No Superheroes Needed

The eyes of the nation will be upon Morgantown this Thursday night, when ESPN rolls into town to broadcast West Virginia's Big East Conference opener against South Florida. There's little need to provide extra motivation as a result, so Bill Stewart is trying to ensure his players aren't too amped up to play well.

It would be easy to understand why the Mountaineers would be chomping at the bit for this chance to take on USF.

The Bulls have beaten WVU in three of the programs' last four meetings. An abundance of West Virginia's top players hail from the Sunshine State and hope to make an impression against a team from back home.

Add those two factors together, and it's no surprise that several members of Stewart's roster profess to be more than ready for Thursday night's game -- even in spite of the short turnaround from Saturday's 49-10 win over UNLV.

"The deal is this: you get those guys that know each other and played against each other, the bragging stuff comes in, the swagger comes in," Stewart said. "A little swagger isn't bad, but you've just got to play your game, do what you're supposed to do and be part of the structure of the offense, defense or special teams and do what you're supposed to do."

Indeed, if anything, the Mountaineers' third-year head coach is worried about making sure players don't try to do too much on the big stage.

That's a message he said he has repeated throughout the short week of preparations.

"I've told them, ‘Guys, you just need to play your game. You don't have to go out there and put a cape on and fly around the lights,'" Stewart said.

"We don't have to come off on sliding chains and stuff like Batman and Robin. That's a gig we don't need to go down. We're a team. That's for comic books. We need to go play Mountaineer football, be very fast, very physical and very fundamentally sound."

While the stakes are high for WVU players who hope to earn a bit of bragging rights back home, Thursday night's contest against the Bulls is also a chance for coaches on both sides of the ball to win an important battle in the larger war that is recruiting in the talent-rich state of Florida.

Indeed, the Mountaineers and South Florida are the "only game in town" and will have the eyes of much a football-crazed nation on them, given the ESPN spotlight. These Thursday night games have become important showcases for programs around the country to sell themselves to potential student-athletes.

"I think that's on every coach's mind," Stewart conceded. "We're going to have a lot of households watching. There's a lot of West Virginians in the state of Florida. And there's going to be a lot of recruits [watching], because they don't play until [the next] night. So it's a big game, a national TV game."


Stewart seemed to indicate the Mountaineers should be at close to full strength for Thursday night's contest. The head coach said Noel Devine has practiced well after being limited to only three carries on Saturday against UNLV to give the running back a chance to rest after dealing with a bone bruise in a toe he sustained against LSU.

As for left guard Josh Jenkins, who missed both the LSU and UNLV games after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee?

"He will play," Stewart said definitively. "I've have watched him closely the last two nights. Nothing flared up, and he is good to go with a clean bill of health. I don't know if he is 100 percent, but he is pretty well en route to that. We'll see how he does."

The same goes for cornerback Brandon Hogan, who watched from the sidelines in the second half against the Rebels after he slightly pulled a muscle in his upper arm.

"He is going to be okay," Stewart said. "He is tough."

The head coach also revealed wide receiver Stedman Bailey had been dealing with a bit of pain of his own, which limited him in the UNLV game on Saturday. But that also was a minor issue, and Stewart said he left the redshirt freshman on the bench just to give him an extra opportunity to recover.

"Stedman Bailey had taken a rib shot and he had some soreness," said WVU's head coach. "He could have played, but we were up 35-0, so I held him out."


Having Bailey and Devine at full strength will likely be of pivotal importance to Stewart's West Virginia squad, as the Mountaineers have struggled to put up points against USF in the programs' brief history as Big East foes.

Indeed, from the time Pat White became WVU's full-time starter at quarterback in the middle of the 2005 season through the Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma that came at the end of the 2007-08 campaign, the Mountaineers were held to 30 points or fewer only six times. The Bulls were the opponent on three of those occasions.

West Virginia has only managed to score even as many as 20 points once against South Florida -- and that came in the programs' first-ever meeting on the gridiron, a 28-13 win for then-No. 12 WVU in the regular season finale.

USF has held its opposition to 19, 13, 13 and 19 points in the four meetings since then. It's little surprise, then, that the Mountaineers are a paltry 1-3 in those games, the lone win coming in a 13-7 squeaker on a snowy Morgantown night in Dec. 2008 in what was White's final home game at West Virginia.

"Salty. Very, very salty," Stewart said when asked to describe the Bulls' defense.

"They're a reckless, sic 'em, get at 'em, wrecking crew. They play like we play on defense. This is probably going to be a good defensive game."

That South Florida defense has shown its versatility in games against WVU.

It put the clamps on two of former Mountaineer coach Rich Rodriguez's most successful spread option offenses in 2006 and 2007, earning 24-19 and 21-13 wins for USF.

The defense duplicated that success against the first two iterations of the multiple-threat offense Stewart installed after taking over as head coach, resulting in the aforementioned 13-7 WVU win in 2008 and last season's 30-19 victory for the Bulls.

"That tells me they've got good players," Stewart said. "They really do have good players. The guys in the arena make the plays, and I say that over and over."

"This is going to be a battle of intestinal fortitude. It's going to come down to a game of inches. It's going to come down to small plays jumping and turning into big plays. It's going to come down to, ‘Can I out-strain you? A football play lasts four and a half seconds. Can I outstrain you, my opponent, for those four and a half seconds? Can I beat you in a one-on-one situation?'"

"If I can get it done, and my buddy to the left of me gets it done, and my buddy to the right of me gets it done more than they whip us, we will win the football game. That's what it's going to come down to. It's going to be a real game of intestinal fortitude -- just old-fashioned blocking, tackling and guts. People are going to see a lot of talented people on that field on Thursday night."

Mountaineers Daily Top Stories