WVU Patrick White file art

Patrick White runs wild in the 31-3 rout of Rutgers on Oct. 27.

BLUEFIELD — In last year’s meeting between Louisville and West Virginia, the hype was just a notch below that of the Patriots and Colts.

Two undefeated teams ranked in the top five in the nation met on a brutally cold Thursday night in Kentucky, with the fifth-ranked Cardinals winning a 44-34 shootout over the third-rated Mountaineers.

Louisville would lose to Rutgers the following week, but did capture the Big East title, stopping West Virginia’s league title streak at three.

This year’s game — which will be played on Thursday night at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown — isn’t receiving near the same attention. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s not a big game.

“I think it’s not as hyped because last year both teams were rated in the top 10 and undefeated going in, but there is still a lot at stake,” West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said. “Obviously for us, the Big East race is still out there and I think our players understand that every game is a huge game for us, and for them.”

No. 6 West Virginia (7-1, 2-1) is trying to stay on the heels of front-running Connecticut in the Big East race, while Louisville (5-4, 2-2) is just hoping to reverse what has been a disappointing season for a team thought to be a national title contender before the year began.

Those struggles certainly can’t be blamed on the offense. Louisville is averaging 37.0 points and 510.4 yards per game, led by quarterback Brian Brohm, a Heisman Trophy candidate, who has thrown for 3,229 yards and 26 touchdowns for the Cardinals.

The last two meetings between these clubs have been shootouts. West Virginia rallied for a 46-44 three-overtime win over Louisville in 2005. These offenses are capable of a repeat performance in front of an ESPN audience.

“I think the players are excited about playing on a Thursday night, as I am sure Louisville’s players are,” Rodriguez said. “We know we’ve got a great challenge ahead of us, they have some of the most explosive players in the country.

“Everybody knows about Brian Brohm and (receivers) Harry Douglas and (Mario) Urrutia and the great tight ends that they have. I’m sure we’re going to get a great effort from them and our players will give a great effort as well.”

West Virginia has their own weapons. Junior signal-caller Pat White has thrown for 1,070 yards and nine touchdowns, and run for another 656 yards and nine more scores. Steve Slaton has gained 825 yards rushing, along with 13 touchdowns.

Darius Reynaud has made numerous big plays as the ‘Eers’ top receiver, while Louisville first-year head coach Steve Kragthorpe is just as worried about fullback Owen Schmitt.

“Pat and Steve are obviously dynamic with the ball in their hands, and they’re getting the ball to Darius and the rest of the receivers,” Kragthorpe said. “I’ll tell you the guy who is the unsung hero on their offense with everything that he does is Owen Schmitt.

“He is a very, very versatile football player, and to me he’s a key to their offense.”

Both teams expect their defenses to be tested. West Virginia has shown noticeable improvement on that side of the ball. They’re ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (262.1) and sixth in scoring defense (14.9), one year after the ‘Eers surrendered 32.2 points over their final six games.

“Defensively, they’re playing extremely well,” said Kragthorpe, who came to Louisville from Tulsa after Bobby Petrino left for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. “They’re doing some things differently than they have in the past.

“They’re playing a little bit more of a cover-2, two-deep configuration which is something that is a challenge for you and they’re playing it very, very well.”

Louisville struggled defensively early in the season, allowing 41 points a contest during a 2-3 stretch. However, the Cardinals have knocked that down to 24, 21 and 17 over the last three games — posting wins in two of those three decisions.

“From watching the film, I know Louisville has taken some criticism, but they are playing extremely hard,” Rodriguez said. “I think they are getting better. Their defense in the last couple of weeks has done an outstanding job and that is a credit to their coaching staff.

“They took their hits early, but their young guys are still playing hard and they’re getting better each and every week. I think they’re a better football team than they were at the beginning of the year.

“I think we are too, but I think that’s a testament to the way they have hung in there all season.”

West Virginia has been dominant since a loss to South Florida, winning three straight by margins of 41, 25 and 28 points. That includes a 31-3 rout of Rutgers on Oct. 27.

“They’re a very good football team, there’s no question about it,” said Kragthorpe, whose Cardinals also last played on Oct. 27, defeating Pittsburgh 24-17. “I think Rich has probably got his most complete football team that I’ve seen since I’ve been watching them and I’ve been watching them for a long time.”

Kragthorpe is also aware that the game is in Morgantown. Kragthorpe was last part of a game at West Virginia in 1996 while he was an assistant coach at Boston College. He knows what lies ahead.

“It is a great college environment, I don’t think there is any doubt about that,” Kragthorpe said. “It’s a rowdy crowd, and particularly being a night game, I think it is going to be even louder than normal.

“It’s going to be fun to be in that environment and compete and it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be rowdy. It will be a great atmosphere, there’s no doubt about that.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

at bwoodson@bdtonline.com