No. 7 WVU (6-1, 1-1 Big East) will at least tie for a league championship should it win out. That starts with facing a Rutgers team on the road that comes off an upset over then-No. 2 South Florida. All four of West Virginia's losses to RU – it leads the all-time series 28-4-2 – have come away from home. After 80-7 and 40-0 blowouts in head coach Rich Rodriguez's first two seasons, the games have been close, including a five-point win in New Jersey in 2004 and a 41-39 triple-overtime victory at Mountaineer Field last season that sent WVU to the Gator Bowl, and vanquished Rutgers from the BCS.
"Our approach," Rodriguez said, "is concerning ourselves with what we can control. We still need a little help, but we have gotten a little. There are a lot of Big East games left, and our guys know what is out there. But we have to take it one play at a time."
First-place Connecticut, a winner at home over Louisville last week, is 2-0 in the league. The Huskies and Mountaineers must still play, and West Virginia controls its own destiny in terms of a tie for the league crown. If South Florida loses another Big East game, WVU will be better able to win an outright title. The Mountaineers, unbeaten out of conference for the second straight season, face a key stretch starting with Rutgers. After the Knights, WVU hosts Louisville, then plays at Cincinnati before another home game against UConn. No Big East teams are unbeaten.
"We took care of business in our nonconference schedule, and now we are in a very strong Big East again," Rodriguez said. "We have a tremendous challenge in front of us at Rutgers. They are playing well on offense and defense. (RU tailback) Ray Rice is one of the best backs in the country and has been for a couple years. He is a complete football player, a physical guy. If we didn't have to play him, it would be fun to watch. Our guys have a lot of respect for Ray and their entire program.
"I thought (RU's improvement) was going. Greg (Schiano, head coach) had a nice plan when he went in there, and they were very patient with him while he continued to build it. Greg and I are the longest tenured coaches in the Big East, and a lot has changed since then (2001 blowout). The potential is there because of location, and with the right combination of coaching and talented players and support, it got it to a point where they are a force to be reckoned with."
Rice rushed for 181 yards on a whopping 39 carries in the 30-27 win over USF. Receiver Tiquan Underwood had five catches for 115 yards and two scores, as the Scarlet Knights overcame a halftime deficit to earn the victory. Now, for the first time in 138 seasons of football at Rutgers (5-2, 2-1), it will face a team ranked in the top 10 for the second consecutive week in front of a sold out stadium.
"We do a little crowd noise work everyday, then half the practice on Thursday will be crowd noise for communication, not just for the offense but defense as well," Rodriguez said. "When you look over and make calls, whether it is the quarterback or the offensive linemen, you have got to have a process of communication to handle the loudest noise possible. Inevitably you try to keep the crowd out of it, but should you will run up against it, it should not be something that is a major concern for us. For us, using a no huddle, we always have used a silent count. We know Rutgers will have a full crowd."
Rodriguez was also asked to compare Rice and West Virginia superback Steve Slaton. Both were considered Heisman Trophy candidates before the season, though the two RU losses, Slaton's numerical decline and WVU's fall from the national title picture, though it is beginning to reemerge with key losses to frontrunners, has essentially ended those chances.
"Steve will go outside some more, where Ray will stick it up in there," Rodriguez said. "He is low to the ground and hard to get a handle on. He puts it up in there like a bigger guy. Ray is thicker and runs a bit more between the tackles pounding inside than Steve. You talk about backs that can carry it 25-30 times per game, and both can do that. (Slaton) has really meant a lot. He made his mark before that game (Rutgers 2005, his first collegiate start). He has meant an awful lot to us, not just in terms of production, but the way he sacrifices himself and works. The younger players see his approach to the game. His parents raised him well and he is still playing to prove himself.
"His numbers have not been as big as in the past, but he is still a major performer for us. I don't think that's a concern. He has relished the chance to teach young guys the offense and system, and he knows he is still the featured back. We got the younger guys to give him a rest, and he has been invaluable helping us teach the team. He is healthier now as a result, especially with getting to rest some on games earlier this season."