(AP) – Despite last week’s lopsided victory and a national ranking, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart won’t allow his players to look past South Florida. If history is any indication, it’s with good reason.
The 25th-ranked Mountaineers open Big East play Thursday night in Morgantown looking to avoid their fourth loss to the Bulls in five years.
Saturday’s 49-10 victory over UNLV vaulted West Virginia (4-1) back into the rankings after being knocked out following a 20-14 defeat to then-No. 15 LSU on Sept. 25.
Now it’s South Florida (3-2, 0-1) looking to send West Virginia out of the polls for a second straight meeting, having done it last year with a 30-19 home victory Oct. 30. The Mountaineers were ranked in the top 10 in losses to the Bulls in 2006 and 2007.
“We’ve got a lot on our hands,” Stewart told the school’s official website. “They’ve whipped us the last couple of games. We even lost against them with a fine quarterback by the name of Patrick White. You can call it a whole combination of things.”
The Bulls are off to a shaky start under first-year coach Skip Holtz, losing their only two games against BCS conference schools. One of those defeats came in their conference opener Saturday, 13-9 to Syracuse.
Holtz knows this matchup could be much tougher, considering West Virginia has an improved aerial attack led by sophomore Geno Smith after long being known for its running game.
“This is going to be one of the better football teams we’re going to play, especially playing on the road on a Thursday night,” Holtz said. “They’re throwing the ball better than they ever have. They are adding a dimension to their offense they have not had over the last four or five years.”
Smith, the Big East’s second-highest rated passer with 1,139 yards and 12 touchdowns, was 12 of 16 for 220 yards in 2 1/2 quarters Saturday.
All three of Smith’s touchdown passes went to junior wide receiver Brad Starks, who had four catches for 100 yards in his return after missing the first four games with a groin injury.
“We made comments in our staff room that arguably our best receiver has yet to catch a pass and we were still doing pretty well in the throw game after four games,” offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen said. “And certainly after five I am assuming we’re still doing OK in that department and now we’ve got one of our better players the ball.”
West Virginia’s success through the air doesn’t mean its running game has suffered.
Senior Noel Devine, 10th in the nation in rushing yards in 2009, needed only three carries to gain 84 yards and score two touchdowns versus UNLV. He ran for more than 100 yards in each of the first three games before being held to 34 against LSU.
Devine was limited to 42 yards on 17 carries against the Bulls last year while B.J. Daniels led South Florida to victory, rushing for 104 yards and throwing for 232 with three TDs. Daniels enters the rematch struggling, having completed 47.9 percent of his passes over the last four games with seven interceptions and averaging 1.9 yards per rush in the past three.
South Florida is ranked seventh of eight Big East teams in total yards per game (337.2) and last in passing (161.0). The Bulls were held to 219 yards by Syracuse, went 5 for 16 on third downs and scored their only touchdown on Lindsey Lamar’s 94-yard kickoff return.
But Stewart refuses to base his opinion on South Florida solely on statistics.
“They’ve got talent, they’ve got coaching, they’ve got a lot of things,” he said. “They’ve got great athleticism and as many talent players as they’d like to have. If people don’t think they’re good, they don’t have a clue.”
Supporting Stewart’s sentiment is that South Florida did hang tough with then-No. 8 Florida on Sept. 11. That game was tied 7-7 at halftime before the Gators broke things open with a 21-point third quarter.
The Bulls’ only victory in their last five games versus ranked opponents came against West Virginia last year.