Crucial Facet: Quarterbacks

There's one tangible that's the offensive oil of West Virginia and South Florida: Quarterback play.

Without it, the team schemes would clog, and even with lesser versions, the machine-like operation would cease its smoothness. WVU's Patrick White is almost like a band-aid for the No. 5 Mountaineers (4-0), who look at avoid a second consecutive upset against the Bulls when they play at No. 18 USF (3-0) Friday. Any breakdown, and the signal caller patches the problem, turning nothing into something. His passing ability has progressed to the point where White connected on a career-best – and WVU school completion record –18 of 20 tosses last week in the 48-7 win over East Carolina. Half of the miscues were drops, forcing even the signal caller himself to acknowledge the solid play.

And when West Virginia gets that late game lead, it's White, the 2006 Big East Offensive Player of the Year, who serves as the grease that slowly fries opposing defenses as coordinators fume. The junior has controlled the clock for the final five minutes in each of WVU's past two New Year's Day bowl victories, and he managed the fourth quarter in similar fashion in the 31-14 victory at Maryland earlier this year. Foes know what's coming, but are largely powerless to stop it, White simply reading the continual zone stretches, then turning it up for crucifying gains of three, four, six yards that finish off opposing teams – and the sizzling stat categories for the Mountaineers.

South Florida's Matt Grothe lacks the raw speed of White, but is frighteningly mobile in and out of the pocket, possessing an almost sixth sense for pressure showcased by most gifted quarterbacks. The 2006 Big East Offensive Rookie of the Year and USF's Offensive MVP has completed 58 of 96 passes for 652 yards, an average of 217 yards per game, and four touchdowns. He relies less on the running game than does White, but has also been much less efficient, ranking seventh in the conference with a 131.2 rating to White's third-best 174.8, largely based on his make-no-mistakes 71.0 completion percentage.

The idea behind the two is simple. Call plays they can make, then get out of the way. Grothe engineered the 37-10 romp over ACC foe North Carolina, throwing for 216 first-half yards, the second-highest single-half total in USF's 11 seasons as a program. And the sophomore rebounded from a thrice-sacking in the third quarter against SEC power Auburn to complete six of eight passes in the fourth for 75 yards and one score. He added another 25 yards on the ground, and the century mark helped the Bulls push the game into overtime, where they won 26-23 when Grothe lofted a gorgeous 14-yard spiral to receiver Jesse Hester, Jr. down the sideline for the game-clincher.

"They both check their receivers downfield well, and they both have that running style in their offenses," said West Virginia safety Eric Wicks, who has played against both. "The offense is set for them to run if they want to. It's reads for both of them. Grothe just doesn't have the all-out speed Pat does, but he does have good speed. He can get away from you. And the way he runs, it's with the intention of still getting more yards. He is not just going to go down with an arm tackle. You have to really try to hit him. He will bowl you over. Every once in a while he will slide if he sees a big hit coming, but he won't slide feet-first. He slides headfirst."

That guttiness and gunslinger mentality will press West Virginia much more than what the Mountaineers handled with ease last week. Where ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkey, making just his third career start, scrambled to throw and was content to simply look downfield for a play, Grothe will scramble for the ideal either-or scenario. On the edge, he can force a defensive back to choose to cover the receiver, taking away the larger gain and giving the QB a running lane, or play the run, when Grothe will cock and fire.

"Our speed – we have had a lot of big plays – I think could be big factor this year," Grothe said of the match-up with the Mountaineers. "Now that we have an improved running game this year, I think our offense will be even more of a challenge for their defense. For them, I am assuming they will come down here looking for revenge. For us, we already know we can beat them and that gives us confidence. Now it is just a matter of playing well and having fun."

The Bulls have averaged 30-plus point per game in a very balanced attack. USF is rushing for 154.7 yards on average and passing for 218.7. Grothe has yet to throw a pick, but South Florida has lost five of six fumbles. That has been negated by its seven defensive interceptions and four fumble recoveries on as many forced. The 11-to-five ratio ranks fifth in the NCAA and second in the Big East to Cincinnati's jaw-dropping 19-to-four mark. WVU is 23rd in the nation, third in the conference.

The keys for West Virginia will be to avoid turnovers and negative plays, something that severely hindered both production and overall offensive flow versus USF last season. The Mountaineers need to find that early offensive rhythm, then exploit South Florida with White's athleticism and ability to manufacture yardage and gains via the air and ground. His explosiveness – White is third in the NCAA in career active yards per play average and first in yards per carry – combined with that of superbacks Steve Slaton and Noel Devine, should shift the edge to the Mountaineers if they execute.

"Probably all of us see the same thing," South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt said. "Great speed, they run well, they know what they're doing, they play with confidence. They have got a lot of weapons on offense. The quarterback is as good as it is. He's up for the Heisman."

Indeed, of the NCAA active yards per carry leaders, White is the only quarterback in the top 20. He ranks just head of Slaton, at 7.18 ypc to 6.28 ypc. He is also eighth in career active touchdown leaders with 31 in 28 games. Slaton is first, with 47 scores in 27 outings. White is fifth at West Virginia in touchdowns responsible for, with 58, and he leads the all-time school list of career completion percentage, edging NFL player Marc Bulger (1996-99). With two scores against USF, White will rank third in touchdowns responsible for and be just nine away from yet another Mountaineer record.

That sickening array of stats shows both the versatility and value of White to West Virginia's spread attack. Without him, Slaton isn't as scary and the offensive arsenal doesn't have as much pop or big-play ability. Grothe serves South Florida in a very similar manner, his leadership and unflappable game play having grabbed the attention of teammates, and the Mountaineers last year, when the frosh threw two picks, then rebounded to direct the game-winning touchdown drive.

"They both have strengths," said WVU quarterbacks coach Rod Smith, who mentored Grothe as USF's offensive coordinator in 2006. "Matt is a guy that is pretty cerebral. He understands football. He has a savvy to him and is a great competitor. I think Pat is a much more athletic quarterback. I think Pat runs the ball extremely well. I think Pat throws the ball extremely well. I think Pat White is the best quarterback in college football. That's my opinion. I think Matt Grothe is a good quarterback as well, one of the best ones in the country. It should really be a good match-up between the two."

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