Tampa, FL – The regular season comes to a close on Thursday ranked West Virginia Mountaineers.
West Virginia does not control its own destiny for the Big East title and subsequent BCS Bowl bid, but the team is still alive in the race thanks to last weekend's 21-20 victory over Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. The Mountaineers are now 8-3 overall under the guidance of first-year head coach Dana Holgorsen.
"It was fun," said Holgorsen after the come-from behind victory over the Panthers. "We fed off the crowd tonight."
As for USF, it has a lot riding on this finale as well, as a victory would earn bowl eligibility for the squad. The Bulls are currently 5-6 overall after losses in the last two outings and five of the last six overall. Skip Holtz led his team to wins in each of the first four games this season, but things have certainly fallen apart a bit since. Last weekend, the club dropped a 34-24 decision to Louisville.
"We just made too many mistakes to win today," said Holtz after the setback. "It's really frustrating to be as close as we've been so many times this season."
WVU tied its all-time series with USF at 3-3 with a 20-6 victory over the Bulls last season.
Taking a look at WVU's one-point win over Pitt last week, three touchdowns were notched by the Mountaineer offense, including a 63-yard strike from Geno Smith to Stedman Bailey to begin a comeback from a 14-0 hole. Later in the game, Shawne Alston reached the end zone on runs of eight and one yard. Smith finished the game with 244 passing yards and no interceptions, helping to offset a rather weak rushing attack.
Defensively, the Mountaineers have reason to be proud of their effort against Pittsburgh. They limited the Panthers to 296 total yards in the affair, including 159 rushing yards on 58 attempts. The pass defense was solid as well, permitting just 12 completions while notching an interception and 10 sacks.
"The theme has been play with as much energy as you can possibly muster and get excited when good things happen, and when bad things don't go the way you want them to go, you don't give up," said Holgorsen. "We didn't quit; there were some things that didn't happen offensively and we could have quit, but we didn't."
Overall this season, WVU is generating 35.4 ppg while racking up 468.3 total ypg, and Smith has clearly played well enough to be considered for Big East Conference Player of the Year. The signal caller has completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,741 yards and 25 touchdowns against five interceptions, and he has two 1,000-yard receivers on the outside. Tavon Austin has 82 catches for 1,009 yards and four scores, while the explosive Bailey has racked up 1,117 yards and 11 scores on 60 catches. Alston has only rushed for 332 yards, but he does have 10 rushing scores to his credit.
Opponents are generating 26.2 ppg against WVU, which is yielding 335.2 total ypg. The Mountaineers are permitting a mere 3.7 yards per rushing attempt and 10.3 yards per pass completion, proof that they have been solid against both means of attack. Bruce Irvin leads the club with seven sacks, and he has 13.5 TFLs to his credit.
The good news for USF entering this showdown is that B.J. Daniels figures to be back from injury to challenge that WVU defense. The Bulls' standout signal caller has thrown for 2,359 yards this season with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he has also rushed for 578 yards and five scores. Darnell Scott paces USF with 722 rushing yards to go along with his five TDs, while Sterling Griffin has made 40 catches for 493 yards.
While USF is generating 29.5 ppg and 434.3 total ypg, the team has held opponents to 22.0 ppg and 350.2 total ypg. With those numbers in mind, it is hard to believe that Holtz's club is a game below the .500 mark. The fact that USF has committed 23 turnovers has certainly hurt the cause, but it should be pointed out that the team has notched a staggering total of 38 sacks while allowing just 14 sacks. Keep an eye on leading tackler DeDe Lattimore, as he has posted 13 TFL to date, including seven sacks.
Last week against Louisville, Bobby Eveld was under center for the Bulls in place of the injured Daniels, and he threw for 210 yards with one TD and one interception. The Bulls finished with a modest total of 311 yards, however, as they rushed for a mere 64 yards on 31 attempts. Defensively,' they yielded three passing scores to the Cardinals in addition to one rushing TD.
"I can honestly say we can't be mad right now," said USF linebacker Sam Barrington after last week's defeat. "It is a very huge disappointment and West Virginia is on the clock. There is no use to sit down and melt about how we lost to Louisville today. As soon as that clock hit zero, West Virginia was on the clock so that's were our focus is right now."