Having already wrapped up the Big East Conference championship for the fourth time in five seasons, Rodriguez and the Mountaineers will be looking to punch their ticket to New Orleans for the BCS title game when the Pitt Panthers roll into Mountaineer Field on Saturday night.
Though everyone in the Puskar Center knows what is at stake, you won't find many people talking directly about it, at least not publicly. The focus since Sunday has been solely on Dave Wannstedt's pesky Panthers, who with a 4-7 record, have nothing left to play for other than pride. That being said, Pitt would love nothing more than to rob it's oldest rival of a chance to play for all the marbles.
Any discussion of the Panthers should begin with freshman running back LaSean McCoy, who should be the runaway pick for Big East Rookie of the Year. McCoy currently ranks second in the conference with 1,180 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns, and has unquestionably been the biggest bright spot for a Pitt offense that has struggled for most of the season.
"He's probably a little bit bigger than any of our guys, but he's got the speed," Rodriguez observed. "I've been impressed with him overall. He catches the ball, and he blocks pretty well. For a true freshman or a guy that's in his first year in the program, he's been pretty remarkable."
McCoy's emergence has undoubtedly been a positive sight for Wannstedt, who from day one at his alma mater has expressed the desire to establish a power running game. The play of McCoy and backup Larod Stephens-Howling has solidified those hopes, and given the Pitt offense reason for hope looking towards the future.
"I think this is what they wanted to get to," Rodriguez admitted. "Like any other coach, you're going to feature what you're best at. For the past several years, they've had Palko, who is a guy that can throw it around. He did a great job. Now, with a young quarterback, I think they wanted to go to a power running game anyways. That's their philosophy.
"It starts with the tailback, and the guys up front," he explained. "They have two tackles that will probably be in the NFL. They have physical tight ends, and they have the great tailback. I think they're getting what they want philosophically. I would suspect that if they come here and we can't stop the run, they will keep running it."
It goes without saying that Pitt's defense will come into the game hoping to do the same to West Virginia. In the past two seasons, Paul Rhoads and company have been nothing but stone-footed participants in a Pat White and Steve Slaton highlight film. Two years ago in Morgantown, the then-freshman duo lit up the Panthers on Thanksgiving night for a combined 405 yards and four touchdowns on the ground alone, with a White to Slaton touchdown pass of 16 yards to boot.
It was even worse for the Panthers last season at Heinz Field when both players topped the 200 yard mark rushing (White 220, Slaton 215) and combined for another quartet of rushing touchdowns. Through the air, the best friends hooked up six times for 130 yards and a pair of scores. For those keeping score at home, that adds up to just shy of 1,000 total yards (986) between the two players in two games against the Panthers.
Pitt's defense is led by junior linebacker Scott McKillop, the nation's leader in tackles per game with an average of nearly 13. McKillop boasts 142 total stops on the season.
"With McKillop, I've been very impressed," Rodriguez said. "Obviously he's leading the country in tackles, and it's not a situation where they are all 15 yards downfield. I think he's been the key to their defense."
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Count Rodriguez among those who are thrilled to death that Saturday's game will not be taking place at Heinz Field. It goes without saying that the Mountainer mentor would much prefer a home game to a road game, but that goes double for a road game played on the mud bog the Panthers and Steelers call home.
Although an additional layer of sod was put down prior to Monday night's Steelers-Dolphins game, the surface combined with a steady rain made the conditions downright embarrassing for the Steel City.
"I saw about 10 minutes or so of that game last night. For us, when we were kids at 10, 11, or 12 years old that would have been a blast," he quipped. "The moms wouldn't have liked it because of all the dirty laundry, but I can't imagine having to play on that. We've played on that before up there when it was tough from a surface standpoint.
"I don't know what they're going to do up there," he continued. "I think in this part of the country, I don't know how you can have that many games on a grass surface and expect it to be good. I think you've got to have FieldTurf in this part of the country."
Heinz Field not only hosted the Panthers and Steelers this past weekend, but also was the site of several WPIAL high school championship games. Between the overuse and the climate, it's no wonder why the field looked more like a place better fit for pigs than football players.
Mountaineer Field was re-surfaced this summer with the newest version of FieldTurf, a synthetic grass-like surface sans the mud and upkeep responsibilities.
"The obvious advantage is when the weather is unpredictable, it will still play as a fast surface," the coach noted of the product that carpets his stadium. "If you get a lot of rain and wetness on a grass surface, it won't play as fast.
"I would like for us to build a dome over Mountaineer Field," Rodriguez said with a facetious grin. "Maybe that's next. Then we could always have a 70 degree day with nice, flat, dry surface. I don't know how much that would cost."
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"I'll get emotional at the end of the week on Friday night, and probably Thursday," Rodriguez said Tuesday. "Those guys came here, and the program had already started to turn. They were committed to taking it to another level. The neat part about it is how unselfish they have been."
The group will leave West Virginia with at least three Big East titles, and four titles for those who redshirted during the 2003 season. In addition, they will be the first senior class to have played in two BCS bowl games during their stay in Morgantown.
"For them to come and be totally unselfish and understand the way we want to do things has been remarkable," said the proud head coach. "They've been through a lot, and they've had a lot of great experiences. That's the thing I tell them the most to be proud of is that 10 or 15 years from now, they can brag about their experience winning championships and raising the program to another level."