MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia is playing for at least a share of the Big East title on Saturday against Rutgers at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown. The Scarlet Knights? Well, they are simply playing out their season.
Bill Stewart has seen this scenario before and all he has to do is remind his players about a certain football game in 2007 when all of the marbles were sitting right in front of the Mountaineers.
“I have never been involved in a game where somebody doesn’t have something to gain,” Stewart said Monday. “The ’07 game against Pitt would certainly be a great reminder for these seniors because they were freshmen when that happened.”
Instead of doing that, however, Stewart said he plans on explaining to his players how tough recent games have been against Rutgers. Three of the last four meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less with two – a 41-39 triple overtime WVU victory in 2006 and last year’s 24-21 West Virginia triumph in Piscataway - coming down to the very end.
Stewart expects nothing less than a dogfight from Rutgers on Saturday, despite the Scarlet Knights’ recent five-game slide that includes back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and Louisville when they gave up a combined 109 points.
“Rutgers is going to come in here and play hard,” Stewart said. “They are tough, physical, they’ve got more blocked kicks than anybody in the league and they can turn a football game around with a blocked kick in a blink of an eye.”
Rutgers’ season turned around in a blink of an eye against Army on Oct. 16 when junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a spinal cord injury in the fourth quarter of a game the Scarlet Knights eventually won in overtime 23-20.
At the time Rutgers was 4-2 with a 27-24 victory over Connecticut, but since LeGrand’s injury, Rutgers has lost consecutive games against Pitt, USF, Syracuse, Cincinnati and Louisville heading into Saturday’s season finale at West Virginia.
During that stretch Rutgers has lost close games (28-27 at USF and 13-10 against Syracuse) and it has lost blowouts (41-21 at Pitt, 69-38 at Cincinnati and 40-13 against Louisville). Veteran coach Greg Schiano said the last month and a half has been difficult for his football team to deal with.
“We’ve had trouble responding the last four or five weeks since some true adversity rocked our team, and I’m hoping we can play our way out of it and start to heal,” he said.
Rutgers (4-7, 1-5) has struggled mightily this year protecting its quarterback and stopping other teams. The Scarlet Knights have given up 55 sacks this year (39 alone to starting quarterback Chas Dodd) to rank last among FBS schools. Consequently, Rutgers ranks 108th in the country in rushing offense accumulating 104.4 yards per game and is 107th in total offense at 303.3 yards per game.
Defensively, Rutgers has fallen to 59th in scoring defense and 54th in total defense – two areas that have typically been strong under Schiano.
“Defense has always been kind of our calling card and the last two weeks we’ve really struggled,” said Schiano.
And while the defense gave up 427 total yards last Saturday to a Louisville offense that managed just 171 the prior week against West Virginia, Rutgers finally got a boost from its running game.
Freshman Jordan Thomas ran for a career-high 120 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries against the Cardinals, becoming only the second Rutgers running back to eclipse 100 yards in a game this season. Joe Martinek, who saw limited playing time against Louisville because of an ankle injury, ran for 109 yards against Norfolk State in the season opener.
Rutgers has also had a pair of 100-yard rushers operating out of the Wildcat formation in Jeremy Deering and Mohamed Sanu, but Sanu has also been slowed by a leg injury and saw limited action against Louisville. Rutgers finished last week’s game with 149 yards rushing despite giving up nine sacks.
Freshman Chas Dodd has started the last seven games at quarterback after taking over for last year’s starter Tom Savage, throwing for the second-most yards by a true freshman in school history (335) in the loss to Cincinnati. Against the Bearcats, Dodd hooked up with Mark Harrison 10 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
Harrison shows 41 catches for 763 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging an impressive 18.6 yards per catch.
Dodd is completing 55.4 percent of his pass attempts for 1,498 yards and nine touchdowns. In four starts, Savage has completed 43-of-83 passes for 521 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions.
Defensively, senior linebacker Antonio Lowery has been the top playmaker with 97 total tackles, 7 ½ tackles for losses, a sack, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back Joe Lefeged has also had another productive season, accumulating 73 tackles, three forced fumbles, five pass breakups and an interception.
Senior defensive end Alex Silvestro leads the team with 11 ½ tackles for losses and shows 4 ½ sacks. The Scarlet Knights have six senior starters on defense, but have eight freshmen playing on its offensive two-deep.
“Everything we get from them is full effort and full intensity every year,” said Stewart. “My first Rutgers game here with Coach (Don) Nehlen we had to win it on the last play (in overtime). I don’t expect this one to be any different.”
West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) is still in contention for the Big East’s BCS bowl berth if it can defeat the Scarlet Knights on Saturday and get some help down in Tampa later Saturday evening when South Florida plays host to Connecticut. If the Huskies defeat the Bulls then Connecticut will get the league’s automatic BCS berth because of head-to-head wins against West Virginia and Pitt.
The Mountaineers are coming off of one of their better performance this year in a 35-10 victory at Pitt last Friday in the Backyard Brawl.
Sophomore Geno Smith threw three touchdown passes and West Virginia’s nationally ranked defense allowed the Panthers to cross the goal line just once. Still, Stewart was disappointed in the way his defense performed against Pitt, particularly in the first half.
“Those first 25 plays I was not pleased,” he said. “We’re always attacking and we’re always going downhill and I did not see that – I saw too much sideways stuff.”
West Virginia comes into Saturday’s game ranked second nationally in scoring (12.6) and rushing defense (87.1) and third in total defense (255.7). The Mountaineers are also No. 2 this week in third down defense and sixth in sacks with 34.
Smith has thrown 22 touchdowns and is completing 64.2 percent of his pass attempts this season.
Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin have combined to catch 105 passes for 1,225 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanders (58 receptions) and Austin (47 catches) can become the first duo to catch more than 50 passes in the same season since Khori Ivy and Antonio Brown did it in 1999.
“They have so many weapons offensively and they have kind of jelled here in the last three or four games,” said Schiano. “They are operating on offense as good as I’ve seen them in a long time, so it’s a huge challenge for us.”
Senior Noel Devine continues to lead the Mountaineers with 853 yards rushing, but Devine managed just 27 yards on four carries last week against Pitt and has produced only 229 yards in his last four games. He continues to be bothered by a bone bruise on the bottom of his foot.
“I’ve known Noel Devine since he was a high school kid and I know exactly what he’s capable of,” said Schiano. “Regardless of what I’ve seen on tape, it’s the last time he’s going to be playing on Mountaineer Field and I know that guy is an incredible competitor. He is going to want to leave there with a boom and our defense is aware of that.”
Saturday’s game will kick off at noon with ABC (Mike Patrick and Craig James) is televising the game nationally.
Tickets still remain and can be purchased by contacting the Mountaineer Ticket Office toll-free at 1-800-WVU GAME or by going online at http://www.wvugame.com