|College Football: West Virginia at Rutgers Preview and Picks|
|Written by Anthony Rome|
|Wednesday, 24 October 2007 06:00|
Big East battle in Jersey
The sixth-ranked Mountaineers open a crucial season-ending stretch of conference games Saturday when they visit a 25th-ranked Rutgers team coming off its biggest win of the year.
West Virginia beat Rutgers 41-39 in three overtimes last Dec. 3 in Morgantown, denying the Scarlet Knights their first BCS berth and handing Louisville the Big East's automatic bid as conference champion. The Mountaineers entered that game with two conference defeats and handed Rutgers its second loss in Big East play.
West Virginia (6-1, 1-1) has won 12 straight against Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) and owns a 28-4-2 advantage in the series.
Oddsmakers from Bodog.com have made West Virginia -6 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday's game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 69% of bets for this game have been placed on West Virginia -6 (View College Football bet percentages).
The Mountaineers enter this season's matchup in Piscataway with just one loss, a 21-13 defeat at South Florida on Sept. 28. They have won twice since then, including a 38-13 victory over Mississippi State last Saturday, and now close the season with five straight Big East games.
After visiting Rutgers, West Virginia faces Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut and Pittsburgh to end the regular season. A loss to the Scarlet Knights would seriously hobble the Mountaineers' Big East title hopes.
"We've got a lot of things to get better at this week, and it will be a big challenge going up to Rutgers," coach Rich Rodriguez told West Virginia's official Web site. "Our primary goal every year is to win the Big East championship, and all of our games left are Big East games."
The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, lost back-to-back games to Cincinnati and Maryland, but have rebounded with wins at Syracuse on Oct. 18 and against the Bulls on Oct. 27. South Florida was ranked No. 2 coming into the game, making it the highest-ranked team Rutgers - which played in the first college football game in 1869 - has ever defeated.
The victory boosted Rutgers back into the Top 25 and also put it back in the hunt for the conference title.
"It's just another step in the big scheme of things for this program," said quarterback Mike Teel, who threw two touchdowns. "In the last two games, the 2007 version of Rutgers football has showed up and played. We have a long, long way to go, but it's a good step in the right direction."
This matchup will feature two of the best running backs in the country in West Virginia's Steve Slaton and the Scarlet Knights' Ray Rice.
Slaton, who finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy last season, has run for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns on 135 carries this year. Along with quarterback Pat White, who has run for 540 yards and eight TDs on 74 attempts, Slaton leads a West Virginia rushing attack that ranks second in the nation with 304.1 yards per game.
Slaton ran for 127 yards last Saturday after rushing for a combined 123 in his previous two games. He also scored his 43rd career rushing TD late in the first quarter, breaking the school record he shared with Avon Cobourne and Ira Errett Rodgers.
Slaton made his first career start at Rutgers in 2005 and ran for 139 yards and a touchdown.
"I think he has been a great back since I saw him here two years ago," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He can do it all."
Rice leads the Big East and ranks fourth in the nation with 142.7 rushing yards per game. He ran for 181 yards against South Florida, one week after rushing for a season-high 196 yards and three touchdowns in Syracuse.
His performance against the Bulls moved him past former West Virginia running back Amos Zereoue into second place all-time in the Big East with 3,913 rushing yards.
"He does it all," Rodriguez said of Rice. "He's a complete football player. He's a very physical guy, and I think he's meant an awful lot to their program. If you didn't have to play him, he'd be fun to watch because he plays with such passion."
Both teams also have banged-up quarterbacks. White injured his right, non-throwing shoulder at Syracuse on Oct. 6 and suffered a bruised thigh against South Florida a week earlier. He sat out the second half against Mississippi State after throwing for two touchdowns and running 64 yards for another score, but Rodriguez said he could have played.
"Last week he was very limited in practice, and I think he will be able to do just about everything in tonight's practice and through the week," Rodriguez said Sunday.
Jarrett Brown, who played all of last season's matchup with Rutgers while White nursed a sore ankle, threw for just 23 yards in the second half last weekend but did connect with Darius Reynaud on a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Teel has been playing with a sore right thumb that clearly bothered him late in the game against South Florida. Schiano said that even though Teel is in his second full season as a starter, he needs to practice to play against the Mountaineers.
Teel, however, said there was no way he'd miss the game.
"That's not happening," said Teel, who has thrown for 1,996 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. "Not happening. I will be there."
If Teel can't start, Jabu Lovelace, his backup the past two seasons, would probably go.
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