WVU's loss sends message to Big East

Just when it looked like West Virginia had the inside track on the Big East Conference title, reality hit like a hammer Saturday in Blacksburg, Va.

The Mountaineers were far from invincible in their 19-13 non-conference loss at Virginia Tech, opening eyes around the league.

"It says volumes," Pitt coach Walt Harris said. "I'd say our conference championship is up for grabs."

"Every team felt it could win the league since media day," said Boston College coach Tom O'Brien, whose team is considered WVU's biggest threat. "And I don't think the first month of the season changed that."

In a preseason poll of media members, WVU was the prohibitive favorite to win the title and the BCS berth that goes along with it. And the Mountaineers (4-1) did little to change anyone's mind through the first four games.

Three of those victories came in convincing fashion -- by a combined score of 146-53 -- and the fourth occurred in overtime against a Maryland team that twice dominated the Mountaineers in 2003.

The script seemed to be writing itself, with tailback Kay-Jay Harris running roughshod and quarterback Rasheed Marshall operating the spread offense to near-perfection.

Then, along came Virginia Tech to send a resounding message to anybody listening: WVU clearly is beatable.

The Mountaineers ran for only 134 yards against Tech -- 114 below their season average -- committed 11 penalties for 119 yards, held the ball for less than 25 minutes and allowed a touchdown on a blocked field goal.

It was hardly an awe-inspiring performance, which is why the Mountaineers dropped 12 spots in the rankings to No. 18.

"I wasn't the one putting us on a pedestal," said WVU coach Rich Rodriguez, who's led WVU to back-to-back 6-1 finishes in league play, with both of the losses coming at the hands of former member Miami. "People can say what they want. I don't care. To heck with them. All our goals are still out there except an unbeaten season. We can't get that one."

The vaunted Mountaineer running attack looked pedestrian Saturday after Harris left with ankle and knee injuries in the first quarter. The offensive looked human. And the defense continued to struggle in getting to the passer, sacking Tech quarterback Bryan Randall only once. WVU has just five sacks on the season, three of which came against Division I-AA James Madison.

"We have a lot of work to do," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez's Mountaineers don't send shivers through the league like Atlantic Coast Conference defectors Miami and Virginia Tech once did. They're well-respected, but not intimidating

Meantime, Boston College (4-1, 1-0) is making a case for itself as the league's best. Quarterback Paul Peterson (7-1 as a starter) is a modern-day version of Doug Flutie, and the BC running game, led by three freshmen, churns out 183.0 yards per game.

The Eagles own a conference victory over newcomer Connecticut, 27-7, and their only loss came in the final minutes at Wake Forest, 17-14, two weeks ago. Their offensive line is the best in the league and the defense yielded just 147 yards in an easy win over UMass, 29-7, last Saturday.

BC has played as well, or better, than WVU to this point. That's why it would be wise for Big East fans to mark this date on their calendars: Nov. 13. That's when BC travels to Morgantown for a game that could determine the conference champ.

"It's way too early to make a judgment," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "There's a lot of football left to play."

Rutgers, along with Pittsburgh, Syracuse, UConn and Temple, are on the outside looking in right now. Here's a quick breakdown of the league's seven teams heading into the heart of the conference season.

  • WVU -- Idle this weekend before a Wednesday night game at Connecticut. Toughest remaining games are at home against BC and at rival Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. The BC game should decide who wins it all.

  • BC -- Idle this weekend before a trip to Pittsburgh, which has won the past two meetings. The WVU game looms large.

  • Pittsburgh (2-2, 0-1) -- At Temple on Saturday. Loss to UConn this past Thursday might have been crippling. Could be a spoiler, but too young to contend.

  • UConn (4-1, 1-1) -- Plays host to WVU on Wednesday. Could make some noise in the league, but not ready for a launch to the top.

  • Syracuse (3-2, 1-0) -- Plays host to Florida State on Saturday before travelling to WVU on Oct. 21. Getting better, but not a contender.

  • Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) -- At Vanderbilt on Saturday before playing host to Temple. Blew a lead in the final four minutes vs. Syracuse last Saturday. Not ready for the upper echelon yet.

  • Temple (1-4, 0-0) -- Plays host to Pitt on Saturday. Lost, 70-16, to Bowling Green last week at home. Remember, it's still Temple. No chance.

    Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.