Rodriguez Notebook- USF

West Virginia could be two games away from making their second straight trip to the BCS. Before the Mountaineers can book their reservations for Pasadena, Miami, or New Orleans, they have to worry about beating South Florida on Saturday.

The Bulls come to Morgantown after Saturday's loss against Louisville. Leading the way for Jim Leavitt's squad is redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe, who is likely the leading candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year. West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez has been impressed by the talented youngster thus far.

"He's been outstanding, there's no question," Rodriguez said during the weekly Big East coaches conference call. "He's been the centerpiece of their entire offense with running, throwing, and making great decisions. He's playing like a fifth year senior not a redshirt freshman. He's been playing really well."

While Grothe leads the USF offense, it's the defense that will likely have the most pressure on Saturday. The Bulls were able to contain Steve Slaton last December in Tampa, but fell victim to the talented Patrick White. The slow down West Virginia's high-powered offense this year, Leavitt and company will have to rely on solid play from the USF linebackers. According to Rodriguez, the USF 'backers are talented both in stopping the run and the pass.

"The strength of their defense is their speed," explained the Mountaineer mentor. "Their linebackers are equally good in the running and passing game. Sometimes you'l lsee one good at the other, but that's not the case with those three guys."

As for his own defense, Rodriguez is certainly hoping for more consistent play out of the unit that had more holes than swiss cheese in the first half against Pitt, but looked like the '85 Bears in the second half.

"The guys out there in the first half I didn't know who they were," he said of the unit which gave up 27 points in the first 30 minutes of play. "A lot of things in the second half were the same calls of the first half. For whatever reason, our guys were playing a little more passion and had more of a balance in their step.

"It's frustrating because we know they can (play well)," he continued. "I don't think (lack of) experience is an excuse anymore because we're so far into the season. Hopefully they saw what they can do."

Nevertheless, the Mountaineer coaches won't know exactly how the defense will respond until the ball is kicked on Saturday afternoon.

"It's not always the same guys that are making mistakes, so you can't just say replace that guy or play this guy instead of that guy," he said. "That's what makes it tough, but that's coaching. I do believe that we have a bunch of guys that are very conscientious and understand how we want to play football here."

Hopefully for the Mountaineers, the defense will put together a solid all-around game like they did earlier in the season against Connecticut, and even for the first three quarters against Cincinnati.

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Speaking of the Bearcats, many folks were surprised when Mark Dantonio's team rolled previously undefeated Rutgers at Nippert Stadium on Saturday night. Picked to finish seventh in the conference, currently sit in a tie for fourth place with South Florida. The Bearcats are 6-5 on the season, and would lock up a bowl berth with a win on Saturday over Connecticut.

Despite their spot near the bottom of the preseason poll, Rodriguez felt all along that the Bearcats would be better than advertised.

"We thought coming into the season that Cincinnati was going to be a little better than people perceived because they played so many young guys last year," he said. "They may not have won a lot of games, but you could feel how they competed and how hard they played. They competed and Mark's done an outstanding job down there."

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When West Virginia and Louisville combine for 78 points during a national TV game, the pundits dismissed the league by saying that nobody in the Big East plays defense. When Ohio State and Michigan combine for 81 points, it's hailed as an instant classic. Coincidence? Not likely.

"Isn't that funny?" Rodriguez asked rhetorically. "I guess the perception or the mentality of the national media is that we're still fighting for things in the Big East. I think that's unfortunate. I didn't think about it until you just said that, but our high scoring games are because there's no defense, not because there's great offensive skill."

No disrespect to the Buckeyes or Wolverines, mind you.

"You can't question the tradition at Ohio State and Michigan," acknowledged the Grant Town native. "Those are programs that have competed for and won national championships. We're still building those traditions in our league.

Despite the fact that some in the national press are still finding things to whine about with regards to the conference, the Big East continues to thrive. If the season were to end right now, Louisville would get the league's automatic berth to the BCS. There's a good chance that West Virginia would end up being selected for an at-large berth.

"There's a chance, a good chance, that there could be two Big East teams in BCS bowls," Rodriguez said. "I think that would speak volumes about the league. A few years ago, people were saying that we weren't deserving for one spot, and now we might get two? That's great for the conference."

Not bad for a league that doesn't play any defense.

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