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It’s What They’ve Been Waiting For

South Florida gets chance to shine in national spotlight

September 28, 2007
Conference championship games are supposed to be played in December.

But there will certainly be a championship game feel at a sold out Raymond James Stadium in Tampa tonight when No. 5 West Virginia (4-0) takes on No. 18 South Florida (3-0).

And we’re still two weeks away from Columbus Day.

Tampa has never been regarded as a college town but Florida’s city by the bay has embraced the fast-rising Bulls in unprecedented fashion this week.

One local paper even went so far as to term this ‘‘The Game of the Century’’ in Tampa.

Not only will tonight’s game be the first sellout in the history of the South Florida program, the Bulls will break their previous record — set during WVU’s last trip to Tampa two years ago — by more than 20,000.

Downtown skyscrapers will be lit up in green and gold in hopes of catching the national television spotlight.

When 12,501 student tickets were made available on Monday morning, students camped out overnight to guarantee themselves good spots in a line that stretched more than a quarter-mile down the street before ticket distribution began at 5:30 a.m.

Thousands of green ‘‘Beat WVU’’ T-shirts — complete with the obligatory hillbilly-baiting and couch-burning messages on the back — were sold as part of a ‘‘Green-Out Night.’’

But coach Rich Rodriguez and his Mountaineers are getting used to this sort of treatment.

‘‘I’ve talked to our kids about that,’’ Rodriguez said. ‘‘It’s like the (New York) Yankees.

‘‘Every time they go somewhere, they probably get a big crowd. Every time we go somewhere, we’re selling out stadiums.

‘‘Our guys understand we’re going into a hostile environment but at the same time, I’d rather go into an environment like that than one where there’s no one there or no one cares.’’

Don’t get the idea WVU is taking the Bulls lightly. After last season’s 24-19 upset at Mountaineer Field, nothing could be further from the truth.

South Florida almost completely bottled up West Virginia’s dynamic duo of Steve Slaton and Patrick White in that late November shocker.

Slaton has two starts against USF but has yet to post his first 100-yard rushing game against the Bulls.

White shook loose on a pair of long fourth-quarter touchdown runs to break open a close game two seasons ago in Tampa but those holes weren’t there in Morgantown last fall.

White’s South Florida counterpart, Matt Grothe, was a puzzle the WVU defense couldn’t solve last season.

He passed for 279 yards and one score while rushing for 47 yards and another touchdown en route to earning Big East Freshman of the Year laurels.

A sophomore who has emerged as a team leader, Grothe isn’t the least bit shy around the media.

‘‘Now that we have an improved running game, our offense will be even more of a challenge for their defense,’’ Grothe said. ‘‘We already know we can beat them and that gives us confidence.’’

Turnovers killed the Mountaineers in last year’s meeting.

South Florida’s first touchdown came on a 9-yard fumble return by defensive end George Selvie, who forced the fumble on a sack of White.

Slaton, who was held to just 43 yards on 18 carries, lost a fumble inside the USF 1, costing the Mountaineers a touchdown.

Selvie has picked up where he left off last season, leading the nation with 8.5 quarterback sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in three games.

He’s backed by one of the best linebacking corps in the Big East and a secondary featuring twin cornerbacks who are expected to be first-day picks in the next NFL Draft.

‘‘Turnovers will be a key. In an emotional game, you can’t have negative yardage plays,’’ Rodriguez said. ‘‘That includes penalties, tackles-for-losses and all of that.

‘‘When you’re in second-and-15 or third-and-15, it’s hard to get first downs.

‘‘South Florida leads the Big East (.204) in stopping people on third down and a lot of that’s because they’ve gotten people in a lot of third-and-long situations.

‘‘We’ve got to stay out of those.”


? West Virginia is just 14-10 on grass fields under Rodriguez but has won its last eight.

? South Florida has received the opening kickoff and scored on the game’s first possession in all three games this season.

? Bulls’ linebacker Tyrone McKenzie is an Iowa State transfer who ranked No. 9 in the nation with 129 tackles for the Cyclones last fall. He received an NCAA waiver to play immediately at USF.

? West Virginia and South Florida are tied for No. 6 nationally with 4.0 quarterback sacks a game.

? The Mountaineers did not have a sack in their first four games a season ago.

? Grothe was picked off twice during last season’s game at Mountaineer Field but hasn’t thrown an interception since. His streak of consecutive passes without an interception stands at 132.

Article Photos

File Photo by Scott McCloskey
Pat White and the West Virginia Mountaineers will have to face a tough crowd tonight when they face South Florida in Tampa.

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