The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 25th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers begin their quest for a Big East title this Thursday, as they host the South Florida Bulls at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers enter the Big East season as the team-to-beat, as they are the lone program in the conference currently ranked in the top-25. WVU was actually bounced from the national rankings after a tough 20-14 loss to still undefeated LSU on September 25th, but the team moved back into the rankings following a 49-10 slaughtering of UNLV last weekend.
"We're happy to be 4-1 - we're not blessed or thrilled - I wish we were 5-0 but we're 4-1, the preseason is over and just about five days from now we bang it up and go against our first Big East Conference opponent South Florida and that's when the real season begins," said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart.
As for the Bulls, they figured to be challengers for the Big East title until last weekend's shocking 13-9 home loss to Syracuse, which won only one league game a season ago.
"It is certainly disappointing to lose an opening conference game with how hard this football team has worked and some of the things we are trying to do in this program. I told the team that this is a journey, not a destination where we're trying to go," said head coach Skip Holtz, who guided East Carolina to consecutive Conference USA titles before taking over at USF this season.
USF now sits at 3-2 on the campaign and can ill afford another league setback this early on. The Bulls, though, have had success versus WVU before, winning three of the prior five meetings, including a 30-19 triumph in last season's encounter.
The offense has struggled for USF this season and that was no more evident than in last weekend's loss to Syracuse. The Bulls managed just three field goals, while their lone TD came on a 94-yard kickoff return by Lindsey Lamar. USF finished the day with a mere 219 yards of total offense and QB BJ Daniels was partly to blame for the low production. Daniels completed just 9-of-23 tosses for 124 yards and two INTs and he was also sacked four times.
"We're really trying to give B.J. something he can do," said Holtz. 'We're trying to build this offense around him, not trying to fit him into it."
Daniels has had a tough time adapting to the offense, completing just 52.6 percent of his pass attempts with four TDs against seven INTs. Though he didn't show it last weekend, Daniels is a dual-threat, ranking third on the team with 186 rushing yards.
As a team, USF is averaging a hardy 176.2 ypg on the ground, but the run game was non-existent against Syracuse, managing only 95 yards on 37 carries. If the Bulls are to move the ball against WVU, they will certainly need more from their ground game.
Defensively, the Bulls have been sound thus far and have allowed over 14 points just one time this season. The defense was tough on Syracuse last weekend, permitting just 307 total yards, but the group did falter in the end. Clinging to a 9-6 lead, USF allowed Syracuse to string together a 14-play, 98- yard which resulted in the game-winning TD midway through the final quarter.
"It was disappointing," Holtz said about the decisive drive. "They were averaging around five yards per play, running it between the tackles. We were trying to strip the ball."
The Bulls were unsuccessful in their attempt to strip the ball all game long, as they forced just one fumble while giving up 178 yards on the ground. It wasn't all that shocking to see Syracuse run the ball successfully however, as USF is giving up 146.0 ypg on the ground compared to just 155.0 ypg through the air. The Bulls did come up with four sacks against Syracuse, with three coming from Craig Marshall, who also had eight tackles. He now has team highs of six TFLs and four sacks to his credit.
WVU's offense had its way against UNLV, as the group gained 445 total yards, including 219 rushing, and scored seven TDs despite spending under 24 minutes on the field. It took TB Noel Devine just three carries to rush for 84 yards and two TDs, as the speedy back now has 475 rushing yards and four TDs on the season.
Quarterback Geno Smith also had a near perfect performance, as he passed for 220 yards and three TDs on 12-of-16 pass attempts. The steady gunslinger has been quite efficient this season, completing 66.4 percent of his pass attempts with 12 TDs against just two INTs.
Smith didn't get either of his favorite targets involved much last weekend, instead Brad Starks emerged to catch four balls for 100 yards and three TDs.
"I thought Bradley Starks stepped up, he's been nicked up all year, he's been in red and green jerseys for God knows how long, but he's finally getting healthy and he needed that today," said Stewart.
Starks, the team's third leading pass catcher last year, had no receptions on the season prior to his career performance. Typically the passing game revolves around Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders, who have combined for 52 catches and 672 receiving yards.
The Mountaineers have really thrived on the defensive side of the ball this season, holding opponents to only 254.6 ypg and a mere 13.6 ppg. The defense was once again stout last weekend, as WVU limited UNLV to 276 total yards while recording two INTs and three sacks.
WVU's run defense stood out once again, surrendering just 96 yards on 40 carries to UNLV. For the season, the Mountaineers are giving up just 86.8 rushing ypg and they have permitted just one TD on the ground. Terrence Garvin has done his part to stuff the run with 32 stops for the year, and he finished with seven tackles last weekend.