Without question, Saturday's showdown with Rutgers is West Virginia's biggest test of the 2007 season to date. The Scarlet Knights are deep and talented on both sides of the ball, led by All-American candidate Ray Rice on offense and fellow All-American candidate Eric Foster on defense.
Knights head coach Greg Schiano has turned the once-laughable program into an annual Big East contender, knocking off top five schools in each of the past two seasons. The next step for Rutgers is winning a Big East title, and defeating the Mountaineers on Saturday afternoon would certainly go a long way in achieving that goal.
As a result, the Mountaineers will enter a sold-out Rutgers Stadium on Saturday as public enemy No. 1 in the Garden State, with a sea of red prepared to greet the blue and gold invaders with jeers from start to finish.
"The environment will be very similar to what we faced down at South Florida," Rodriguez noted, referring to his team's only loss to date in 2007. "It will be sold out, and very loud. They're a very talented football team, and I think they are playing their best football right now. I think our guys know that."
With that being said, Rodriguez and company must focus just as much on what the Mountaineers do well without worrying too much about the different schemes and strategies employed by RU. The keys for West Virginia are simple: run the football effectively, and stop the opponent from doing the same. In the latest NCAA rankings, West Virginia is among the best in both categories, coming in at second in rushing offense while ranking No. 12 in rushing defense.
Of course having played Rutgers on a yearly basis, West Virginia's keys to success are no secret to Schiano.
"We're trying to concern ourselves more with what we're doing," Rodriguez said. "I think they know us very well, and from what we understand like most teams do they did a lot of scouting on us over the summer."
Rutgers, like WVU, features a smaller but athletic defensive front, anchored by the aforementioned Foster. To make up for the lack of size, the Knights use a lot of movement and quirks to get the most effective play out of their d-line.
"They are a big slant and angle team," observed Rodriguez. "Like us, they are not very big up front so they will move a lot. They are a little bit unconventional in some of their schemes. They are very active."
The key for West Virginia's defense will be to bottle up, or at least contain, Rice. The diminutive but tough-as-nails junior features not only excellent speed, but outstanding balance and an ability to run through tackles if not properly wrapped up. Though the Rutgers offense is dangerous through the air as well, slowing down Rice will minimize the effectiveness of the play-action pass.
"I think you have to try to focus your attention on what they want to establish, and I think they want to establish Ray Rice," said the Mountaineer mentor. "They have been at their best when Rice is getting 25, 35 carries and they're having those 10 to 12 to 14 play drives. What they've done this year is gotten a lot of big plays out of their passing game.
"If they're able to run the ball and get four or five yards every time with Rice, it's going to be a tough afternoon for us."
Helping the cause will be a little bit of added depth to the Mountaineer defensive line. Redshirt freshman Chris Neild started at nose tackle this past Saturday against Mississippi State, allowing senior Keilen Dykes to move outside to his more natural defensive tackle position. The emergence of Neild is huge news (no pun intended) for a defensive line that has struggled all season to maintain a healthy rotation of up to six or seven players.
Dykes, West Virginia's most experienced and decorated defensive lineman, was forced inside to nose for the season's first six games, and spent the early part of the year with nagging injuries to his foot.
"We're probably still better when Keilen's at the nose, but with (defensive tackle Scooter Berry) nursing (injured knees) and our lack of depth at that position, we were able to get a lot of mileage out of Chris," Rodriguez said. "That was the most he's played since he's been here. It gave us a lot of confidence because he's another big guy, a 300-pounder, that gives us a few more options and allows us to move Keilen around."
Obviously, slowing down Rice is only half of the battle. As talented as he is, Rice may not even be his team's offensive MVP this season. Junior wide receiver Tiquan Underwood has emerged as another big-play threat in the RU offense. Underwood is among the nation's leaders in receiving yards per game, averaging nearly 113 yards through seven contests. Combined with Rice, fellow wideout Kenny Britt, and quarterback Mike Teel, Underwood gives Schiano the most explosive offense in his seven-year tenure, even without the services of fullback Brian Leonard, now in the NFL.
"He's an explosive guy," Rodriguez said of Underwood, who was an effective runner against West Virginia two seasons ago taking direct snaps from center. "They have a lot of explosive players, and Underwood is one of them. We know about him, and if you watch them on film it stands out that he has a great ability to separate both before the catch and after the catch."
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On the injury front, quarterback Patrick White is expected to play without limitation on Saturday. White did not play in the second half against Mississippi State.
Elsewhere, sophomore safety Quinton Andrews and freshman wide receiver Will Johnson are both questionable with knee sprains. Andrews missed the MSU game, while Johnson was injured following the first reception of his collegiate career. Johnson, Rodriguez noted, was "really coming on" in the week prior to his injury.
Defensive lineman James Ingram, who has not played since the beginning of the season, continues to be sidelined by a back injury. Ingram is not expected to play against Rutgers, and his availability for the rest of the season looks to be up in the air.
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If you haven't heard, ABC's top broadcast crew will call the action on Saturday. Play-by-play man Brad Nessler will be joined by Bob Griese and Paul Maguire in the booth, while Bonnie Bernstein reports from the sidelines.
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Fittingly, rain is in the forecast for Saturday's game at Rutgers Stadium. In each of the past three trips to Piscataway, the Mountaineers have played in the wet stuff virtually the entire time.