FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - To listen to Shannon Dawson for most of West Virginia's 2011 regular season, one would have thought he was coaching a wide receiver reclamation project and not a group that included two of the most productive players in college football.
The Mountaineers' receivers coach, brought on board by first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, was seldom effusive with praise. Whether he was truly discouraged at times or merely attempting to keep his players grounded, he was always quick to criticize rather than praise.
"Yeah,'' Dawson said with a smile, "Dana does that to me, too.''
The fact of the matter is, though, at least two of Dawson's pupils couldn't have played much better this season. And in order to beat Clemson in tonight's Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium, both Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin are probably going to have to have monster games again.
Think about it. In a bowl season that has produced scored like Baylor's 67-56 (Baylor over Washington in the Alamo Bowl), 45-38 (Oregon over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl) and 41-38 (Oklahoma State over Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl), what are the chances that West Virginia and Clemson stage a defensive struggle? The teams averaged a combined 68.5 points and gave up 52.5.
Even Holgorsen seems resigned to having to outscore the Tigers.
"Yeah, our biggest thing as a football team is to figure out how to score one more point,'' Holgorsen said Tuesday. "And if they make a bunch of plays offensively, which we anticipate they will, we defensively need to line up and try to do our best to stop them. But offensively we need to counter with that.''
"And we need to do a good job of taking care of the ball and getting the ball to Tavon and getting the ball to Stedman and getting the ball to guys that need to step up and replace guys that have made some plays for us this year. That's just the way the game of football works, and whatever you've got to do to stay in the game and make it competitive is what you need to do.''
All of which leads back to Dawson and his weekly critiques of his receivers. Had WVU's receiving corps been as average as he seemed to maintain, the Mountaineers would have nowhere near the No. 7 offense in the country.
They likely will need to be every bit that efficient tonight when the teams play the final BCS bowl game prior to next week's national title game. And now, finally, Dawson seems ready to admit that Austin and Bailey are pretty good.
"Yeah, I think you can tell pretty quick that they're special players,'' Dawson said. "You never know how a kid's attitude is going to be and I think that's the most important thing. A lot of times when you're dealing with kids that have been good their whole life, then they have a little bit of sense of entitlement to them. And that's one thing as coaches, you've got to either get it out of them or hope and pray that they don't have it.
"So that's one thing that I would say that I've been more surprised with more than their ability. I could tell they had ability on day one. But I was pleased with the fact that they're selfless. I was pleased with the fact that they continue to go out and work every day just like they're trying to prove themselves. And so that's the best part about those guys.''
Still, Dawson wasn't taking any chances. And that is probably why he was reluctant to heap much praise on either, despite their numbers.
"That's the type of coach I like playing for, though,'' said Austin. "Coaches who keep praising you, I think you'd like that, too, but at the same time you don't know how real they are. These coaches tell you when you're wrong. Even when you do something right during a game, they're going to pull you over and tell you what you did wrong. But I like that.''