The No. 7 Mountaineers (6-1, 1-1 Big East) are the final leg of a two-game stretch that has Rutgers (5-2, 2-1), off a 30-27 win over then-No. 2 South Florida, hosting consecutive top 10 teams in a sold out stadium for the first time in its 138-year history. The game is essentially an elimination contest. The winner still has a chance at a Big East title and BCS game. The loser begins to look toward El Paso, Texas, and the Brut Sun Bowl.
"It was a very exciting night here on our Rutgers campus," RU head coach Greg Schiano said. "Fortunately we came out on top (versus USF). It could have gone in many different directions. This week we have another great opponent coming to town, and we are looking forward to it against a great team. I can speak from observing what Rich (Rodriguez, WVU's head coach) had done at West Virginia, it has been an incredible job. The win they had against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl was a huge, huge win. I have heard (Big East commissioner) Mike Tranghese talk about that being a huge victory for the Big East. He is a good guy and a great coach. Quite frankly, I have never been able to come out on the right end of the stick. He is the only guy we have not been able to beat. He has had our number."
Rodriguez and Schiano were both named head coaches at their respective schools prior to the 2001 season. Rodriguez is 6-0 in head-to-head meetings, and his first two WVU teams outscored the Scarlet Knights 120-7 with 80-7 and 40-0 victories. The games have gotten closer each season, and it took triple overtime for West Virginia to beat RU last season in Morgantown. What was missing from that game, and indeed almost all of the past two meetings, was quarterback Patrick White. The junior did not play at all in the 2006 game, and took only a few snaps in 2005.
Instead, Adam Bednarik played the majority of snaps behind center, completing nine of 10 passes. Steve Slaton rushed for a then-career best 139 yards. He racked up 112 in the win last season that knocked Rutgers out of the BCS. The game ended when WVU batted down quarterback Mike Teel's pass to Ray Rice. All the major players return, giving the game a rematch type feel with major league ramifications.
"It certainly was a tough locker room to be in," Sciano said of the postgame atmosphere after the triple overtime contest. "You go in there and play and do your best and sometimes your best isn't enough to win. We made some mistakes and West Virginia made some plays. Every season has a personality and life. That's what's great about college football is that it evolves. At Miami, the two years previously (to Schiano taking the RU job and leaving the Hurricanes' staff) it was 119-6 (versus Rutgers), so I knew what we were walking into when we came. Oh, those are memorable games to say the least. You just keep going and try to improve."
Schiano noted that he knew Rutgers had begun to make the transition from am also-ran to a potential Big East player when he noticed the fan base increasing and people beginning to wear Knights' clothing.
"This is an event-driven area," Schiano explained of New York-New Jersey. "There is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar. When it became an event, all the sudden people wanted to be there. That's why the demand for tickets has gone up so much. You look at the stadium now and see a sea of red. That didn't happen by chance. Our marketing people worked on them wearing red, and now it's all red except for the very small opposing fan section. The music they play, the video board, all of it makes it an event. But none of it changes unless you win. We had to change the culture.
"The University had been in such a rut with the football program. There were a couple spikes for a year or so within the last two decades, but other than that it was tough environment with not a lot of excitement and not a lot of expectations. You go to the mall or store here and you used to not be able to get Rutgers paraphernalia. Now they can't keep it on the shelves. We got to grow'em up Rutgers. We want those kids growing up wanting to play for Rutgers. Are we there yet? No. But we are closer."
Because of the anticipated crowd and noise, West Virginia will take half of a practice on Thursday to practice signals with a background of music. The Mountaineers will utilize a lot of hand signals to communicate.
"I think our crowd has been awesome," Schiano said. "We sold out every game before the season started and there is a huge wait list for season tickets. They make it hard for opponents. Our opponents are under a constant barrage of noise, and that's because the fans want to be here."
Schiano also commented on his recruitment of Slaton, saying RU "recruited Steve, but obviously not well enough. We recruited him as a running back, and we discussed a visit in his home. He was supposed to visit that week, but he committed to West Virginia. I did such a great job that he went right down there and committed. … (Slaton and Rice) are in different systems that lend themselves to how they run. Ray is a spectacular football player. He is an unselfish, team guy and a leader. That makes him, above and beyond the production, a great guy to be around. There are some great players playing in this game on Saturday. That should be great for anybody coming or anybody watching the game. These players have a history of making plays."
Note: Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel, who played the majority of the USF game with a lingering injury to the thumb on his throwing hand, is gripping a football well and is expected to play. He could be limited in practice, though will join drills at least by mid-week. Teel was nearly replaced, according to Schiano, by backup Jabu Lovelace and would likely have been if RU was forced to pass more often.