West Virginia, at 7-2 overall and 3-1 in conference, needs to earn a dose of respect. Wins over Liberty, East Carolina, Colorado, Syracuse, Marshall, UConn, and Louisville have not quite done the trick. Even ranked #25 in the BCS, the Mountaineers need that defining game to transform this season from lackluster to electric. They get their chance Friday night.
Cincinnati is 9-0 and looking to start a season unbeaten in ten for the first time in school history. They are ranked #5 in the country, territory that is usually reserved in the Big East for WVU. Even when their Heisman candidate QB Tony Pike went down with injury, superstar backup Zach Collaros kept the machine running, maybe even more successfully than Pike himself. It will be Collaros who starts for the Bearcats Friday, with Pike expected to at least play for the first time in a month (he is slated to start next weekend against Illinois).
So how can West Virginia win? Glad you asked.
First, the offensive line needs to show up. Notably absent for most of the season, the Mountaineers' offensive line will actually have to block an opposing player on Friday for the visitors to have any chance. With Jarrett Brown, Noel Devine, Tavon Austin, and Jock Sanders all potentially able to line up in the backfield, the Bearcats will have a task containing that group -- but only if the offensive line gives them a chance. Too often this season, both Brown and Devine have been forced into decisions that are not ideal (Devine turns two yard losses into 30 yard gains in his sleep, but let's not make it tougher on him, OK? OK.)
This will be made all the tougher as, even as a team known for their offense, Cincinnati boasts a very good defense. Giving up 45 points to UConn will provide the Mountaineers some inspiration, but this is a Bearcat defensive unit that only allows 16.4 points per game. They are most susceptible to the pass, which will put Brown's decision making in the spotlight. If Brown can manage a game intelligently, which is something this team has sorely lacked most of this season, the Mountaineers have a chance. If he's sharp, avoids sacks and turnovers, and lets his wheels loose, watch out. On the other hand, if he's careless with the ball, Cincinnati will eat him alive (I don't know what a Bearcat eats, considering it's a stupid name for a mascot and I didn't want to waste any more time on Wikipedia, but it will be Brown Friday night).
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati is the only team in the conference to surpass WVU with playmakers. Names like Pike, Collaros, Mardy Gilyard, Isaiah Pead, Armon Binns, and Jacob Ramsey are all game-changers. West Virginia's defense did a good job of doing more bending than breaking last week against Louisville, but Cincinnati is not Louisville. The front three of Chris Nield, Scooter Berry, and emerging Julian Miller must slow-down the vaunted Bearcat attack, which is averaging a tidy 40 points per outing. If they can get pressure on the quarterback, then cornerbacks Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy (gasp!) will not be forced into less than pleasurable coverage situations.
On the outside, it doesn't look like West Virginia has much of a chance. And maybe they don't. Nearly double-digit underdogs, on the road, against a fired-up night crowd in cozy Nippert Stadium is not generally a recipe for victory. But even as the battle looks uphill, remember that WVU still has one of the most playmaker-laden teams in all of college football. At any moment, the game can be broken open. We all know the talent is there -- there's very little doubting that. But we haven't seen 60 minutes of talent yet. Will we Friday? Who knows.
But if the Mountaineers can finally string together a complete effort, anything is possible, even a top 10 upset.