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November 2, 2006

Game of the Week: West Virginia at Louisville

"I have plenty of confidence in our offense, and I really like our defense (they have won our last 2 games for us). But I'm curious to see what we will do to their running game. They have yet to be slown down since White and Slaton became starters. If we hold them to under 250 yards of rushing, we'll win the game."
-- kycrash06 on the The Crunch Zone message board on CardinalSports.com.

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Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm understands why the general public expects one of the most anticipated games in Big East history to turn into a shootout.

But he doesn't necessarily agree with that assessment.

"You've got two offenses that can put up some points, but you also have two defenses that have played well this year and haven't given up a lot of points,'' Brohm said. "It could be a shootout. It could be a low-scoring game. You never know with these types of games, with two good teams playing each other."

There's plenty of reason to believe No. 3 West Virginia (7-0, 2-0 Big East) and No. 5 Louisville (7-0, 2-0) could light up the scoreboard tonight at Papa John's Stadium.

West Virginia leads the nation with 319 rushing yards per game. Louisville is ranked second in the nation in total offense with 496.1 yards per game.

The last time these two teams met, West Virginia won 46-44 in a triple-overtime marathon that served as the coming-out party for Mountaineers quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton.

Then again, that final score was a bit misleading because so many of those points came in the three overtime sessions. Louisville and West Virginia were tied 24-24 at the end of regulation time.

"It was more of a ball-control, lower-scoring game than anticipated," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said.

West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez would love to see tonight's game turn out the same way.

Although the Mountaineers rank second in the nation with 40.9 points per game, Rodriguez believes his team would suffer if this game develops into a shootout.

"If it's a high-scoring game, it's certainly not going to bode well for us," Rodriguez said. "They're built more toward throwing the football with Brohm and their skill guys at wide receiver than we are at this point. If we're giving up a lot of points and letting them go up and down the field, it's going to be tough, particularly in that environment. We have to try to make some stops defensively and keep their offense off the field."

West Virginia's dependence on its running attack could hurt the Mountaineers if they fall too far behind. White has thrown for 200 yards just once in his career.

Then again, the Mountaineers proved last year they could come from behind. West Virginia rallied to beat Louisville after trailing 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

White came off the bench to lead that comeback, while Slaton scored six touchdowns in his first career start. That dynamic duo has combined to run for 1,678 yards and 18 touchdowns this year.

"We know what they're capable of now, that's for sure," Louisville defensive tackle Earl Heyman said. "Last year we were like, 'Oh, they're just freshmen.' Now everybody knows what they're capable of, not just us, but everyone in the country."

In a game that features plenty of star power on offense, Heyman and the rest of the relatively anonymous defensive players should get a chance to make a name for themselves.

Both teams are allowing less than 13 points per game and have given up more than 17 points just once all season.

Linebacker Kevin McLee has compiled a team-high 40 tackles for West Virginia. Safety Eric Wicks has collected 39 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

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"They give up stuff underneath, but they don't give up big plays," Brohm said. "I've only seen a few instances where people get behind them and get deep on them. They try to keep things in front of them. They bend but don't break and make you earn what you get."

Louisville's high-powered offense has overshadowed the fact that the Cardinals also lead the nation in sacks. The Cardinals defeated Kentucky 59-28 in their season opener and haven't allowed more than 17 points in a game since.

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye has looked particularly impressive with 10 sacks and five tackles for loss. Nate Harris is a playmaking linebacker who has recorded six tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

"They're more of a blitz team than probably anybody we've played," Rodriguez said. "They did some against us last year. Lots of teams are blitz teams, but against us, they don't blitz. Louisville kept to its personality last year against us pretty good. I expect to see a lot of pressure, a lot of movement."

Louisville's defense also wants to redeem itself after letting a big lead slip away in last year's West Virginia game.

The Cardinals responded to that loss by spending the entire offseason stressing the importance of closing out games.

"We focused on finishing," Louisville center Eric Wood said. "That was our big thing: Finish, finish, finish. That's the only thing we heard from coaches."

That's the choice facing each team tonight in a game that will knock the loser out of national title contention.

Finish or be finished.

Week 10 Game of the Week: No. 3 West Virginia at No. 5 Louisville
West Virginia running game vs. Louisville run defense: West Virginia leads the nation with 319 rushing yards per game behind the dynamic duo of Steve Slaton and Pat White. Slaton already has rushed for 1,059 yards and White also is on track to clear the 1,000-yard mark. Their breakaway speed has allowed West Virginia to average 6.8 yards per carry. If the Mountaineers have to adopt a power running approach, fullback Owen Schmitt can gain the tough yards. Slaton and White have run circles around most opponents this season, but Louisville might be the one team that can come close to matching West Virginia's speed. Louisville DT Amobi Okoye has 10 tackles for loss to lead an eighth-ranked run defense that allows just 2.5 yards per carry. Edge: West Virginia.
West Virginia passing game vs. Louisville pass defense: If Louisville can take an early lead and force West Virginia to throw the ball, the Cardinals have reason to feel confident. White has thrown for more than 200 passing yards just once in his career, and has almost as many interceptions (five) as touchdown passes (six) this season. Louisville leads the nation in sacks, and eight Cardinals have brought the quarterback down at least twice. Then again, White's mobility could prevent the Cardinals' pass rush from making much of an impact. Louisville better watch out for wide receiver Darius Reynaud, whose speed makes him dangerous in the open field. Edge: Louisville.
Louisville running game vs. West Virginia run defense: The season-ending injury to Michael Bush has hurt Louisville's running game badly enough that the Cardinals gained just 3 yards per carry against Miami and 4 yards per rush against Cincinnati. But the tandem of George Stripling and Kolby Smith has performed well enough to give Louisville the nation's seventh-ranked rushing offense. The Cardinals have averaged 216 rushing yards per game, and gained 223 yards on 36 carries in their victory over Syracuse two weeks ago. They may struggle to match that success against West Virginia, which hasn't allowed an individual 100-yard rusher all season. Marshall and Maryland are the only teams to rush for 100 yards against the Mountaineers. Edge: Even.
Louisville passing game vs. West Virginia pass defense: Preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Brian Brohm has gone just 38-of-63 with two interceptions and one touchdown pass since returning from a thumb injury that sidelined him for two games. If he has shaken off the rust and returned to peak form, Brohm could have a big night. West Virginia is ranked fourth in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, but the Mountaineers haven't faced a quarterback all year who's even close to Brohm's level. West Virginia has to find a way to contain Mario Urrutia, a big-play receiver who averages 19.3 yards per catch. If the Mountaineers spend too much time focusing on Urrutia, Brohm can throw to Harry Douglas - who has collected a team-high 35 catches for 520 yards. Edge: Louisville.
West Virginia kicking game vs. Louisville kicking game: Louisville's Art Carmody gives the Cardinals an edge if this game comes down to a field goal. Carmody has gone 11-of-12 on field-goal attempts this year, while West Virginia's Pat McAfee is 9-of-12. West Virginia has the advantage in the other special-teams categories. West Virginia punter Scott Kozlowski averages 40.9 yards per punt, while Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's dissatisfaction with Todd Flannery caused him to switch to true freshman Corey Goettshe. Louisville also has allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns and could be vulnerable against Reynaud, who ranks ninth in the nation in kickoff return average. Edge: West Virginia.
West Virginia coaching staff vs. Louisville coaching staff: This game features two of the nation's hottest coaching prospects, which explains why West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez and Louisville's Bobby Petrino are mentioned in connection with just about every job vacancy in college and pro football. Rodriguez won this matchup last year, but Petrino has stood out this season because he has helped the Cardinals overcome injuries to Bush and Brohm. Edge: Louisville.
X-Factor: West Virginia RB Owen Schmitt.
Slaton and White collect most of the yards and headlines, but Schmitt's role traditionally gets larger when the Mountaineers' opponents get tougher. The bruising fullback had a critical 20-yard run and 23-yard catch to set up overtime touchdowns against Louisville last year. He also gained 82 yards on only nine carries – including a 54-yard burst on a third-and-1 play – in a Sugar Bowl triumph over Georgia. Schmitt has carried the ball just 38 times this season while Slaton and White have helped give West Virginia the nation's top-ranked rushing attack. But if Louisville's speed on defense manages to prevent those trademark breakaways by Slaton and White, West Virginia might have to rely on more of a grind-it-out approach that would feature Schmitt.
West Virginia will win if: West Virginia follows a simple rule for success. Run the ball, take an early lead and watch the opponent try in vain to come back. The Mountaineers are outscoring teams 80-14 in the first quarter this season. While the presence of Brohm gives Louisville a better chance of coming back than most West Virginia foes, the Mountaineers should be fine if they have their usual success running the ball.
Louisville will win if: The Cardinals will have a good shot if Brohm has regained his usual form after struggling in his last two games. Louisville also would love to take an early lead, which would allow the Cardinals to utilize their pass rush if they can force the Mountaineers to throw the ball. Louisville's defense has strengthened enough that the Cardinals probably wouldn't blow a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead against West Virginia a second consecutive time.
Notes: This marks the first time teams ranked in the top five have met in a Big East game since No. 3 Miami defeated No. 2 Virginia Tech 41-21 on Nov. 4, 2000. … West Virginia has won six of its previous seven meetings with Louisville. The Cardinals' only victory was a 9-7 decision on Sept. 22, 1990. … West Virginia enters this game with a school-record 14-game winning streak. No. 1 Ohio State owns the nation's longest winning streak with 15 consecutive victories. … Louisville has won 15 consecutive home games. …This marks the first time Louisville has owned a 7-0 record since 1925, when the Cardinals finished the season 8-0 while outscoring opponents 133-2. The fifth-ranked Cardinals have never been ranked higher. … Louisville entered the season with a plus-20 turnover margin during Petrino's tenure, but the Cardinals have 14 giveaways and just 11 takeaways this year. Louisville has committed 11 turnovers in its last four games. … West Virginia has 37 takeaways and only 14 turnovers in its last 14 games over the past two seasons. … Louisville has the Big East's top red-zone defense, while West Virginia has scored 21 touchdowns and six field goals in its 28 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Megargee's pick: Louisville, 28-27
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