The Bulls (3-0) and head coach Jim Leavitt started thinking about WVU in the fourth quarter against the Tar Heels, anticipating the boisterous crowd and a national television audience that could enable USF, in the top 25 for the first time in the program's 11 seasons, to showcase its rising program against the preseason Big East favorites.
"West Virginia we know is outstanding," Leavitt said. "Everybody knows that. I don't have to say much there. It's a real challenge."
West Virginia, meanwhile, is 4-0 for the third consecutive season and was able to pull its starters for the fourth quarter in its 48-7 win over East Carolina, an aspect that should help it prepare for a short week plus travel.
"I am happy with where we are at, but we have a major challenge going into a hostile environment against a great team this weekend," WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "After watching film (of East Carolina) I think we can execute better. We have lots of things to work on, and we are really going to be battling in all three phases. For us, we have to execute well because we know what kind of environment it will be. It should be very exciting Friday night."
South Florida is expecting its first sell-out of Raymond James Stadium. The 65,700-seat structure was rumored to be so loud with 37,693 the past week that North Carolina had difficulty communicating. West Virginia had no trouble there two seasons ago in the schools' first-ever meeting, a 28-13 win that capped an undefeated Big East campaign and a BCS berth for the Mountaineers. USF upset then-No. 7 WVU 24-19 at Mountaineer Field last year, utilized its speed within a roster that shows all but 10 players hailing from Florida.
"They are so athletic and have great schemes," Rodriguez said of South Florida. "Opportunities for big plays don't come a lot against them, so when those chances come we have to take them. I don't put a lot into the revenge factors. Once the ball is kicked off, what was in the past is surely in the past. You can have great focus during the week, but you have to play well when the game comes. That's what I am hoping we do.
"We have gotten tested, and we have taken teams' best shot each week. We played a very talented Maryland team on road. I think our guys are feeling pretty good. They have a good attitude, and there has been no panic. We have gotten better each week. The competition is getting better, especially playing a highly ranked team at their place on Friday night."
The two squads' defenses are the top-rated in the Big East in the majority of categories. USF leads in nearly every major area, and West Virginia is in the top 20 nationally in four defensive statistics. Most pundits are again expecting a defensive battle. South Florida held traditional SEC power Auburn, then No. 17, to 23 points in an overtime win on the road, and has dominated lesser competition in UNC and Elon. WVU is again stopping the run effectively, and ranks eighth in the nation in sacks. It was last in the NCAA in sacks at this time last year.
"We are getting better, and I can sense our confidence beginning to grow," Rodriguez said of his defense. "We are more experienced there than last year. We did not play as well as we would have liked last year, but we did an outstanding job against Maryland and East Carolina. (For USF, defensive end George) Selvie is very quick off the ball and he makes a lot of plays. He can be very disruptive. You have to make sure you come off the ball and get a hat on him. He made some plays for them last season. (Nate Allen and Trae Williams) are two of the better (defensive backs) in our entire league. They are explosive and do a great job in the pass and run game. They have tremendous futures in front of them."
West Virginia limited East Carolina to 29 yards on 22 first-half plays, including minus-11 on the ground. The Pirates went three-and-out on five of their first six possessions and didn't score until the final minute of the game. They finished with 160 yards, more than half of which came in the final 15 minutes. One game earlier against Maryland, WVU held the Terps to one meaningful touchdown and forced three turnovers.
"I think they are playing awfully well," Leavitt said of West Virginia's odd stack set. "There is no question they get the football back to their offense. That's what you want a defense to do. They are awfully good. I think they do a real good job in the run and pass defense. They are active and move."
West Virginia's sacks have help alleviate pressure on its secondary. South Florida actually has a better per-game sack average, and its 12 total and four per outing are good for sixth in the NCAA. Those stats could loom large for both teams against mobile quarterbacks. USF's Matt Grothe is a slippery signal caller with solid field vision who can scramble well. Those traits have led to comparisons to WVU's Patrick White, who ran and threw for two touchdowns each last week, completing 18 of 20 passes as well.
"They are very similar in the fact that they are centerpieces of the offense," Rodriguez said. "Both of our systems revolve around the quarterback. (Grothe) runs the ball, throws the ball well and is a great leader. He is the key to their football team. Both have a knack for running and finding creases, and both are equally adept at doing those things extremely well."
Leavitt noted that, besides the mobility, White has become a better pocket passer – not that he was poor in the teams' first meeting at USF in 2005.
"A few years ago we played them down here, and there was a third down scramble to the left and (White) threw a ball. Whoa. Well, I didn't think we could have covered it any better," Leavitt said. "He threw another one against us last year. He is just awfully good. They have so many weapons, you can't focus on just one. But 18 of 20 (passing), you can't get much better. We got a guy who is pretty good, too. (Grothe) has done a good job. He has done some good things. (His mobility) adds another dimension."
The game is being touted as possibly deciding the conference championship, but other teams are beginning to make runs and strides as well, most notably Syracuse and Cincinnati. The Orange won at Louisville to open Big East play, and UC is 4-0 under first-year head coach Brian Kelly with notable wins over Oregon State and at Miami (Ohio).
"Syracuse picked the right time to get things cranked up for their first conference game," Rodriguez said. "They beat a good team at their place. Cincinnati is playing well. Brian Kelly has had great success and is excited about being there. It looks like he has everything going in the right direction. I have said the Big East is very good from top to bottom."
Game time is 8 p.m. Friday. The contest will be televised on ESPN2.