West Virginia, ranked seventh nationally, will rely largely on its oh-so-high powered offense and steely running game to slice through the Cardinals in what's viewed as an offensive-based game on both sides. It's easy to chalk up the outing to a battle of wills, WVU's run against UL's pass. But, with the Mountaineers (7-1, 2-1 Big East) showing increasing balance and Louisville finally finding its ground game, this third conference clash promises more UL in West Virginia.
Receivers Darius Reynaud and Dorrell Jalloh have paced a passing attack averaging 173 yards per game and better than 11 yards per catch. Quarterback Patrick White has increasingly thrown downfield along the seams, and WVU was aided by the aerial aspect against Rutgers, firing 16 passes for 144 yards, including midrange throws that had been missing for portions of the season. What WVU calls, and takes, depends upon the defensive coverage and alignment, but over the last three outings, the Mountaineers have averaged throwing for more than their season mean and scored four touchdowns through the air. They threw for 222 yards in the 44-34 road loss to UL last season, a heady number considering West Virginia ran for 318 on 50 carries.
That balance should help against a defense that appears to have improved after being gashed in losses to Kentucky, Syracuse and Utah. Louisville's problems seemed to expand by week six, when it had been shredded through the air by Syracuse and on the ground by a Utah team that routinely ran for five to eight yards per carry. The Cardinals are missing fewer assignments now and have tackled better, but they have yet to face any players the caliber of White and superback Steve Slaton. The duo ran rampant last year, when West Virginia used its jet sets to quickly move the football. That appears to be the plan again this season, with the Mountaineers hoping to mix in the pass and wear down the Cards by the second half.
"The goal right now is to go out there and play hard and physical and fast and try to do our best," Jalloh said. "We are trying to work on being very up tempo and very energetic. We might catch the defense off guard and they don't see us lining up as fast as we normally do. If we can line-up extremely fast, they don't have time to react to what we are doing. Deep into the second quarter and third and fourth the defense's don't keep up. We have to. We have to be conditioned more, which is why we are doing all these up tempo drills."
West Virginia has focused on running its offense as quickly as possible in practice this week. Add in the ability to execute a multitude of plays and formations with the same personnel, and WVU appears more formidable this season than it did last. When the coaching staff decided to begin using fullback Owen Schmitt at tight end, and flanking Slaton and the other backs into the slot wideout spots, don't think that Louisville wasn't looming in their minds. It was viewed as arguably the only team in the Big East with enough offensive capability to stay with West Virginia, and head coach Rich Rodriguez recognized the effectiveness of the fast offense, both in 2005, when UL tired in the fourth quarter and overtimes, and in 2006, when the Mountaineers often lined up and snapped the ball to White, allowing him to pick a seam and exploit much as he did in the latter portions of the Sugar and Gator Bowls.
Those assets, coupled with a healthy White and a passing game that has yet to be fully unleashed, and UL might be the perfect time, with a national audience, to showcase what the spread offense can do. West Virginia is averaging 40.8 points per game and 471 yards of offense, 298 on the ground. Louisville is allowing 411 yards, 257.4 through the air on a shocking 61.2 completion percentage.
"Hopefully the downfield passing game will elevate the offense overall and open the run for Steve and Pat and Owen," Jalloh said. "It's great that they have another weapon that we can use. We have the confidence to throw the ball in the 10-15 and 15-20 yard range to me. If they give me the opportunity and the chance to make plays, I think I can execute. When the opportunity comes, I have to execute and be consistent. Pat and Jarrett (Brown) look at that. We'll go fast paced all the time. They are stopping the run and not blowing assignments like they had been. They have people in the right place. It will be a solid game. We have to go execute because they are not going to lay down for us."
The Cardinals are, apparently, bent on beating West Virginia on its home field. UL quarterback Brian Brohm said last season's win was not satisfying enough, and only a victory at Mountaineer Field would negate the still-lingering harshness of WVU's 17-point fourth quarter rally in 2005.
"Two years ago we had them beat," Brohm said. "Then Pat White came in and we had a breakdown. That was a tough defeat to take. It's still sticks in my mind. I definitely don't want that same type of feeling this year as I leave that field just because of what happened there two years ago."
Said Slaton: "Hopefully they have a sad bus ride or plane flight home. I think we have one of the greatest night atmospheres I have ever been in. Right now, we are undefeated at home at night. Let's keep it up."