But the defenses have also played well, especially inside the red zone and when the offenses, in the last two games for both teams, have not started as quickly as they had in the first five. The Cardinals (7-0, 2-0 Big East) rank first in the Big East in red zone defense, allowing a scoring clip of 50 percent (nine of 18, with five TDs). West Virginia is third, at 68.8 percent (11 of 16 with five TDs), and has tallied three interceptions and a par of stops on downs.
"Lot of pressure," Rodriguez said when asked about the U of L defensive stylings. "They have been a pretty good pressure team. They blitz a lot. Certain teams, like against Miami, it was pressure all the time, on every snap. They will challenge you on man-to-man coverage. They'll do press man coverage, zone blitzes. They move the front a bunch, which is smart. They have very athletic guys. (Amobi) Okoye is one of the best linemen in the country, an All-American candidate. They have guys that run around and make plays. That is overlooked a lot. It has been really dominating against some really good teams like Miami."
Too often, however, a defense's tendencies become mute against West Virginia (7-0, 2-0), whose no-huddle spread offense causes foes to change their game plans. It might take several series to see how opponents will play the zone read, or many other ideals within the spread. One aspect, however, often does not change.
"If their personality is to blitz a lot, they will still stay with that when they play us," Rodriguez said. "Otherwise, we get a lot of different things. They might not blitz quite as much as they do against other teams because of the threat of the quarterback to run. When your quarterback can run, that's the X-factor. You are less likely to do as much. I'd be less likely to blitz a fast quarterback with the worry that if you miss him, you might be in trouble. A guy back there not as mobile, you go after him more."
Offensively, head coach Bobby Petrino's assumed pass-happy attack has continued to run despite the loss of All-Big East tailback Michael Bush in the season-opening win over Kentucky, when the senior broke his right leg. Bush ran for 159 yards in U of L's 46-44 thriple-overtime loss at WVU last season. His 24 points scored tied the record for the most by any individual West Virginia opponent. All four touchdowns came via the rush, which was also a record for Mountaineer foes. So it might seem that Louisville would be hurting with the senior and team captain out for the season.
Backup-turned-co-starters George Stripling and Kolby Smith, however, have combined to average more than 100 yards per game and 806 yards overall. The duo's speed is also better than that of Bush, a bruising 6-3, 247-pounder. Yet the offense might lack the explosiveness it once had. No player has bettered Bush's season-long run of 48 yards, that coming in that initial game of the season when he scored three of Louisville's first four touchdowns.
"They aren't different from a scheme standpoint," Rodriguez said. "They are doing the same things. Bush is a talented guy who did everything well. But all their backs are capable and have shown that. I know coach Petrino has said they have not gotten off to as fast of a start as they would like. And with fewer possessions, you have to maximize chances. A lot of teams felt if they could hold them early, stay in the game and just have a chance at the end, they could win. That is how some teams have approached us.
"Some of it was the other team making plays, but a lot of it was Louisville, like with us. A guy drops a pass or you have a holding penalty. That can kill a drive. Your own undoing stops a drive. The NFL guys make mistakes, and they work with them all day. We have been lucky in that we have been pretty good with our possessions. Their own mistakes have stopped Louisville more than the other teams."
Still, with future NFL quarterback Brian Brohm's (83 of 136, 1,269 yards, 4 TD) intelligence and game savvy and wideout Mario Urrutia (27 rec., 520 yards, 4 TDs) causing huge mismatch problems with his speed, strength and 6-6 frame, the Cardinal offense is lethal. Receiver Harry Douglas (35 rec., 520 yards, one TD) and tight end Gary Barnidge are also very difficult to cover. Combine that with a solid offensive line and the Nov. 2 game easily appears the most difficult thus far.
"It's the best offensive team we have played, no question," Rodriguez said. "Their skill guys are future NFL guys. The quarterbacks understand what they want to do. Their receivers have big-play potential. And what is often overlooked is how good they are up front. It all starts offensively there. Their line is outstanding. And Brohm is a guy who will be playing for a long time on Sundays. It is the biggest challenge we have had this year offensively and defensively."
So West Virginia will prepare for this game like any other. Louisville has chosen to allow only a select few players be available for interviews. They have asked their crowd to wear all black. The team will wear black jerseys. And the media release calls this, in its top paragraph, "one of the most anticipated games of the 2006 college football season." While true, build-ups like this can backfire.
"As I told the players, the more you win, the more is at stake," Rodriguez said. "That is always the case. This raises the stakes even higher. We have had so much expectation and hype that we have had to deal with this for eight months, so another week or 10 days of it is not that big of a deal. It was harder dealing with it up until the first game. Once we started playing, it has been kind of routine for our guys. Nobody around here senses this is all of the sudden the Super Bowl of Super Bowls. One game will not define a program. If you are playing for a national championship, that's a defining moment. If you are playing in the Sugar Bowl against the SEC champs, that's a defining moment."
But could this, a meeting of two 7-0 teams that look to be superior on paper to every other foe they will meet, not be the defining regular season moment for both Louisville and West Virginia, the Big East's first meeting of two top 10 teams since Nov. 1, 2003, when Miami played at Virginia Tech.
"It is made bigger by the fact that we both got here undefeated," Rodriguez said. "There were a lot of people talking about this game in August. I said back then if we get there 7-0 we will all be happy. They will tell you the same thing. They have done a good job handling it, and our guys have, too. Nobody fell apart and it makes the game bigger, or as big as it can be. Is this a big game? Yes, let's not be foolish. You have two teams who are undefeated so it is a big, big game. I just hope we play well. You hope your guys give their best effort, knowing they will make some mistakes, and make sure Louisville gets our A game. We do that and we will see what happens.
"The guys have played in some pretty big games. Steve Slaton and Pat White, despite just being sophomores, have played in big games. Dan Mozes has been in a bunch. Some of the redshirt freshmen, this is their first one. Once you get the first couple of plays out of the way, it's just football. It is 11-on-11. And the ‘Everybody dressed in black' and all that excitement is tuned out. The most important thing when you are on the road in a tough environment is to try to make a few plays so their crowd can't get into it. You let them make all the good plays and their crowd becomes tougher and tougher on you."
On the injury front, defensive lineman Pat Leibig (knee) will be held out another five days before he will practice. His game status is known. Lineman Johnny Dingle (knee) is taking limited reps and will not fully practice until the end of the week. Safety Ridwan Malik (hip) could be limited early this week, but is expected to be cleared for full drills by Thursday. West Virginia is otherwise healthy.
Notes: Rodriguez said he would still like to see better blocking from his wideouts: "They have played pretty hard. Coach (Butch) Jones had to go to a funeral (Monday), so I got to meet with the receivers. I got a nice hour-and-a-half session with them. They can all play better and they know that. But they have done a nice job. They are overlooked in the run game with our success and in passing. We have guys that can catch the ball. You have seen that. They can run routes. But we want to be the team that has the best blocking receivers in the country. We have blocked better (than WVU did last game). Had we blocked better, we could have had 150-200 more rushing yards. That's a lot. So we challenged them a little bit. It will be a bigger challenge this week with Louisville's athleticism on defense."
Rodriguez also said he has rewatched last year's Louisville game a few times, especially when his wife, Rita, would review the tape. "She watched it a bunch. Maybe more the fourth quarter and the overtimes. It was an exciting time, an improbable situation to come from that far behind. It was a huge win. I don't know that it was the defining moment of our season, but it did jumpstart us to finish strong like we did."