Commentary

Rutgers looking to reverse the trend against West Virginia

Updated: October 25, 2007, 1:57 PM ET
By Joe Starkey | Special to ESPN.com

Sounds like Slaton Place was hopping on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Jim O'Connor /US PresswireRutgers' Ray Rice leads the Big East in rushing and all-purpose yards.

Two West Virginia stars, running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White, were at their apartment with wide receiver Darius Reynaud watching Rutgers play No. 2 South Florida -- and to hear Reynaud tell it, they were all rooting like crazy for Rutgers.

"That's the only time you'll see West Virginia do that," Reynaud said.

The three Mountaineers knew a Rutgers victory would vault the Mountaineers back to big-dog status in the Big East. West Virginia hadn't been feeling so big after its 21-13 loss to South Florida on Sept. 28. In fact, it had largely disappeared from the national radar screen.

So when Rutgers prevailed in Piscataway, N.J., a happy sound resonated through Morgantown, 350 miles away.

This weekend, the Mountaineers will get a chance to express their gratitude in person.

West Virginia (6-1 overall, 1-1 Big East) has won two in a row since the loss to USF and is ranked higher than any conference team -- No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series standings -- going into Saturday's clash at Rutgers Stadium (ABC, noon ET).

"Ever since we lost to USF, our name hasn't been mentioned that much," Reynaud said. "I think a lot of people forgot about us. After this week, they won't forget about us."

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Rutgers, too, plans to stay firmly grounded in both the national consciousness and the Big East race, even if its national title hopes are dead. The Scarlet Knights (5-2, 2-1) looked like goners after dropping back-to-back home games to Maryland and Cincinnati and falling behind Syracuse 14-0 at the Carrier Dome on Oct. 13.

Just about then, coach Greg Schiano's team decided to join the 2007 college football season. Rutgers stormed back to crush the Cuse 38-14, and on four days rest buried South Florida in a flurry of blitzes and trick plays to reclaim the last available spot in the Associated Press Top 25, though it did not crack the BCS standings.

"We're still here," said Rutgers wide receiver Tiquan Underwood. "We took some lumps early on, but I think our team showed its character [against USF]."

A victory Saturday, combined with a Connecticut loss to South Florida, would put Rutgers in first place in the Big East. A loss wouldn't kill the conference title hopes of Rutgers or WVU, because the race is so wide-open. This could become only the second season in the conference's 16-year history that a two-loss team wins the title.

The only other time it happened was in 2004, in a seven-team league depleted by the departures of Virginia Tech and Miami. Pitt won a four-way tiebreaker of teams with 4-2 conference records.

This season, who knows? As Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said, "A year ago, there were probably two or three teams that were a step or two ahead of everybody else from a talent standpoint. I think today, it's evened out."

There has been nothing even about the Rutgers-West Virginia series. The Mountaineers lead 28-4-2 and have won the past 12 meetings, including last year's 41-39, triple-overtime thriller that robbed Rutgers of the Big East title and sent the Knights to the Texas Bowl instead of, perhaps, the Rose Bowl.

The Mountaineers are expecting a frenzied atmosphere at Rutgers Stadium, not unlike Thursday, when a school-record crowd of 44,267 helped to unnerve South Florida's offense.

[+] EnlargeSteve Slaton
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's Steve Slaton has a chance to redeem himself after a slow start against South Florida.

"It's going to be a physical game," Reynaud predicted. "They're going to bring everything they got. Knowing they just knocked off the No. 2 team, they got a chip on their shoulder, thinking they can hang with us."

Schiano and his players are going out of their way to downplay any lingering bitterness from last year's loss, though Schiano is well aware that West Virginia is the only Big East team he hasn't beaten since he arrived in Piscataway six years ago.

The scores of the first two games -- 80-7 and 40-0 -- kind of stand out.

"Those were memorable games, to say the least," Schiano said.

Schiano and WVU coach Rich Rodriguez have been in the Big East longer than any of the other conference coaches. They share a mutual respect. Rodriguez says he had a feeling Schiano would turn Rutgers into "a force to be reckoned with."

Schiano likes what WVU has done for the Big East.

"The victory they had against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl [two seasons ago] was a huge, huge win for our league," Schiano said. "Rich and his staff are great coaches. … He's the only guy, the only program we haven't been able to beat here at Rutgers in the Big East Conference. They've had our number."

The highest-profile on-field matchup features the two star running backs -- Slaton and Rutgers' Ray Rice. They are ranked 1-2 in the conference in all-purpose yardage (Rice averages 167.7 yards per game; Slaton 142) and 1-2 in touchdowns (Rice has 14, Slaton 11).

In last year's game, the two combined for 241 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

Rice ran incredibly hard on 39 carries against South Florida, at one point pounding star defensive end George Selvie into the turf with a stiff arm. He could become even more integral to Rutgers' offense -- which also has lethal capabilities in the passing game -- if quarterback Mike Teel (bruised thumb) is ineffective or unable to play.

"If you didn't have to play against [Rice], he'd be fun to watch," Rodriguez said. "Our guys have a lot of respect for him."

Slaton easily could have wound up at Rutgers. Schiano recruited him out of Conwell-Egan (Pa.) High School, so it had to hurt when, in his first career start, Slaton torched the Scarlet Knights for 139 yards on 25 carries two years ago in Piscataway.

"We had discussed [having] a visit at his home, and then he committed to West Virginia that weekend," Schiano said. "So I did such a great job of swaying him that he went right down to West Virginia and committed."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.