Byline: Garry Smits, The Times-Union
It's one of the more mystifying streaks in Gator Bowl history:
Why can't West Virginia win in Jacksonville?
When the Mountaineers play Florida State Jan. 1 in the 60th Gator Bowl at Alltel Stadium, it will be their fifth appearance in the game since 1982.
It's also a safe bet that West Virginia fans will outnumber FSU fans, since their binge buying of tickets has resulted in three of the top-10 attended Gator Bowl games, including the 82,911 in 1989 that remains the all-time record.
But that's the only winning streak the Mountaineers enjoy in Jacksonville, which doesn't go a long way in explaining why they're 0-4 in the Gator Bowl. With a huge edge in the crowd that borders on making Jacksonville into Morgantown South, a victory somewhere along the line might have been expected.
The Mountaineers (8-3) begin preparations to break their Jacksonville drought today with their first practice session at the University of North Florida. West Virginia arrived in town Saturday night, while Florida State (8-3) arrives today in time for a brief workout at Bishop Kenny High School before practicing at Jacksonville University the rest of the week.
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, who played in a 1982 loss to Florida State and coached the Mountaineers against Maryland last year, said preparation wasn't the problem in last year's 41-7 loss to Maryland. He also said having a home-crowd edge must be earned by playing much better than that.
"The crowd won't be much of a help if you're not playing well," Rodriguez said. "It doesn't matter if you have 5,000 or 50,000 fans there -- they won't get into the game if you're not making plays. If we had taken charge early in those games, we might have had a better chance to get some momentum going. But to get our people into the game, we have to play a lot better."
Tony Caridi, West Virginia's radio voice the last 20 years, was even more pointed.
"The fans aren't playing the game," he said. "If it was just fans against fans, we'd win every bowl game. I think in all four Gator Bowls, we faced very good teams and then didn't play well ourselves."
Brian Goin, executive director of The Players Championship, a member of the Gator Bowl Association Board and a West Virginia graduate, said the status of the game means the Mountaineers will be facing a quality opponent.
"This is a premier game, on New Year's Day, and we're always going to be facing a top-tier team if we're in it," Goin said. "You've got to play your best game, or there's a good chance you're going to get beat. Last year, our fans never got a chance to cheer once Jessica Lynch [Iraq War hero and West Virginia native who made a pregame appearance] left the field."
Only one of West Virginia's Gator Bowl games has been close, a 20-13 loss to North Carolina in 1997. In their other three appearances, the Mountaineers were outscored 99-26.
West Virginia lost 31-12 to FSU, when Rodriguez was a freshman backup in the secondary, and was beaten by Clemson 27-7 in 1989. The Mountaineers' halftime deficit in four Gator Bowls was 17-6, 10-7, 17-3 and 24-0, and they have scored only one time in the first quarter, a touchdown against Clemson.
"We really have never given ourselves a chance," Rodriguez said. "We're not bad playing from behind, but we seem to play better when we've gotten on top and gotten our confidence up. …