"I think there was a lot of hype before the season with people projecting that we'd both come into this game undefeated," explained Rodriguez on Monday morning. "That's pretty hard to do, but both programs have done their part by winning all of their games so far."
The Louisville game is the latest in several mid-week contests for West Virginia during Rodriguez's five and a half year tenure at his alma mater. Some of the program's biggest wins (notably 2002 and 2003 against Virginia Tech) have come under the weeknight lights.
"I think that the beauty of some of the mid-week games, particularly Thursday games, is that everyone, whether they're a recruite or a college football fan, has a chance to watch," said Rodriguez. "We've already played one Thursday (a 45-24 win over Maryland on September14), and a Friday (a 37-11 win at Connecticut less than a fortnight ago), and we have another Thursday down the road coming up (November 16 at Pitt). Like I've said before, it's like we have our own reality show. I just hope they don't vote me off the island."
No one is likely to be voting Rodriguez off of the gold and blue island anytime soon, particularly given the success and national prominence that he has restored to the program. A win over Louisville on Thursday night would take the Mountaineers one step closer to the ultimate goal of any Division I program: a national championship.
The game has been billed as a rematch from one of last season's most exciting college football contests. The Mountaineers, trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter, outlasted Louisville by a final of 46-44 in triple overtime. The high-scoring potential of both offenses has led fans from both schools expecting a shootout on Thursday night. Rodriguez doesn't necessarily agree with that prediction, especially after watching the film from last year's game.
"I think the high score last year was misleading because of the overtimes," said the Grant Town, W.Va. native. "If it's a high scoring game, I don't think that bodes well for us. They're built more for throwing the football with (Louisville junior quarterback Brian) Brohm and their skill guys at wide receiver than we are at this point. If we're giving up a lot of points and letting them go up and down the field, it's going to be tough, particularly in that environment. We've got to get some stops defensively and get their offense off the field."
Brohm, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender prior to a thumb injury that forced him out of action for a few weeks, is the best quarterback West Virginia has seen or will see all year. The Louisville native has Rodriguez seeing red as he studies film of the junior signal caller.
"He's a talented guy," Rodriguez said of the likely first round NFL pick. "He makes so many great decisions and he can make all the throws. He reads the defense so well, and he can find the holes in the defense. If you're not in the right spot, or don't break on the ball correctly, he'll tear you up."
Brohm will provide the Mountaineer defense with a stiff test. As talented as he is, he'll complete his fair share of passes. The key for West Virginia's defense is to maintain a high level of confidence even if Brohm has success early in the game. For the defense to remain confidence, leadership will play a big role.
"(Defensive leadership) is one thing that we've been searching for a little bit," admitted Rodriguez, himself a former Mountaineer defensive back. "I think that Jay Henry has provided some leadership, as has Eric Wicks even though he's not really a senior. I've been really pleased with Boo McLee too. Boo is not usually a real vocal guy, but he's become a little bit more vocal and provided some leadership. I think that's a good thing. I feel that our guys are starting to get a little more confidence defensively, and they have some big challenges ahead."
The biggest challenge is undoubtedly the one at hand this week. Besides Brohm, the Cardinals boast a pair of speedy receivers (Marrio Urrutia and Harry Douglas), a pass-catching tight end in Gary Barnidge, a talented offensive line and a solid one-two punch at running back with Kolby Smith and George Stripling. The latter duo is filling in for Michael Bush, who is out for the season after breaking his leg in the season-opening victory over rival Kentucky. The balance of Bobby Petrino's offense has Coach Rod's attention as well.
"They're very balanced," Rodriguez said. "I think they run the football well, and they obviously throw it well. There's not something that we can say ‘OK, if we take that away we'll be fine.' Their balance gives us some issues, and then obviously their skill level is very high. I think something that's been overlooked a lot is their offensive line."
For you Vegas-types, the Cardinals are the early favorite. The sixth-year Mountaineer mentor doesn't see that as a slap in the face. In fact, he understands quite well why the home team is favored.
"They're playing at their place, and they're probably healthier now than they've been in several weeks, even without Bush. I don't think a lot of that, as far as who's favored, matters to our players. I think our guys may relish being the underdog, because we've always played well as a so-called underdog. Whether you're the underdog or the favorite, going to Louisville and playing in that environment is a big challenge. We know that we have to play our best game to win."
Make no mistake: a loss on Thursday night would not end the season by any stretch of the imagination. A win, though, would be another big step for Rodriguez's program.
Will there be a happy ending to the latest episode of Mountaineer Mid-Week Madness? We'll know soon enough.