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Mountaineers, Bearcats looking for respect

by Greg Talkington

SPORTS WRITER

MORGANTOWN -- Two teams searching for respect in the college football world meet Saturday night at the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium when Cincinnati hosts West Virginia.

The non-televised game is set to kick off at 7 p.m.

While both coaches have downplayed the importance of the game, the players haven't.

"This is do-or-die -- that's the attitude we're taking," WVU cornerback Brian King said. "Coach has told us this game won't make or break our season, but we're taking it like it is."

Both teams run similar offenses with talented sophomore quarterbacks -- WVU's Rasheed Marshall and Cincinnati's Gino Guidugli -- running the show.

But Bearcat coach Rick Minter says there's one difference.

"Rasheed Marshall," Minter said. "He's a big-time running threat who throws the ball very accurately.

"Gino is more of a classic, dropback passer."

Marshall is coming off an effort against Wisconsin that he admits wasn't his best. He missed several open receivers which could have resulted in big plays, keeping the Mountaineers in the game.

Still, he amassed 295 yards of total offense against the Badgers.

Statistically, Guidugli (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) had a bad outing in Cincinnati's 36-29 win over Texas Christian. He completed just 18 of 38 passes for 287 yards and threw four interceptions. Still, he managed to rally the Bearcats from a 15-point deficit to pull out a victory. His 15-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw was the winning score.

"He's had a knack of doing that for them," WVU coach Rich Rodriguez said. "He brought them back several times last season.

"Some guys have a knack for doing it, and it's hard to know what that 'it' is."

While Guidugli is the centerpiece of the Bearcat attack, Marshall shares that designation with tailback Avon Cobourne.

The 5-9, 195-pound senior continued his assault on the all-time WVU rushing mark with 79 yards at Wisconsin. He now shows 3,640 yards in his career, 447 yards short of Amos Zereoue's record of 4,087 yards.

He'll be joined in the backfield by fullback Mo Fofana.

When WVU goes to four wide receivers, the likely starters will be Phil Braxton, Miquelle Henderson, A.J. Nastasi and Dee Alston. The Mountaineers received a lift from junior college transfer Derrick Smith against Wisconsin, as he caught two passes for 47 yards.

Ryan Thomas, Josh Bailey and Tory Johnson will continue to share time at tight end.

The veteran offensive line consists of tackles Lance Nimmo and Tim Brown, guards Jeff Berk and Ken Sandor and center Zack Dillow, who reclaimed the center spot. Ben Timmons will continue to to serve as the top backup at each position.

They'll have a decided size advantage against the Bearcat front seven.

Senior end Antwan Peek (6-4, 245) spearheads the Cincinnati defense. He's joined along the line by senior tackles Darryl Ransom (6-1, 271) and DeMarcus Billings (6-0, 264) along with end Derrick Adams (6-0, 253, sr.).

The linebacking corps consists of juniors Jason Russell (6-2, 207) and Tyjuan Hagler (6-2, 220) on the outside and senior Willis Edwards (5-11, 231) in the middle.

The secondary shows sophomore Doug Monaghan (6-3, 210) at strong safety, senior Ivan Fields (5-11, 186) at free safety, with senior Blue Adams (5-10, 188) and junior Zach Norton (6-0, 184) manning the corners.

Monaghan, Peek and Fields all had 10 tackles against TCU, while reserve defensive end Andre Frazier (6-5, 213) led the team with 11 stops.

"They have a very athletic defense and Peek is one of the top defensive ends in the country," Rodriguez said. "I think he'll play at the next level."

West Virginia's defense is coming off a disappointing effort against Wisconsin. While limiting the Badgers' always strong rushing attack to just 156 yards on 45 carries (3.4 ypc), Wisconsin quarterbacks torched the Mountaineers for more than 300 yards passing.

Finding an effective pass rush was top priority for WVU this week in practice. The Mountaineers have just one sack by end Jason Davis in two games.

This will likely mean more blitzing by linebackers Grant Wiley, James Davis and Ben Collins and their backups, Scott Gyorko, Leandre Washington and Adam Lehnortt.

"We'll definitely mix it up a lot more than we have," WVU co-defensive coordinator Todd Graham said. "But this is a different passing game than what Wisconsin had, but we'll bring more guys than we did the first two weeks."

Joining Davis in the front line are middle guard David Upchurch and end Tim Love.

Leading tackler Angel Estrada (22 tackles) gets the call at rover with Jermaine Thaxton at strong safety. Jahmile Addae and Arthur Harrison will split time at free safety.

Wiley has recorded 19 tackles, including a team-high three for loss. Collins also has 19 stops while James Davis and Addae have 16 tackles apiece.

The unit will be charged with stopping a Cincinnati offense that rolled up 409 yards and 22 first downs despite five turnovers against TCU.

Guidugli's favorite target is senior slot receiver LaDaris Vann (5-9, 200), the school's all-time leading pass catcher with 133 receptions. He had nine against TCU.

Seniors Tye Keith (5-8, 187) and Jon Olinger (6-3, 225) give Guidugli two more dependable options. Keith caught 42 passes for 578 yards and four scores last season while Olinger had 27 receptions in 2001. He hooked up with Guidugli on a 75-yard touchdown pass against TCU.

Tight end A.J. Lucious (6-3, 242, soph.) is used mainly as a blocker.

Senior right tackle Josh Gardner (6-5, 284) leads the frontline. Gardner earned some pre-season All-American honors in some publications and has started 36-straight games.

Joining him in the trenches are sophomore left tackle Kyle Takavitz (6-4, 299), guards Kirt Doolin (6-4, 300, sr.) and Travis McGee (6-3, 301, jr.) and center Josh Shneyderov (6-2, 272, jr.).

Joining Guidugli in the backfield are running backs DeMarco McCleskey (5-11, 215, sr.) and Tedrick Harwell (5-11, 184, jr.). McCleskey has accumulated 2,210 yards rushing in his career, seventh best in UC history.

The Bearcats also feature one of the top placekickers in the nation in senior Jonathan Ruffin. He's made 43-of-57 career field goals and hit on 62-straight PAT attempts. In addition, he's the school's all-time leading kick scorer with 218 points.

The punting is in the hands of a true freshman, however. Chet Ervin averaged 40.5 yards on six punts against TCU.

Todd James will continue to handle all placements for the Mountaineers while Mike Fazzolari (43-yards per punt) is the punter.

Sports writer Greg Talkington can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at gtalkington@exponent-telegram.com