Tigers, Mountaineers struggling for respect, wins

Published 4:28 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It wasn’t that long ago when the Auburn-West Virginia matchup looked intriguing and possibly as a springboard to national title hopes.

Both began the season in the Top 10 with fast-paced spread offenses. Now they can’t even muster as much as a vote in the polls.

Auburn (4-3) and West Virginia (4-2) are struggling to regain respect entering their first-ever meeting Thursday night. One of them will dig an even-deeper hole entering the final stretch in their respective conferences.

“Our backs are against the wall,” said Auburn center Ryan Pugh. “We’ve got to come out swinging.”

The preseason Associated Press Top 25 had West Virginia at No. 8 and Auburn at No. 10. Midway through the season, they’re shells of their early expectations.

West Virginia finally has a healthy Pat White, who returns from injuries that kept him out of all or parts of three games.

Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads knows a little about the elusive quarterback. Rhoads was at Pittsburgh when the Panthers beat No. 2 West Virginia 13-9 last December, knocking the Mountaineers out of the national championship game.

“We tackled extremely well that night,” Rhoads said.

It helped that White didn’t play much due to a dislocated thumb. But in two previous meetings with Pittsburgh, White ran for 220 yards in each game.

“He’s a great decision-maker,” Rhoads said. “When he makes a decision to go, he’s very, very fast.”

White, an Alabama native, isn’t getting caught up in the hype of playing a school that recruited him. White said he was more of an LSU fan growing up, didn’t follow either Alabama or Auburn and wanted to leave the state to go to college.

“Am I excited? Yes. It’s another week of football,” White said.

And another week of wondering whether West Virginia or Auburn can generate any offense. Some fan blogs are predicting a 3-2 score like Auburn’s early-season debacle at Mississippi State.

Big East preseason favorite West Virginia is on a three-game winning streak but needs to win every game the rest of the way, including a bowl, to extend its streak of 11-win seasons to four.

Since a season-opening whipping of Championship Subdivision opponent Villanova, West Virginia has averaged just 17 points over its last five games.

Against Syracuse two weeks ago the Mountaineers were limited to 268 yards, including 52 passing, against one of the nation’s worst defenses. Only a Noel Devine 92-yard touchdown run late in the game sent West Virginia fans home somewhat happy.

“We’ll take a win anyway we can take it because that’s what the game is all about,” said West Virginia first-year coach Bill Stewart, who took over when Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan. “I’d rather come out with a win and not look so pretty than to lose a football game and get a lot of style points.”

Auburn, the preseason SEC West favorite, is in danger of losing four games this early in a season for the first time since 1999, coach Tommy Tuberville’s first season.

A few days after Tuberville fired offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, Auburn lost 25-22 to heavy underdog Arkansas on Oct. 11. Earlier this week Tuberville put to rest Internet rumors that he plans to quit.

Both teams had a week off to figure out what’s wrong.

Or maybe, at Auburn, to see if there’s much right.

“We have a lot of room for improvement in every area,” Tuberville said.