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November 27, 2008

Big East: West Virginia returning to old form

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Pac-10 | SEC

Week after week, Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt is seeing a little more of the Pat White he was used to seeing in the previous three years.

The West Virginia quarterback is slicing through opposing defenses, exploding for long runs and carrying the ball around 20 times a game.

"They did start off a little different from what they did on offense a year ago," Wannstedt said. "Four or five games ago they started to make the transition back to their old offense. The biggest change is with Pat White carrying the football. They were throwing it more and handing it off. They're back to zone read stuff.

"As Pat White goes, so goes their offense."

After starting 1-2, West Virginia is 6-1 in its last seven going into the Backyard Brawl with Pittsburgh. Along the way, the Mountaineers' offense is starting to look more like the one that won two Big East titles in the last three years.

In a 35-21 win over Louisville, White set season highs in total touchdowns (five), rushing yards (200) and total offense (322). He threw a season-low 11 passes while topping 20 carries for the third consecutive game.

As West Virginia adjusted to new coaching and personnel early in the year, the offense sometimes struggled. New coordinator Jeff Mullen tried to build on the spread option attack with more pro-style elements. Losing cogs in the offense like Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Darius Reynaud put additional pressure on White.

"Our goal was to incorporate some kind of pro-style passing attack," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "That's what we did rather than just the quick game, deep ball and play action. Not that that has been bad, but we had to come up with a plan for when people load the box."

The back-to-basics approach may have helped the West Virginia offense, but so has more maturity.

Noel Devine has grown into Slaton's role as a complement to White. Wide receiver Jock Sanders has stepped into Reynaud's role. Both are sophomores. The Mountaineers are still hoping to find a short-yardage specialist to fill the shoes of Schmitt, the battering ram fullback.

At the center of all the turnover has been White.

"Pat White, without saying 'boo' all year, has simply put this team on his back," Stewart said. "He carried this football team and let the players grow and develop, and he's done it without Steve and Owen Schmitt and Darius."

White wasn't much of a factor in the upset loss to Pitt last year. He sat out parts of the game with a dislocated thumb as Pittsburgh knocked the Mountaineers out of the national championship game with a 13-9 win.

The game changed the fortunes for several programs, getting the ball rolling for coach Rich Rodriguez to leave for Michigan and interim coach Stewart to win the job permanently in the Fiesta Bowl. Both coaches in this year's game, however, downplayed the revenge angle with reporters this week.

When the 4-7 Panthers upset the No. 2 Mountaineers, it revived intrigue in a game that was often tilted toward West Virginia in recent years.

Pittsburgh had lost four of five before winning in Morgantown last year. Since Big East play began in 1991, West Virginia is 11-6 against its top rival.

"You've got to have good games and go back and forth to have a good rivalry," Wannstedt said. "If there's such thing as re-igniting a rivalry, [last year's game] sure as heck did it."

West Virginia at Pittsburgh, noon
Syracuse at Cincinnati, noon

  • Best matchup
  • Pittsburgh's front seven vs. West Virginia's offensive line: Pittsburgh leads the Big East in tackles for a loss. Linebacker Scott McKillop has a conference-leading 14.5 followed by defensive end Greg Romeus with three. West Virginia's stout offensive line hasn't missed a beat in two games without starting center Mike Dent (neck). Pittsburgh won this matchup last season with many of the same players on both sides.

  • Player to watch
  • Defensive tackles Arthur Jones and Terrill Byrd: Keep an eye on the defensive tackle position in Syracuse's game against Cincinnati. Jones would get more attention if he played for a better team, but Notre Dame got an up- close look at the junior. Jones recorded 15 tackles, the highest total for a defensive lineman this year and an absurd number for a tackle. He had four tackles for a loss. Cincinnati has a strong defensive tackle of its own in Byrd, who has 4.5 tackles for a loss in the last three games. Division for the second consecutive season.

  • Who's hot
  • Cincinnati wide receiver Dominick Goodman has 16 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games. Bearcats defensive end Connor Barwin had three sacks against Pittsburgh after going without one for four games. West Virginia nose tackle Julian Miller has had his first 3.5 sacks of the season in the last two games.

  • Who's not
  • Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy has carried 34 times for 121 yards in the last two games, the lowest two-game total in his career. Louisville is minus-10 in turnover margin. No other Big East team is worse than minus-5. Cincinnati running back Jacob Ramsey has fumbled four times, losing one, in the last two games.

  • What they're saying
  • "That [topic is] something I have to squash and get it over with. I'm kind of getting a little fed up with it. Everybody keeps trying to push that − my last game at Heinz Field − but I'm not going anywhere. There's a lot of stuff I have to prove." Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy, on the possibility he would leave school early for the NFL draft. McCoy is a true sophomore but spent one year in prep school after his high school graduation, making him eligible for the draft.

    "We lied, lied and lied. We tried to tell them everything was OK. We [coaches] were very nervous on our end because we didn't know how it would work out. A lot of it was making sure coaches showed a good front. The leadership from seniors on defense really kept us together during that time. They played their best football during that time." - Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly on how the team stayed together as the Bearcats started three different quarterbacks during the season.

    "To me, that's a disappointment, because I think he should be. Just because you're not from a supposedly big-name school that's the way it is. He'll just keep going about his business and working hard and helping his team win." - Connecticut coach Randy Edsall on Donald Brown, the nation's leading rusher, being left off the Doak Walker Award finalists list.

    "I told the media a week ago I'm going to apply for the job. We'll see how that goes." - Fired coach Greg Robinson on the coaching situation at Syracuse following the Orange's win over Notre Dame.

    "It's been beyond belief. You don't talk about it a lot because everyone has injuries. The magnitude we've had 'em [at] the University [of] South Florida, we're not deep enough to withstand it at such a degree. That's the honest truth." - South Florida coach Jim Leavitt on injuries at USF.

  • Etc.
  • Cincinnati cornerback Mike Mickens will miss the last two games of the regular season after surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He could return for a bowl game. West Virginia quarterback Pat White became the NCAA leader in career rushing yards by a quarterback with 4,292, passing Missouri's Brad Smith. White also became the Big East leader with 98 career touchdowns, passing Syracuse's Donovan McNabb. Quarterback Mike Teel became Rutgers' career passing (8,617 yards) and total offense (8,405 yards) leader with 359 passing yards against Army.

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Pac-10 | SEC

    David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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