Head coach Rich Rodriguez, rumored to be a candidate in the Alabama job and having once noted that "there was still much on the table" and that "a lot of teams would like to be in our position right now" has changed his mindset, another in a series of sly but sometimes not-so-subtle psychological ploys. Suddenly, it's not playing for the Big East or BCS, it's this…
"You play as hard this game as any other. I don't care what is at stake," he said. "You play hard when you step on the field. If our guys played any harder this game, then they were not playing hard enough in the first place. I don't see what the difference is between now and the first game. I think sometimes it is overrated what is out there."
Not so for Rutgers. It enters not as the favorite, but as the team that can make history. It can capture its first ever Big East championship and BCS berth with a win. It has won 10 games for just the second time in 137 years of football and is in contention for a conference championship the latest in the year in history. It will certainly return to the postseason for the second consecutive season, a school first, and will post just its third winning season in league play. Which begs the question: What's the motivation for West Virginia besides just winning? It is out of the Big East race barring a miracle upset of Louisville by Connecticut – in Papa John's Stadium – it won't go to the BCS, and it is almost assuredly locked into the Gator or Sun bowls, win or lose. There is locking down that second-place league cash, but that means little to the players. The lone thing left is pride, which either makes West Virginia very dangerous, or a team that could pack it in after a loss to South Florida last week.
"This is a perfect time and situation to see who is going to be the best," tailback Steve Slaton said. "The last game is important in and of itself to finish strong. We let up last week. Without pain there is no joy. We needed to see our mistakes. Now we go from there."
Still, fans and players could see even a 10-2 finish as a slight disappointment because of the way it transpired. Rodriguez had questioned whether West Virginia had reached a point where, if it did not go to the BCS, it was a major let down. That wasn't the issue as much as the fact that the Mountaineers have reached a point where, if they lose to a 21-point underdog on their home field in a game with league title and BCS chances, then it is a problem. Compound that sting with the injuries of Slaton, quarterback Patrick White and fullback Owen Schmitt, and the nation's No. 2 rushing offense looks stoppable for the second straight week.
"You can't think of getting killed. You have to go and do the killing," White said. "We will go out and play our type of football and get back on track. Anytime I step on the field I feel that we are better than what we are facing. You have to be that way. If you are not you are not going to win and be successful." Added Slaton: "I feel we play both the role of favorite and spoiler. We are a better team and we play like the underdogs. I think that is why we play so well. I think against any team, being biased, that we are the better team."
The confidence appears there for an offense rated the nation's third-best in scoring and in total output per game and one that will face its toughest challenge yet against a Scarlett Knight squad that rates in the top 25 in nine different NCAA categories, including total defense (3) and scoring defense (5/12.3 ppg). Overconfidence should not be a problem, and neither should a second game of blasé' play calling if Rutgers stuffs the run, as it has yet this year.
"This is the last game of the season and of my career here," center Dan Mozes said. "This will be part of our legacy. We are playing for the seniors this week. We have seen seniors lose their last two games and a bowl game here, and we don't want to be a part of that. People will look in the stat book for that when they look for the winningest senior class. There is still a lot on the table: the seniors' reputations, a bowl game, a 10-win season. The Big East and national championship and BCS bowl is out the window. But now you are playing for your pride."
So the team will gather before the final game as it always has, the seniors giving a last speech to teammates before the penultimate game of their careers. It will try to find motivation in the emotion that swells during the talks, that reduces large, physically tough men to tears, and that says more about why people play college football than the wins and losses and the championships, either gained or lost. It's hard to tell what that is worth after a few snaps. It's not hard to decipher what it means in a week that has had its share of distraction.
"I could care less (about being a spoiler) as long as everyone on the team knows how much everyone cares on this team," linebacker Jay Henry said. "It doesn't change in my mind. I want to go out there and win the game, just like I did last week and in every game I play. We knew there were BCS hopes on the line before, but you don't think about that. You think about going out and beating the team in front of you. Anytime you come into Morgantown it is a big game."
Especially for at least one team this week.