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    Catching Up With The 'Cats

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    THE PLAN: The 'Cats practiced Saturday for their Jan. 1 date with Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. They treated it as a game-week Tuesday. On Tuesday, when they regroup next, they will work as if it was a game-week Wednesday, and then their Thursday practice will simulate a game-week Thursday. "So we'll have everything (the game plan) in by the time the guys go home (for their holiday break)," explained Pat Fitzgerald.

    LIVE AND LEARN: This is the fifth straight year Fitzgerald has guided the 'Cats into the postseason, a streak that began with their appearance in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. "I'm a little more comfortable in the routine," he said when asked the difference in him between then and now. "My first one, like a lot of things, the first time you do it, you look back and go, 'What the heck was I thinking there?' So we've definitely tweaked our plan as I look at what we did initially. It's probably a little bit jaded by what I experienced as a player. Barney (Gary Barnett) had us doing two-a-days. That stunk. That stunk."

    In Pasadena or here, we asked with an eye on the '96 Rose Bowl?

    "Here. I wasn't practicing. (He was sidelined by an injury.) I was on the steak-and-chicken tour. That was ridiculous. But my senior year, Tennessee (in the Citrus Bowl), we're watching Peyton (Manning) and the Vols in helmets, and we're going two-a-day practices. We almost had a mutiny. So we're going to have fun. Especially with playing on Jan. 1, that gives you, number one, a lot of time to develop the young guys. Then number two, from what we've learned, we hope we have a plan to peak on game day. Not do too much too soon, and really have fun in what we're doing."

    MORE OF THE PLAN: On Monday night, the 'Cats will frolic at a Dave and Busters. On Tuesday night, they will travel to the United Center and watch the Bulls take on the Celtics. On Wednesday night, their last time together before they disband for the holidays, they will bowl at Pinstripes. "We do a bowl week here, which is unique," explained Fitzgerald. "No one else in our conference, no one else in the country can be in Chicago during their bowl week at home, which is awesome for recruiting and also for the guys. Then (we have) the bowl week experience down there (in Jacksonville)."

    THE TRICK: A not-uncertain maturity is needed to handle this schedule, which clearly slaloms from diligent labor to fun back to diligent labor again, and that is one trait that Fitzgerald has often lauded when it comes to these 'Cats. Their maturity, as well as their chemistry and senior leadership. So, with that in mind, we wondered if he had a greater comfort level with this group than he has had with those in the past. "I have no issues in the way we've handled it in the past," he avowed. "I really think we've prepared well. I have zero issues with the way the guys have gone about their business in the past.

    "We've got to coach the guys better to finish the job. But there's no negative from me looking in the rear view mirror with the guys. We talk to them all the time about, there's a time to work and a time to party and you've got to be mature enough to handle both of those. What I mean by that is the experiences of the bowl, of going to a Bulls game, you should enjoy those. Bowl games are a reward for a successful season. Nine wins is a good season. Ten wins is great. Winning a bowl game is an exclamation point on this year."

    "We know what the bowl games are going to bring," senior guard Brian Mulroe will soon say when asked how a player balances work and play. "We know, in the mornings, we're working, then we're working in the afternoons, and then we get to do some fun activities at night. Everybody's pretty good about it. We come to work, and then we go out and relax at night. But on that bus ride home from where we're at, we're preparing for tomorrow."

    "It's not that hard," senior defensive end Quentin Williams will later echo. "Fitz, he wants it to be fun and we take advantage of that. But we don't push it too hard. We have a good group of guys who know when to have fun and when to be serious. Even out here (on the practice field), a lot of times we're having fun, but we're serious at the same time. You've got to get yourself going a little bit, keep yourself positive. That helps a lot out here, as well as during the bowl season. You've got to enjoy it or else it's going to be a grind."

    QUICKLY NOTED: When asked about starting corner Nick VanHoose, who missed three games with injury before returning against Illinois in the regular-season finale, Fitzgerald said: "He's been through a freshman campaign. Nick has played really well and had some great success early and then, like a lot of competitors, you get injured. Now how are you going to deal with that? I think he went through the initial wave, he's very disappointed. Then through the initial stages of rehab, he had a spike. If you remember back, we thought he was really close. But he just plateaued. Now he's full speed, ready to go. We expect him to be 100 percent, ready to play in the game. That's encouraging." ... When asked about Venric Mark being named first team All American as a punt returner, Fitzgerald threw him an appropriate valentine. But then he pointedly noted, "You've got to give a lot of credit, I said this to the team, on those long punt returns, not a lot of guys touched his flag. Those 10 guys up front blocking for him did a terrific job. But V's the one who went out and made the plays, and I'm very proud of him. It would be fun if he goes out and plays that way on Jan. 1, which he should."

    AND FINALLY, (since no bowl column is complete without it), fifth-year senior Williams, when asked the importance of winning this bowl game after losing four straight: "You really try not to think about the last four years, or the last -- what is it -- 65 years? (The 'Cats last bowl win was in 1949.) We haven't talked about it yet. Fitz might bring it up. But I've never been a guy in the past. I don't live in it. You've just to focus on this game. It's just like any other game, just one game in the 13 we've had this year. You try to take it one step at a time, although it's a much different atmosphere, a much different circumstance. You had a month and a half off. It's different. It's hard to stay focused. But I think we're doing a good job of that."

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