October 7, 2010

Week 6 preview in the Big East

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Connecticut at Rutgers, 7:30 p.m.
Syracuse at USF, noon
Memphis at Louisville, 2 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
UNLV at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati, 7 p.m.

First-year USF coach Skip Holtz and quarterback B.J. Daniels still are feeling each other out. For example, Daniels learned Saturday that he's not allowed to freelance on fourth down.

Holtz called a fourth-down play from Florida Atlantic's 4-yard line, but Daniels changed the play at the line. The Bulls converted on a 3-yard run from Mo Plancher, but Holtz was not impressed.

"He came back and I said, 'Don't ever check a fourth-down call. Coaches get fired over fourth-down calls,' " Holtz said. "He looked at me and said, 'Coach, I like you. I don't want you to get fired, so I won't check any more on fourth down.' He's a great young man, and he wants to be good."

Just as Holtz and his quarterback are getting to know each other, the Bulls and their opponent this week, Syracuse, will learn a lot about themselves Saturday.

Both were picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East, but both are optimistic thanks to 3-1 starts and the wide-open state of the Big East. Despite the records, USF and Syracuse are mysteries right now.

USF has defeated FCS member Stony Brook and two Sun Belt programs with combined records of 1-7; Syracuse has beaten two FCS teams and winless Akron.

In each of their major tests, USF and Syracuse didn't look much like conference, or even bowl, contenders. USF was tied 7-7 with Florida at halftime, but the Bulls lost 38-14. As with USF, Syracuse had a strong start on the road before collapsing in the second half. The Orange took a 10-0 lead on Washington before losing 41-20.

Still, Syracuse coach Doug Marrone has been impressed by the Bulls.

"It's a team that's a better football team than they were last year," Marrone said. "There's a lot more discipline, hustle. ... They've got a quarterback going into his second year who is extremely dangerous. They have some receivers that are coming back. Their defensive line is better than it was last year, in my personal opinion."

Last season's defensive line had a first-round draft pick (Jason Pierre-Paul) and a one-time All-American (George Selvie).

Meanwhile, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib has been one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. In addition to Nassib, Holtz complimented Syracuse's defense, led by Chandler Jones and Derrell Smith.

"This is a talented team," Holtz said. "They've done a great job at Syracuse."

By Saturday, one team will have more answers in addition to a leg up in the standings.

Best matchup: Connecticut RB Jordan Todman vs. Rutgers' rush defense. Todman has rushed for 100 yards and at least one touchdown in every game he has played this season (he missed the Buffalo game). In addition, Connecticut coaches don't mind working him as they worked Donald Brown two years ago. Todman carried the ball 37 times last week against Vanderbilt. Rutgers is ranked seventh nationally in rush defense, but the Scarlet Knights (2-2) haven't played an FBS team ranked better than 80th in rushing and are coming off a home loss to Tulane. Rutgers must shut down Todman to have a chance at a win.

Players on the spot: Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri. Sunseri rebounded from a 2-of-9 start against Florida International to complete 13 of his final 14 passes, for 204 yards. Will he carry that momentum into the game against Notre Dame? Between a healthy Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, Pitt should have an effective running back duo. The retooled offensive line did not allow a sack last week against FIU.

Numbers game: The Big East has two players in the national top five in all-purpose yards. Pitt's Ray Graham leads the nation at 236.3 yards per game (492 rushing yards, 92 receiving yards, 125 kickoff return yards). Connecticut's Jordan Todman is fifth at 181.8 yards per game (638 rushing yards, 34 receiving yards, 55 kickoff return yards).

What they're saying

"For us, trying to take our offense to another level, which we need to, Jonathan Baldwin needs to get his hands on the football. He had probably as good a week of practice last week since he's been here, from an execution standpoint." -- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt

"You look at the parity. I don't really refer to it as 'BCS' or 'non-BCS' because I've sat on the other side, where Miami is sitting,' and I knew at Central Michigan we had a football team as good or as capable of beating BCS teams." -- Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, whose team plays Miami (Ohio) this weekend

"Here's the thing. We've got to win this football game. That's our sole objective. That's our mission. But the second thing is we've got another opponent, not in seven days but in five. And the crucial thing is that it's a league opponent." --West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, on Saturday's game against UNLV and next Thursday's game against USF, to the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette

Etc.: The playing status of Rutgers QB Tom Savage will be a game-time decision; he left last week's homecoming loss to Tulane with a injury to his throwing hand. Pitt moved Dom DeCicco, an all-conference performer at strong safety, to weakside linebacker against FIU, and he had six tackles against the Golden Panthers. Coach Dave Wannstedt said DeCicco's position could shift between linebacker and nickel back, depending on offensive personnel. West Virginia RB Noel Devine's status is uncertain after he sustained a bone bruise on his toe against LSU. West Virginia expects G Josh Jenkins (knee) to be cleared to play, but the Mountaineers are not sure how much, if at all, he will play against UNLV. Since 2001, six of eight meetings between Rutgers and Connecticut have been decided by a touchdown or less. The series is even at 4-4 since then. Louisville's win at Arkansas State was the Cardinals' first road win since 2008, ending a 10-game road losing streak. Louisville DE Rodney Gnat is tied for third in the nation in sacks with five. ... Connecticut RB/KR Robbie Frey had arthroscopic knee surgery Monday and could miss two to three weeks. OT Jimmy Bennett will miss four to five weeks following hand surgery and a knee injury. Rutgers reserve LB Jim Dumont will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. USF RB Demetris Murray and WR Sterling Griffin are expected to play against Syracuse after sitting out the Florida Atlantic game. Maikon Bonani is USF's kicker -- for now at least; he replaces Eric Schwartz, who missed two kicks against FAU.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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