The first pivotal game between Big East opponents is tonight when No. 18 USF hosts No. 5 West Virginia. ORACLE PHOTO/SEAN REED
Motivation is rarely an issue during meetings of Top 20 teams, but both No. 18 USF and No. 5 West Virginia have some extra incentives for winning tonight’s game at Raymond James Stadium.
The Mountaineers (4-0) are facing the Bulls (3-0) for the first time since USF pulled off a stunning 24-19 upset of West Virginia in Morgantown last year. The loss not only thwarted the Mountaineers’ Big East Championship run, but also erased any hope they had of playing in a BCS bowl game.
In the loss, the Bulls held West Virginia’s No. 2 rushing offense to only 132 yards, with Heisman Trophy hopefuls Pat White and Steve Slaton combining for just 60 yards on the ground.
With a Top 10 ranking and national title aspirations this season, the last thing West Virginia wants is to have its season spoiled by the same team two years in a row.
While the Mountaineers might have that fueling them when they take the field tonight, the Bulls also have plenty of reasons to play.
In 2005, the Mountaineers came to Raymond James Stadium and completed their first undefeated Big East season by serving the Bulls a 28-13 loss. Then-freshman quarterback White sliced through USF’s defense, rushing for 177 yards, including touchdown runs of 75 and 65 yards, respectively.
There are also the numerous firsts tonight holds for USF.
Tonight’s game is the first conference game of the season for USF, the first time a ranked Bulls team has faced a Top 25 team and the first time they’ve played in a sold-out Raymond James Stadium.
However, none of that will matter at kickoff.
If the Bulls hope to succeed against the Mountaineers, they will have to focus on one thing: stopping the run.
Like last season, West Virginia will enter its game against the Bulls as the No. 2 rushing team in the nation, averaging 357 yards per game. Running back Slaton and White are second and sixth in rushing in the Big East, respectively, and Slaton is second in the nation in scoring (60). This year, in addition to White and Slaton, the Bulls will have to deal with freshman running back Noel Devine, who has 267 yards, three touchdowns and an impressive 11.1 yards per carry average this season.
“They have got a lot of weapons on offense,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “The quarterback (White) is as good as it gets. He’s up for the Heisman, and the running back (Slaton), he’s up for the Heisman too.”
Because of the talent West Virginia possesses, the USF defense knows how important it is for each player to stick to his assignments.
“If we leave one hole open, Slaton is a real good running back and he’s going to try to take that hole and try to hit his head on the goal post,” Bulls defensive end George Selvie said. “We just have to play our assignments and make sure we do everything right and play fundamental football.”
In the past, USF has proven to be one of the only teams able to stop the vaunted West Virginia running attack.
In 26 career games, Slaton has failed to reach the 100-yard mark only six times, with two of the games occurring against USF. In last year’s meeting, the Bulls held the Mountaineers to 3.6 yards per carry, their lowest average of the season. This season, the Bulls have the best rushing defense in the Big East, allowing an average of 79 yards a game.
Offensively, the Bulls will have to contain an aggressive defensive line that has 16 sacks this season – the most in the Big East. West Virginia linebacker Mortty Ivy is one of three Mountaineers with four sacks this season. The junior also has 29 tackles and one interception.
Despite facing the Big East’s fifth best defense, the biggest key for the USF offense might be keeping a positive outlook during the game.
The USF defense has found success against West Virginia in the past, but the odds of shutting down one of college football’s most dynamic offenses are not very good.
“We know their offense is good and we know they are going to have long drives once in a while,” quarterback Matt Grothe said. “It is going to be matter of not getting our heads down and playing good football.”
As they prepare for tonight’s contest, the Bulls know it could likely be their toughest game of the season and, against a team like the Mountaineers, any play could win or lose the game.
“West Virginia is an awfully good football team,” Leavitt said. “They wouldn’t be ranked fifth in the country if they weren’t good in every way. You’ve got to take advantage (of everything they give you). Every play is that big.”