which Stewart says his team will be underdogs. Most people will probably hope West Virginia is a footnote in a historic ending for Bowden.
But the Mountaineers have a little history on their side as well. No current player has ever lost in a bowl game.
"That's a tradition we definitely want to keep going," Williams said.