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Dec. 15, 2003

Virginia head coach Al Groh

Opening comments: Players finish exams today. There are a number of players taking exams this morning- a fairly large block which dictated that our practice would be this afternoon. Today will be the first day of our specific preparation for Pittsburgh. Previous practices that we’ve had have both been to work on certain things regardless of who the opponent would be that we think we need to develop more proficiency at. We put a few new things in. We’ve had the opportunity to have a number of developmental periods and work with the players who will be making the future for us. This afternoon we’ll start the first specific conversation about Pittsburgh. I think this game presents a very, very big challenge to our team, and I could tell at the end of yesterday’s practice that they’re very anxious to get on with preparation for the game.

Q: Last year you talked about the importance of winning the Tire Bowl game in light of Virginia’s bowl history. Has anything changed since then in terms of your goals for the bowl this year?

Groh: No, I think we’re just one step further along. The philosophy is the same. I think the team got the idea last year that when you accept one of these bowl’s invitations, along with it goes the responsibility to win. That’s what we’re going for. We’re not going for hayrides and log flumes and that kind of stuff. We’re going to win. Our emphasis last year to the players was, ‘The main way we’re going to have fun is by being together as a team. We’ll appreciate any outside events, but we don’t really need outside events to have a good time.’ The camaraderie that goes along with being on a team, hanging out together, those kind of things, that’s really where the most fun in being on a team is. It’s not in all those planned amusements, and this is the last opportunity that this team will have to have fun together. As soon as the game is over, the team will have changed; there’ll be a certain number of players who won’t be on the team anymore. They’ll be part of the Virginia football family, but they won’t be on the team anymore; so we have a limited amount of time to hang together, have fun together.

Q: A couple of weeks ago, you said the goal was 30,000 bowl tickets. You’re two-thirds of the way there. Do you feel pretty encouraged by it?

Groh: Yeah, I think that’s a terrific number. Looks like we have every opportunity to exceed what was done last year, and I’m sure that many people are waiting to buy tickets as Christmas presents. I would expect that there will be a significant surge in sales here in the next couple of days. Anybody who isn’t thinking that way must have coal in their wallet or Scrooge on their mind.

Q: Have you tried to do anything different with the quarterbacks during this preparation period because of the fact that Matt Schaub is leaving after this season?

Groh: These developmental periods that we’ve had haven’t been exclusively for those players, but obviously with that situation coming up and with the significant amount of candidates, it hasn’t given us the opportunity to get a head start on that. Obviously, with four candidates in the spring, there are only so many turns to go around. Now we’ve had five more practices to add on top of that for those players, and we’ll divide it up amongst four. It hasn’t been an overwhelming number for anybody, but it’s given them a head start on that. These practices have given many players an opportunity to do two things: One, to improve themselves, and two, to prove themselves?or at least to get a head start on those two missions.

Q: At least one of your cornerbacks is not very tall. How do you prepare for Larry Fitzgerald and two tall freshmen wide receivers?

Groh: That’s not a new circumstance for us. That’s been a pretty consistent thing. These have been our two corners for the last two years, and so we face that on an ongoing situation. Our preference would be to be a little taller; the reality is that we’re not. We’ve worked out with that situation for two years; this won’t change it dramatically. Actually, we played against a taller receiver last game. I don’t know that anybody I’ve ever seen play receiver- regardless of what their height is, whether it’s 5’11” or 6’6″- plays as vertically as this receiver does. Fitzgerald has got a remarkable eye-to-hand coordination and a sense of how to position his body in order to go up and get the ball. Often, he’s heavily covered by one- or two- players sometimes. I’ve seen a number of times where teams have tried to double him, and it’s been a well-executed double. The quarterback just kind of throws the ball up; it sounds kind of school-yardish, but obviously he throws it up because over a period of time, Larry’s given him great confidence that if you put it in a general area, he knows how to go get it. He’ll go up between two guys and get it. I think he’s really a remarkable player.

Q: Does Pittsburgh use their tight ends similarly to how you do?

Groh: Yeah, Kris Wilson is a very big threat; he’s a very good player. He’s got real good vertical skills; he finds the openings in the zones well; he’s another natural catcher. I think, obviously this game will have two of the very best receiving tight ends in college football.

Q: Can you talk about the general impressions you have of Pittsburgh?

Groh: They’re a very physical team; their running game is an inside, fullback/tailback-based running game; both big players- they’ve got a big, strong fullback- [Brandon] Miree is a big back. Not a slasher type, he’s a power bat. Both of them are guys that in tackling if the defenders do not front up the runner, then they’re going to run right through. They give them an excellent balance between the vertical passing game, and they certainly emphasize the vertical passing game because of the ability for Fitzgerald and Wilson to go up and get it. They emphasize the vertical passing game certainly at least as much as anybody that we’ve played here recently. Defensively, they’re kind of interesting or intriguing to figure out. Last year I think they were 12th in the country in defense; with many of the same players in the same scheme, their efficiency has dropped off. It’s hard to understand why. They played a somewhat similar fashion to what some of our recent end of the season opponents did. Same scheme or similar-looking scheme, so we’ve got some background. When the players see it, they’ll be able to relate to some of the things that they’ve had to take on in the course of the year. I think the strength of their team defensively is probably in the secondary. They’ve got a number of size guys who run very well?seem to be ball-hawk type of players. The other guy who’s outstanding and certainly has got to be factored into everything is the punter. He’s the all big east punter; he’s a 44-yard a kick punter [Andy Lee]. When he really hits one of them, tremendous height on the ball. Besides the distance, based on what you can see on the tape, sometimes the ball is up there where you can’t see it anymore- it just reappears further down the field. I’d say there’s a good chance that this punter will kick the ball with a greater combination of height and distance than anybody that we’ve encountered this year. That’s going to be a little bit different exposure for our punt return guys. In fact, I was just talking to Corwin Brown before I came over to plan for tomorrow after practice to get the jugs machine out and running, because I don’t think we could approximate humanly here the height at which this guy kicks the ball, so we’ll have to do it mechanically.

Q: What do you think when you hear the name Walt Harris?

Groh: Excellent resume of success; exposure to a lot of really, really good coaches. Actually, Walt and I coached together for two months at the Air Force Academy.

Q: Does he have a particular coaching style?

Groh: He’s very well-grounded in the passing game. He does what all coaches should do in terms of how he tries to pass it?he passes it catered to the skills of the personnel that he has on hand. I can remember that when Walt was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and they were primarily a three-wide receiver set on every play. Besides the vertical passes, lots of controlled passes out of it, a lot of check with me plays, one back running game. Now they’re highly oriented to two-back running game, power passing, vertical routes. I can see the remnants of some of the things I’ve seen before, but more I can really see how this passer can throw this ball a long ways and a receiver who can go out and get it in the crowd.

Q: Rod Rutherford’s career has kind of mirrored Matt Schaub’s in the fact that they both kind of came along in their junior years. What do you like about him?

Groh: I didn’t see him during that developmental time last year. I’ve only seen him this year. Whatever path it took to get him here, it was a path well worth traveling, because he’s had an excellent year. This is probably one of the few bowl games that will have guys who have excelled within their own conferences. One thing that is quite apparent is that he projects the same type of poise and confidence in the pocket that Matt does. Having been around it on an on-going basis, it’s easy to spot. He’s got a real good sense of what he’s looking at, and he knows what he wants to do with the ball.

Q: It seemed like the people in Charlotte, N.C., really went out of their way last year to put together a great time for both teams. How much do you see your team looking forward to that experience again?

Groh: Our team’s really looking forward to this game, because they have a very positive memory of being down there. As I mentioned earlier, they really had a lot of fun hanging out together. We didn’t do that many things that were all that spectacular, but they just hung out together. We emphasized that going down there that the real fun of going down to these games is the unity and the solidarity and the camaraderie that goes along with being on a football team. They really enjoyed each other and themselves. That was the most significant fun thing that we did. Really, just the most commonplace things the players enjoyed. They liked the set-up?the downtown hotel?so they could on their free time just walk out and do whatever they wanted to do. Whether it was walk on the streets or gawk at the skyscrapers, they had a chance to do that. They got a sense of the game building, because all the activities were downtown; we weren’t in a hotel 25 miles from where the stadium was going to be. Friday, the day before the game, players could really sense it building, because people came into town, they closed down the streets. That gave me excitement of a big game. Then obviously, the way the game went: packed stadium, big-time stadium, good win for our team. It leaves the players with a very positive feeling and memory of what happened, so they’re looking forward to going back and trying to recreate that experience.

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