by Todd Helmick
October 30, 2006


As the second month of college football fades into the fall sunset, the time has come to separate the contenders from the pretenders, and the Big East Conference has saved their best for last. Front-runners Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia are all set to face off, and before you can digest seconds on that Thanksgiving turkey, one of them just may be in a prime position to play in Glendale, AZ on January 8 for all the marbles.

Of course, this is in direct reference to the Monster Mash coming Thursday on ESPN at 7:45 pm as the Mountaineers make a six hour drive to Louisville to do battle with the Cardinals in Papa John's Stadium (yes, they do sell Papa John's pizza there at the concession stands with your choice of over 15 different toppings). The house special is revenge, for it was only a little over a year ago that this Louisville team ventured into Morgantown and watched, with just over eight minutes left, a 24-7 lead evaporate into a three overtime loss. The fourth quarter meltdown by the Cardinals and the overtime events that ensued were a defining moment in the history of West Virginia football under the tutelage of head coach Rich Rodriguez. If you ask any WVU diehard, they will attest that this was the game which turned the fortunes of their team into what you see today - a current No.3 ranking in the polls. No.5 Louisville has not forgotten. This game has been circled on the calendar ever since. If you are seeking a ticket, anything short of knowing the governor of Kentucky personally (by his first name) will not get you into the show.

Now rewind the clock back to August, when Louisville boasted two Heisman candidates in RB Michael Bush and QB Brian Brohm. Bush is done for the year with a broken leg, and Brohm has been out nursing torn thumb ligaments on his throwing hand. Double Ouch! It's rare when one team has two Heisman guys on the same roster, but for both to get injured is even more unfathomable. Brohm has just recently returned and will hopefully be in full health come Thursday, though the Cardinals have kept their perfect record intact during his absence. The reappearance of Brohm, the 2005 Big East Player of the Year, is a key development, especially since WVU saw most of their secondary from a year ago depart. The inexperienced Mountaineer DBs, up to this point, have somewhat held their own, but have not yet seen anything remotely resembling the Cardinals' 10th-ranked aerial attack.

In a conference with only eight teams, each Big East school now has to locate five non-conference opponents. Front-runners Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia failed to schedule anything remotely resembling a ranked non-conference opponent, and the Louisville-Miami match up back in September was the Redbird’s only non-con challenge. That equates to 20 listless games. As ESPN GameDay’s Chris Fowler put it so succinctly, “C’mon”.

In short, the WVU schedule up to this point has been absolutely dreadful and is the weakest of any Big East team. No one seems quite sure how to measure this 2006 Mountaineer squad given the obstacles (or lack thereof) they have faced. Not all the scheduling blame falls on the WVU Athletic Department - when the ACC stole Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech from their conference, the remaining teams in the Big East were left scrambling at the last minute to fill openings on their respective schedules. At the same time, though, the WVU decision-makers also had a golden opportunity to add a decent non-conference opponent back in February, likely on the road in exchange for a return visit in 2007. But the powers that be felt more financially secure by adding another home date with an I-AA opponent (Eastern Washington). They took the money and may well pay the price in the long run – if West Virginia drops just one game, other one-loss teams will likely leapfrog them in the BCS.

One of the main questions being asked in this part of the country is how the Big East stacks up to the newly formed ACC. The comparison gets a little whacky since the ACC has twelve teams while the Big East only has eight. Still, given the recent instability of the ACC and its current lack of any top 10 team(s), the answer has to be quite well. Right now, in fact, the Big East may just be a better conference. For certain, Louisville and WVU are heads above anything the ACC can offer.

Which leads once again back to the monstrous game at hand between these two top five squads. At stake is a Big East title, positioning in the Heisman race between Louisville QB Brian Brohm and WVU RB Steve Slaton, and, even more important, a chance to win a national championship, something neither school has accomplished. Louisville brings a top ten rushing defense to the stage while WVU brings the nation’s top-rated rushing attack. Both are ranked in the top 25 in all the major defensive categories. Oh, this is as big as it gets. On Thursday night, the Great Pumpkin will rise up out of the pumpkin patch, fly through the air and bring great joy to football fans everywhere. And no pumpkin patch can be deemed more sincere than Louisville’s gridiron. It should be a graveyard smash.