Smith, the current WVU quarterbacks coach and former USF offensive coordinator from 2005-06, is perceived as being able to help the Mountaineer defensive staff formulate the most effective game plan to harness the No. 18 Bulls (3-0), who upset then-No. 7 West Virginia 24-19 last season. But it wasn't the Mountaineer defense that was most responsible for losing that game. An offensive fumble inside its own 10-yard line was returned for a touchdown, and head coach Rich Rodriguez seemed to chase points and take unreasonable chances throughout, faking a field goal early in the first half and going for two with more than one quarter remaining. When quarterback Patrick White's pass was intercepted on WVU's final drive, the upset was sealed, despite two defensive interceptions and a key stand that gave the offense the ball in the closing minutes.
"Last year I don't know if West Virginia executed as well as it should have and South Florida played really well," Smith said. "We are trying to make sure that doesn't happen again this week."
Which really starts with the offense more than the defense. The No. 5 Mountaineers (4-0) were jammed by South Florida's speed and scheme in 2006, and it remains the Bulls' view that only a fortunate pair of long White runs saved WVU on its last trip to Tampa in ‘05. Smith, who knows the danger zones and weak links of the offenses of West Virginia and South Florida, is working to piece together an idea of what will work and what won't for both teams. He noted that "there are little things you might pick up every once in a while, but it's kind of an open-door situation to be honest with you.
"You see everything on film," said Smith, who played quarterback for Rodriguez at Glenville State and was a 1996 All-American for the Pioneers. "I don't know that it helps as much as people think. I'm just trying to get our guys prepared. It will be a lot of fun to go down there and play them, but we have to play our game, not South Florida's game."
That includes not getting sucked into set-ups focusing more on what USF is doing than what West Virginia does well. The Mountaineers, who rank second in the nation in rushing, are aware that defensive speed negates many mistakes. Rodriguez stated that big plays are few and far between, and that his team must take advantage of them when they are available. That starts with utilizing the talents of White and the run game and being able to use opposing speed as an asset, pushing rushing defensive ends past so ball carriers can slide underneath the pressure and into the open field.
WVU can also use its physicality to counteract raw skill and finesse, playing north-south and getting upfield. That's worked this season, as superback Steve Slaton has showed a more workmanlike style that has helped wear down foes in the final 20 minutes of the game and the wideouts have been superb opening holes via blocks on the perimeter. Predicated on a horizontal stretch to get vertical, West Virginia's spread offense must exploit USF seams immediately when they become available.
"Every game is the same in terms of running the ball. The whole idea is not to waste time," WVU assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. "It's to run. Don't make a whole lot of moves or think you are on PlayStation or Xbox or whatever. We don't want them to weave a whole lot. Just run."
The Mountaineers lead the Big East in rushing and are second in scoring offense at 47.2 points per game. South Florida leads the league in rush defense (79 yards per game allowed) and is second in total defense and fourth in scoring behind a trio of teams that average allowing less than 10 points per outing. But the multiple looks will be nothing new, and to note that West Virginia needs to do a myriad of things differently because of lesser things noticed by Smith abandons the ideal of doing what players do best.
USF will try to keep the ball away from West Virginia, something it did well last year. Though the Bulls have athletes on offense, they don't match the abilities of WVU's set of skill players – something Smith recognized last season and knows South Florida, which created 11 turnovers in its last two games, is well aware of.
"Last year, their strategy was to control the clock and try to keep Slaton and White off the field as much as possible," Smith said. "They might try to do that again, and if so there will be a lot of possession-type plays and downs. That's more to control the tempo of the game as well. But with our offense, we have good talent and good players. We are going to go down there and do what we do. It's a big game because it's a Big East game – it happens to be first. We are going to play hard because we have our own set of goals and we want to achieve them."