Football Notebook - Cincinnati

In order to defeat Cincinnati and stay in control of the Big East title chase, West Virginia must not turn the ball over against a ball-hawking Bearcat defense that leads the nation in takeaways.

Of course such an act is much easier said than done, but the significance of the turnover battle cannot be overstated, what with Cincinnati and West Virginia both ranking in the nation's top five in turnover margin. The Bearcats boast 35 takeaways on the season, tops in all of Division I-A, while the Mountaineers tie for ninth in that category with 26.

In last week's win over Louisville, the Mountaineers coughed up three fumbles, and in the process nearly gave away the ultimate outcome to the underachieving Cardinals. Such mistakes this week may not result in the same success against the Bearcats.

"Last game we had three turnovers, almost four," said junior quarterback Pat White, responsible for two of the three fumbles against Louisville. "We need to protect the ball and not make turnovers, because they'll capitalize on it.

"Coach Rod always tells us no negative plays and no turnovers."

In film study this week, White has no doubt paid particular attention to Cincy's secondary wrecking crew of Haruki Nakamura, DeAngelo Smith, and Mike Mickens. Nakamura, a senior, was singled out by head coach Rich Rodriguez earlier this week for his uncanny ability to pry the pigskin loose from opposing ball carriers. Nakamura's running mates in the secondar, Smith and Mickens, are tied for the Big East lead in interceptions with five each.

Even when it isn't causing turnovers, the Cincinnati run defense is among the best in the Big East. The Cats 'D' gives up just 98 yards per game on the ground, second only to the Mountaineers in the Big East.

"They're very athletic," White observed. "They move around very well, and they're very disciplined in what they do. They attack the ball. They play fast."

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Meanwhile, West Virginia's defense may see a familiar formation or two while studying the Bearcats on film this week. That's because head coach Brain Kelly, formerly of Central Michigan and Grand Valley State, runs a version of the spread offense that Rodriguez has used since his days as a West Virginia Conference head coach.

Whereas West Virginia's spread has become predominantly ground-oriented, the Bearcats and senior quarterback Ben Mauk are more apt to put the ball in the air. Though the actions after the snap differ, the setup of both offenses is the same, according to Mountaineer defenders. In theory, that should ease the mental burden on West Virginia's defense this week, at least somewhat.

"I think it's going to help a lot," said senior linebacker Marc Magro. "You're used to seeing the same offense, so I think it's going to be beneficial."

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For what seems like the umpteenth time in the past two years, West Virginia will enter an environment billed as the biggest game in the history of it's opponent. Given the amount of success that Rodriguez and company have had over the past five seasons, it's no wonder that teams and campuses get so pumped up when the Mountaineers come to town.

Think back to when some of the great Miami teams came to Morgantown in the 1990's, and you'll conjure up a similar situation. The fact remains that everyone wants to beat West Virginia because of its past (at least a share of the Big East Championship in three of the past four seasons), and its present (the Mountaineers are tied for Connecticut for the conference lead and are ranked No. 5 in both major polls).

"Through the five years I've been here, we've been in this position a lot," Magro said of the mountain-sized target that rests on his team's back. "I don't think that it adds any more pressure on us, but it maybe increases the sense of urgency because the time is now. We have to embrace what we have in front of us, and take advantage of the opportunities we've been presented with."

Just in case anyone around the locker room is under the impression that a victory will be awarded to West Virginia based solely on showing up at Nippert Stadium, head coach Rich Rodriguez has served up humble pie early and often throughout the week to keep his team focused on the task at hand.

"Coach Rod said the students have been camping out for tickets and stuff," Magro noted. "That's fun, and it's better than nobody showing up for the games at all. It's going to be a big-time game."

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Late in last week's win over Louisville, fullback Owen Schmitt lined up in the shotgun for a pooch punt in hopes of pinning the Cardinals deep. Schmitt had pulled the feat on two earlier occasions this season, but was unsuccessful in his attempt against the Cards, netting just nine yards on the attempt as the ball caromed off the side of his foot and into the Mountaineer bench area.

While the game ended up working in his team's favor thanks to White's 50-yard touchdown run late in the game, Schmitt still had to put up with plenty of ribbing from his teammates in the hours and days following the game. One player who didn't partake in the roasting of the team's resident man-child was starting kicker and punter Pat McAfee.

"Believe me, though, that's not the shortest punt of the year for us," said McAfee with a roll of his eyes. "His went nine yards, didn't it? I hit one 33 percent shorter than that (six yards in the season opener against Western Michigan). Let's remember that when we knock on Owen.

"My job is to punt the ball. His job is to hurt people," summed up the quotable kicker. "Whenever his shortest punt is still a decent amount better than my shortest punt, I can't say much. He's done it perfect the other two times, so it's not a big deal."

Though he didn't tease Schmitt about the play, one thing was at least somewhat clearer to McAfee while looking back at the kick.

"He's human," McAfee quipped. "We found out that Owen Schmitt is human."

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One more McAfee note: the Plum, Pa. native was happy for a myriad of reasons as he watched Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson's game-tying 53-yard field goal attempt fall short of the goalpost at Heinz Field on Sunday as time expired in Pittsburgh's narrow win over the Browns.

As a Steelers fan, McAfee was obviously rooting for his hometown team to defeat it's AFC North rival. However the junior also had a personal interest in the field goal. Had Dawson's kick been good, it would have been the longest made field goal in the history of Heinz Field. The current record holder? You guessed it.

"I was really nervous," McAfee said. "I thought he was going to beat me, and then tie it up with the Steelers. I thought when he hit it, it was going in. I was watching it, and got really mad. We were down in the weight room lifting, and I started swearing at the TV. But then, it came up short."

McAfee set the Heinz Field record with a 51-yard bomb last season against the Pitt Panthers

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