There will be a hush around the Puskar Center when it comes to national title talk. One imagines it's a bit like Pee-Wee's Playhouse and the Word of the Day. It gets mentioned, and head coach Rich Rodriguez makes noise. He'll yell and scream, and players will run. Or something to that effect. The talk of the Huskies will rival the Iditarod, as the Big East race is, right now, the only race of concern.
"I addressed it with the team yesterday," Rodriguez said. "I don't want them talking about (the national championship). UConn or BE championship, that's the only thing we can control. Things further down the road we can't control, and so should not talk about. That's the only focus we are on right now. I mentioned (championship hopes) once at the beginning of the year and once after the first loss. I said lot of things that are going to happen in the season and in the league and nationally. We can only try go get better and not worry about things we can't control. I don't want them talking about anything but UConn, because that's where focus needs to be."
Apparently, some didn't really get the grasp of that. Rodriguez was immediately asked another question about it, if he had watched the title picture taking shape.
"What I am watching is UConn tape." Succinct, and with a point. Rodriguez is reeking of Bob Huggins already. Unfortunately, his team hasn't had quite as much success attempting to match the turnover ratio.
"Obviously we are concerned about that," Rodriguez said of the late fumbles against Louisville and Cincinnati. "Any time we have the chance to put those games away in fourth quarter, we have let teams hang around. We are watching this and addressing the issue to make sure it doesn't happen. We are going to accentuate the positive, though. We won both games so we are happy. I was pleased to get out (of Cincinnati) with the win. We knew it would be tough battle. Both teams played hard, and it was a tough environment. Now, we have another big game at home against UConn for the Big East championship.
Sort of. Whichever teams wins will clinch the conference's BCS berth, but WVU cannot clinch the Big East title. No. 20 Connecticut, at 9-2 overall and 5-1 in the league, would seal the championship with a win, as no team would have lost fewer than two games with the Huskies' season over. West Virginia has to defeat Connecticut and Pitt to win the conference. A WVU win over UConn and loss against Pitt would leave the Mountaineers at 10-2, 5-2 Big East. That would be enough for the league's BCS berth because of a head-to-head win over Uconn. But, like West Virginia in 2003 and '04, the Huskies would still be a co-champion of the Big East.
The Mountaineers, third in the BCS standings, have pieced together an A-game in all three phases just once, according to Rodriguez. That came in a win over East Carolina. With no class this week – students are released for Thanksgiving, or what the University terms ‘Fall' break – the football team will ramp up preparation. Players have extra time for film viewing and treatment, and can focus solely on football. The same is true for Connecticut, however. West Virginia will spend the majority of its film session watching the Huskies' last four to five games, especially its contest versus Cincinnati. While UC doesn't run a replica of WVU's spread, there are enough similarities to warrant deeper analysis than other game tapes.
"They are playing with a lot of confidence," Rodriguez said. "We have played better in all three phases at certain times and we played well last week except for a few things and turnovers. WE are capable of playing at a very high level, and we need to do it on a consistent basis, especially to win the Big East title."
One of those few things was peeling off receivers in deep coverage when quarterbacks scramble. A Mountaineer defender came off once in zone, and another time a player in man could not stay with his assignment for the needed five to six seconds. That was caused by Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk's scrambling ability, something West Virginia will again face this week with UConn signal caller Tyler Lorenzen. The junior college transfer has thrown for 2,118 yards and 12 touchdowns with a 58 percent completion rate. He has also run for for 300 yards, third-best on the team.
"We have to keep Lorenzen in the pocket and not let him get outside," Rodriguez said. "People say the same thing about (Patrick) White. It's an age-old problem. Broken plays make defensive guys go crazy. When the quarterback scrambles when you are deep, you have to stay deep. You have to be disciplined and not come up until the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage. Sometimes you have to guard somebody five or six seconds. That is difficult. The downfield (plays) can really hurt you if you are not disciplined on the back end."
West Virginia is fully healthy entering the game, even along the defensive line, where Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle both missed plays against Cincinnati. Dykes, Rodriguez said, is the most consistent player along the line, while Dingle is having his best season as a Mountaineer. He has begun playing more within the framework of the defense, and is causing havoc along offensive fronts. Hs play with be key against Lorenzen, both in pressure and containment off the end.