With a bit of a funky schedule (coming off a Friday game, followed by a 13 day layoff before Louisville) Rodriguez gave his players the weekend off before picking up practice again on Monday afternoon.
"It's not a full off week because we play on a Thursday, but we gave the guys Saturday and Sunday off except for treatment. Now we'll get back to work today and practice this week, then start getting ready for Louisville," he explained. "We want to peak next Thursday night."
In case you've been in a cave for the last 53 weeks, the Mountaineers defeated Louisville last October in one of the great comebacks in school history. Trailing by 17 points in the second half, a pair of unheralded freshmen named Pat White and Steve Slaton led the blue and gold to a 46-44 triple-overtime victory against a Louisville team that had been coronated as the new king of the Big East.
That game propelled the Mountaineers to their third straight Big East title, and ultimately a Sugar Bowl victory over the Georgia Bulldogs. The Cardinals finished the 2005 season strong, but not strong enough to catch Rodriguez and company. The head coach was asked if he felt the Cardinals were using last season's fourth quarter collapse as a motivational tool heading into next week.
"I'm sure they may have used it in their offseason program and talked about it at length," he said. "All of that stuff helps a little bit in preparation, but I'd like to think that our guys are going to work as hard as they can anyways. We've never been one to use one game as a motivational tool. We've just tried to get better everyday."
One player who shined during that contest was Slaton. The sophomore running back had a Big East record six touchdowns to lead West Virginia to victory. Just a year later, Slaton has entrenched himself in the middle of the race for both the Heisman Trophy and the Doak Walker Award. While Rodriguez is proud of his young back, he hasn't seen a change in Slaton's attitude from then until now.
"I think he's handled it very well, him and Pat White and Dan Mozes (who are also receiving national recognition.) We talked about it in the Spring and told them it was a good thing, just don't let it change who you are or how they work. Even though they're considered stars on a national scale, it hasn't changed how they work around here. I think they're pretty well grounded anyways and no how to handle it.
"I think (the coaching staff) is always pretty demanding, and I think they understand that," Rodriguez continued. "There hasn't been anything we've done with them in practice to make them go above and beyond what we expect. Some of those guys like the Steve Slatons, Pat Whites, and the Owen Schmitts are among the hardest workers on the team anyways."
Next Thursday's game will also serve as a homecoming for one Mountaineer senior. The lone Kentucky native on West Virginia's roster is starting right guard Jeremy Sheffey, a native of Catlettsburg in Boyd County.
During his weekly spot on the Big East coaches conference call, Rodriguez thought back to the process of recruiting Sheffey to Morgantown.
"He was kind of unique," Rodriguez recalled of Sheffey, who was originally slated to be a defensive end at West Virginia, but moved to the offensive side of the ball his freshman season. "I don't think a lot of people were recruiting him, and we kind of had a need at the time. I remember he was taking ballet, which I think maybe kind of worried us until he told us he was taking it to meet girls. He's been perfect for what we do. It's been a perfect match of the right personality, and he's been a joy to coach."
Finally, Rodriguez and his Louisville counterpart Bobby Petrino both have a reputation throughout college football as being two of the game's brightest offensive minds. The only difference in their perception is that Rodriguez prefers to run the ball on just about every play, while Petrino prefers to throw the pigskin all over the lot. Rodriguez says that those perceptions aren't exactly true, and offered a more specific observation regarding the respective strengths of each team.
"I like to throw the ball, and I know Bobby likes to run the ball," he said. "I think (Rodriguez and Petrino) fit (their offensive systems) to the talent of our quarterbacks and what we do well. I'd like to think that we play to the strength of our players, and I know that Coach Petrino has talked about doing that from time to time as well."
The media and fans have been talking about this game for months. The coaches and players didn't start talking about the game publically until this weekend. With just ten days to go before the showdown, you can bet that everybody will be talking about this game right up until kickoff.