Taking the Heat

WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez seems to be facing something of an uphill task in convincing his team of the importance of next week's game at Pittsburgh, what with grumbling fans and sniping media taking turns at running his team down.

True to his bulldog nature, however, the ever-aggressive Mountaineer coach is answering questions head-on while preparing his team for the Thanksgiving night Backyard Brawl.

"The Pitt game is tremendously more important because we lost," Rodriguez observed. "We would have had everything locked up if we had beaten Boston College. I will be very disappointed if our energy level and focus isn't high. There's still a lot at stake."

Some of those items still in play include a guarantee of a co-Big East championship, a New Year's Day bowl, and a still faint hope of a BCS bid and an outright BCS championship. Not to mention bragging rights for the third straight year over the Panthers, who are riding a late-season surge of their own.

"Pitt was always it as far as the biggest rivalry," Rodriguez said. "We have some others, but Pitt has always been there back to when I was playing. We're close to each other, we recruit the same areas, and there's a lot of intensity between our fans that's at a high pitch every time we play, and it carries over to our players."

Looking ahead to the game, Rodriguez noted that he would have much rather faced Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko early in the season, when the Pennsylvania native was struggling. Those worries appear to be behind the Panthers now, as Palko has become the focal point of the offense.

"When you play a new starter, you want to play him at the beginning of the year. Everyone in the country was recruiting him, even us. He is carrying the offense. You can tell he is a coach's son. Their offense hasn't changed a whole lot in the transition from Rod Rutherford, and they've opened up a lot of plays and formations for him."


WVU's practice routine will be slightly modified due to the Thursday night game and planned weekend recruiting activities. Tuesday will be like a Monday practice, where film is watched and mistakes corrected. Full contact work will be held on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, with Friday being an off day for recruiting. Work will then begin tapering off next week leading up to the Thursday night contest.

"It will be a long special teams meeting," Rodriguez noted grimly of the afternoon film session.

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Rodriguez observed that while the special teams schemes can't be totally scrapped at this point in the season, changes could be made.

"We may not totally revamp our schemes, but we can tweak them here and there. If we [have a situation] where we simply can't get there because of a lack of athleticism, then we have to change some things to help that out. You can do that a little bit.

"But we can't help the kicks – we have to kick it better. You can't kick a kickoff with less than 4 seconds of hang time and expect your guys to cover it. We have done that better in practice, but that hasn't carried over for games.

"The problems we had weren't just one guy. If it were, we'd have fired him. We'd have one guy going to the wrong lane one time, and another guy the next. We need faster guys [on the coverage team]. If you're too slow you aren't going to get them, but if you're fast enough, even if you can't tackle very well, you will at least get there, and maybe you can hang on or at least get run over slowly."

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Rodriguez didn't take kindly to the suggestion that his team lacked consistency.

I think the expectations are why people would say that," Rodriguez said. "Look at the numbers. They are better than last year, but no one was saying that last year. I just think the expectations were higher, and we were expected to dominate. I think we've all felt that way. Were they unrealistic? In a way. It sounds like coach speak, but when you lose guys like Grant Wiley, Lance Frazier, Brian King and Quincy Wilson, you never know how the chemistry is going to be affected. But to claim it as a total disaster is a little off base, in my opinion."

* * *

The rugby punt, shelved for this season, could make a reappearance.

"Part of reason we got away from rugby punt was the way people were rushing us – they were putting rushers out wide, which prevents you from rolling out. But part of it has to go on the coaches too, because we got away from it some."

* * *

Rodriguez singled out a play from the B.C. game that might have looked great on the surface, but revealed a problem to him. This was the snap on which Adam Jones came all the way across the field to track down Eagle quarterback Paul Peterson on a scramble.

"It was a great play for him, but disappointing for me. Where are the other ten guys? Not that they weren't hustling, but they just couldn't get there. Coach Casteel looked at me and shrugged, and I said ‘I feel your pain.' We had several other chances for tackles for losses, and we didn't make them."

* * *

In the heat of battle, Rodriguez would like to avoid on-field interviews, but realizes they are a necessary evil.

"I prefer not to do on-field interviews. I appreciate the coverage, but it's such an emotional game, it's tough to collect yourself and say something intelligent that will enlighten the whole world. I wanted to run right by it at halftime, but I have a lot of respect for Jerry Punch (the ABC reporter doing the sideline work), so I didn't."

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