Picking Up the Pieces

Two weeks ago, Saturday's game between West Virginia and Rutgers was to be for the Big East championship. For the Scarlet Knights, it still is. For West Virginia, it is not.

Flash back a fortnight and you'll find that the Mountaineers were 8-1, with games remaining against Pitt, South Florida, and Rutgers. The thinking was that if the Mountaineers could get past Pitt, the Bulls would be a win any way you slice it. Then, they would square off with Greg Schiano's undefeated Scarlet Knights.

The Mountaineers beat Pitt, but two days later the Scarlet Knights ran into a buzzsaw against the upstart Cincinnati Bearcats. Then, this past Saturday, the bottom fell out for West Virginia when the Mountaineers inexplicably came out on the wrong end of a 24-19 decision to visiting USF.

The possibility still exists that the Blue and Gold can win a share of the Big East title, but for that to happen they'll need more help than Michael Richards's booking agent. First, they'd have to beat Rutgers which is a tall order in and of itself. Next, Louisville would have to pull a choke job of monumental proportions and lose to a UConn team with nothing to play for. Then, the Mountaineers would have to hope they were ranked the highest in the BCS final standings as there would be a three-way tie for first place in the conference with WVU, RU, and UL all having two conferences losses.

Translation: fuhhgeddaboutit.

"We were obviously disappointed in the outcome of the USF game," said Mountaineer head coach Rich Rodriguez during Monday's Big East coaches conference call. "I thought we had a really good week of practice, were focused, and were ready for the game. We just didn't execute well on either offense or defense. It was the poorest we had played all year on offense, and on defense we gave up a few plays that hurt us big time. You've got to give USF credit because they made plays when they had to. It was a tough defeat, but at the same time, we've got to get refocused."

Sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves is the last thing West Virginia can afford to do this week. Rutgers will enter Saturday's game with everything they've ever wanted to acheive sitting right there for them. Win, and the school will go to its first ever BCS bowl. The Knights will be lacking no motivation, thus West Virginia best be ready to play.

"We have a tough team coming in that's been playing really well," Rodriguez said of the Scarlet Knights. "They have one of the best defenses in the country, and one of the best offensive players in the country too. There's a lot at stake for them, and we feel there's still a lot at stake for us because our senior class has a chance to become the all-time winningest class in the history of the school."

The fact that this game has BCS implications is a far cry from what was at stake when the schools met back in 2001, which was the first year for both Rodriguez and Schiano at their respective programs. The Mountaineers won that game 80-7, but it was the only Big East win for Rodriguez during that inaugural campaign.

"That was so long ago. Everything was completely different," recalled Rodriguez. "What I remember about that game was every single bounce went our way. It wasn't a situation where we were trying to score late or anything. The ball would bounce straight up in the air and our guy would be right there to get it. We've had success with them since that time, but they've been very tough games. It's been a very competitive series over the past several years."

While on paper the Mountaineers may be a perfect 5-0 against Rutgers during Rodriguez's reign, there is no doubt that the Knights of the mighty Raritan have improved by leaps and bounds under Schiano. As has been pointed out by many scribes and talking heads, these are not the Knights of old (though the Cincinnati game proved that old habits do indeed die hard.)

Rutgers boasts two of the nation's best all-around running backs in sophomore Ray Rice, a Maxwell Award finalist, and senior Brian Leonard, who has been the poster boy for the turnaround at RU.

"They're great runners," said Rodriguez. "Brian Leonard we've seen for way too long it seems like. They've got a lot of athletic ability. The thing that's been very impressive is that they rarely lose yards.

"(Rice)is a little bit like Avon Cobourne (West Virginia's all-time leading rusher who played from 1999-2002). He's kind of a cross between Avon and Quincy Wilson ('99-03). He's got that power like Quincy had, but he has that little quickness that Avon had. There's no question that he's one of the best backs in the country."

The challenge for West Virginia is simple. Win, and the Mountaineers finish with back-to-back 10 win regular seasons. Lose, and watch a team celebrate the biggest win in their program's history on your home field for the second straight week.

"I don't know if we want anybody celebrating on our field," Rodriguez said. "I think there's a lot of pride, obviously in our guys and in our program. It's hurtful anytime you lose, and it's hurtful anytime you lose at home. We have a great atmosphere, and we take a lot of pride in our success at home. We don't want anybody celebrating here whether it's Rutgers or South Florida or anybody that we play."


  • West Virginia quarterback Patrick White did not practice on Monday, still hobbled by an ankle injury and a case of turf toe.

    "Right now he's going to be limited in practice with the ankle," Rodriguez said. "The toe's a little bit better, but the ankle is still bothering him. It's a day-to-day thing with him, and given how much we run our quarterback we need to be careful. The good thing about the game on Saturday is that it's a night game, so he'll have a few extra hours to heel up."

  • The Rich Rod to (FILL IN THE BLANK) rumors are again heating up on message boards, and in the national media. The latest speculation involves Alabama, who fired fourth-year head coach Mike Shula on Sunday night just a week after he lost to Auburn for the fourth time in his tenure.

    Rodriguez's name was linked to the job, just as it has with virtually every other job that has opened over the past few years. The Grant Town native says he hasn't heard from anyone about any job other than West Virginia.

    "I haven't been contacted by anybody," he said Monday. "I've said before that I'm very happy at West Virginia, and that my whole focus right now is to try to win this last ball game and get ready for our bowl game."

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