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WVU tries to even Big East series vs South Florida

West Virginia's Big East nemesis has been South Florida.

Popeye had Bluto. Batman had the Joker. The Mountaineers have the Bulls.

Since South Florida joined the conference in 2005, the Bulls have beaten West Virginia three times in five tries. The Mountaineers have winning records over every other Big East team since then.

South Florida (3-2, 0-1) has figured out a way to slow down the Mountaineers' spread offense, holding them to under 20 points in their last four meetings.

The Bulls will get another chance against No. 25 West Virginia (4-1, 0-0) on Thursday night in Morgantown, where the Mountaineers are going after their 12th straight home win.

A year ago South Florida's B.J. Daniels accounted for more yards than West Virginia's entire offense. He completed only half of his passes but threw for 232 yards and three scores and ran for 104 yards in a 30-19 victory.

"I hope we do not have the same plan for him as we did last year," said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart. "Whatever we did last year, we better not repeat this year."

Under new coach Skip Holtz, Daniels has been asked to become more of a pocket passer with sour results. He's thrown seven interceptions and has been sacked nine times, including two picks and four sacks in a 13-9 loss last week to Syracuse.

Holtz is still waiting for his offense, especially the passing game, to come around.

Against Syracuse, "we couldn't take advantage of the great field position that our defense and kicking game provided," he said. "It's some of the growing pains you go through with a young quarterback in a new system.

"Nobody wants to win more than he does. Nobody's more disappointed right now than he is. You're talking about a sophomore who's learning to play in a new system with new terminology."

The challenge becomes greater against a West Virginia defense that's much improved since last year's meeting.

Cornerback Keith Tandy was burned for two long receptions by South Florida's Carlton Mitchell, including a 49-yard scoring pass. Earlier this season Tandy gave up another long TD reception against Marshall.

But Tandy has intercepted tipped passes three times in the last two games, including twice last week in a 49-10 win over UNLV. His play is part of the reason West Virginia is statistically among the nation's top defenses.

"I've been waiting for this game, like, for a year," Tandy said. "You're going to get beat at cornerback. The thing that matters is how you bounce back from it. I think my confidence is going up a whole lot. I'm starting to recognize what the offense is doing faster, and I can see the routes before the receiver can run them."

South Florida's defense is plotting along, too, despite having four players selected in April's NFL draft.

The Bulls have the conference's top passing defense and recorded seven sacks against Florida Atlantic two weeks ago. Last week Syracuse didn't find the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter.

South Florida has been solid in stopping running back Noel Devine, who is still looking for his first 100-yard effort against the Bulls. Last year he was limited to 42 yards on 17 carries. Devine needs 68 yards to surpass Steve Slaton in fourth place on West Virginia's career rushing list.

Holtz went 1-4 against West Virginia when he was the coach at East Carolina and knows all about the speed of Devine and Mountaineer receivers Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin. To add to Holtz's potential worries, wide receiver Brad Starks has overcome several injuries since the preseason and caught four passes for 100 yards and three scores against UNLV.

"I think they've got three or four guys on the field offensively that can turn and go the distance whenever they want," Holtz said.

Historically, though, West Virginia isn't accustomed to piling up points on South Florida, which makes Stewart want to treasure every possession.

"We have not done well with them in the past," Stewart said. "If it is going to be a defensive struggle, then so be it."