Thursday, November 02, 2006

Top 5 throwdown will decide who's the Beast of the East

3 West Virginia (7-0) at 5 Louisville (7-0)
7:30PM ESPN Papa John's Stadium

The revamped Big East gets their first marquee matchup after 2 years of ridicule & doubt concerning the strength of the conference.
When Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech fled the Big East like Wesley Snipes evading the IRS and were replaced with Conference USA cast-offs Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati, most 'experts' believed the conference would be down for a long time.

Here we are two seasons later and two of the top 5 teams in the country reside in the Big East, and those two offensive powerhouses square off tonight in a showdown that is dripping with National Championship ramifications.

The West Virginia Mountaineers were the chic pick at the beginning of the season to have a monster year after coach Rich Rodriguez guided them to an 11-1 record including a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia last year, and they haven't disappointed. They boast 2 of the most explosive offensive players in the country in quarterback Pat White, who is a threat to pass or run, compiling 1441 total yards and 15 TDs as a the dual threat captain that makes the offense go. Running back Steve Slaton is an electrifying 5'10" sophomore who has rushed for 1,059 yards on 151 carries, a eye-popping 7 yards/carry average, plus he's scored 9 TDs. The only reason he hasn't scored more is that after he gets done running the team all the way down the field WVU goes with bruising 6'4", 245 junior FB Owen Schmitt to do the dirty work at the goal line, much like the New York Giants do with Tiki Barber & Branden Jacobs; Schmitt has cashed in on 5 scores this season, plus one in the air. Thanks to all that running West Virginia averages 319 yards on the ground and they score an average of 41 points per game.

But as Lee Corso loves to say, not so fast my friend, because the Cardinals are no slouches themselves on offense. Despite losing stud running back Michael Bush to a season-ending leg injury in their first game Louisville has still managed to run for 216 YPG and they score at a 39 PPG clip, thanks in no small part to coach Bobby Petrino's system. But the players have a lot to do with it as well. Junior QB Brian Brohm missed 2 games with a thumb injury earlier this year but has still tossed for nearly 1300 yards & 4 TDs and is the unquestioned leader of the team; his favorite target is 6'6" stud receiver Mario Urrutia (29recs, 520yds, 4TDs.) But it's the guys who have filled in for Bush that who are most responsible for Louisville's success this year: sneaky 5'11" senior Kolby Smith (451yds,6TDs) & exciting 6'0" sophomore George Stripling (355yds, 5TDs) have more than adequately combined to make up for Bush's loss, and backups Anthony Allen & Brock Bolen have chipped in with 420 yards & 5 scores. In other words the Cards also like to run, but Brohm can also beat you with his arm as well. Just like West Virginia.

This battle will be won by whoever can neutralize the other team's strength. Louisville is 8th in the country against the run but haven't played anyone with near the ground arsenal that the Mountaineers posses; West Virginia allows only 12 PPG but haven't faced an offense anything like they will face tonight. Throw in the fact that these two teams played a triple OT thriller last year, when L'Ville blew a 17-point lead and eventually lost 46-45 in Morgantown and this one has all the makings of a high-scoring, vengeance-filled classic

Strap yourselves in, it's going to be a wild night at the Big Pizza Box (where the Cards have not lost since Nov 15, 2003, a span of 15 games.) My "inside the numbers" man Michael tells me that the line started at Louisville giving three but has shifted to even, which means everyone & their brother is betting on West Virginia. But with revenge on their minds and a National Championship in their sights I look for the Cards to win a shootout squeaker. Then it will have to face another hungry Big East unbeaten: 8-0 Rutgers next Thursday night.

MY PICK: Cardinals 35, Mountaineers 34

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