September 15, 2011

Week 3 preview in the Big East

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On paper, West Virginia and Pittsburgh appear to have solved the offensive issues that caused the Backyard Brawlers to replace their coaches after last season.

Against Norfolk State, West Virginia's 55 points were the most for the Mountaineers in 42 games. And WVU's 431 passing yards were the most for the Mountaineers since 1998.

Pittsburgh has scored 70 points in two games. The Panthers feature the nation's leading rusher and third-leading scorer in tailback Ray Graham.

THE 12 BEST GAMES
FRIDAY
Iowa State at Connecticut, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY
Pittsburgh at Iowa, noon
West Virginia at Maryland, noon
Akron at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m.
Louisville at Kentucky, 7 p.m.
Florida A&M at USF, 7 p.m.
Syracuse at USC, 8 p.m.
The numbers, though, belie the truth: The offenses still are going through a transition period. Both coaches expected some early bumps in the road, but the margin of error will be slimmer this week as both teams go on the road against Big Six opponents. West Virginia will visit Maryland, and Pittsburgh is at Iowa.

"It's not surprising where we're at," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said.

WVU's main problem is slow starts. Marshall and Norfolk State combined to outgain the Mountaineers 229 yards to 109 in the first quarter. West Virginia hasn't allowed a first-quarter touchdown, but also hasn't scored one itself. West Virginia is outgaining opponents 715-243 in the last three quarters. All 11 of the Mountaineers' touchdowns have come in the second, third or fourth quarters, and the defense has yet to allow an offensive touchdown.

Those slow starts won't be as easy to overcome on the road, Holgorsen said.

Moreover, West Virginia has struggled to run the ball with its three freshman tailbacks. The Mountaineers are averaging 72 yards on the ground. WVU isn't trying to hit a certain rushing landmarks; the Mountaineers just want defenses to respect the run game.

"How many yards you rush for is not nearly as important as the fact that you are able to run the ball," Holgorsen said. "If they come into the game saying, 'We know they can't run the ball, so we can drop eight all the time,' that's going to be a challenge offensively. I don't care about the numbers. I just want the defense to know we can do both."

Running the ball hasn't been an issue for Pitt. Graham has rushed for 322 yards and six touchdowns in the first two games, against Buffalo and Maine.

But quarterback Tino Sunseri has been sacked nine times, including seven times against FCS member Maine. Pitt coach Todd Graham says the fault isn't all on the line: Sunseri has been sacked six times in max protection.

"To be quite honest with you, we haven't played well at quarterback," Graham said. "We've done great things at that position at times, and we have great potential at that position. I have belief in Tino at that position."

The key for Sunseri, coach Graham said this week and during the preseason, is to stay within the confines of the offense. "Ad-libbing" does not work in the system, the coach said.

Graham is optimistic, but as with West Virginia, Pitt is facing an opponent more equipped to jump on mistakes.

"We're closer than you think," Graham said.

Best matchup: Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey vs. Iowa OT Riley Reiff. Pittsburgh moved its top defensive player around in the first two games, starting him at outside linebacker. What those two games illustrated is Lindsey still is best-suited to play with his hand on the ground. He'll be back in that role against Iowa, which will present a difficult test with Reiff at tackle. It's a matchup NFL scouts will watch.

Player on the spot: Louisville TBs Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright. A year after Bilal Powell was one the nation's top rushers, Louisville's rushing attack has been a flop this season. Part of that is because of five new line starters in the first two games. Still, Anderson and Wright must be more productive. Against Murray State, they combined for 92 yards on 23 carries; against Florida International, they combined for 83 yards on 28 carries. Now the combo must face Kentucky and LB Danny Trevathan, who has made 170 tackles since the start of last season.

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Keep an eye on: Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib. USC has made its fans sweat in the fourth quarter since the start of last season. In last week's win over Utah, the Trojans' outscored their opponent in the fourth quarter for only the second time in the past 11 games. Meanwhile, Syracuse has been a slow starter in wins over Wake Forest and Rhode Island. If this game comes down to the fourth quarter, Syracuse actually may have the advantage. The Orange are outscoring opponents 22-3 in the fourth quarter, thanks to Nassib's arm. He is 16-of-16 for 165 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime this season.

Numbers game: Connecticut has not scored an offensive touchdown in its past three games against FBS opponents (Vanderbilt, Oklahoma and USF). The Huskies' scoring in that span has included seven field goals, two interception returns, a fumble return, a blocked punt and a kickoff return. Connecticut's last offensive touchdown against an FBS team came in the fourth quarter on Nov. 27 against Cincinnati on a Jordan Todman run. No player on the current roster has scored an offensive touchdown against an FBS team since Isiah Moore's fourth-quarter touchdown catch against Pittsburgh on Nov. 11.

Quotes of the week

"Right now, Kentucky is better than we are. They've done better in recruiting. They've beaten us the last four games. They've been to five straight bowl games, so they're a better program than what we are right now." - Louisville coach Charlie Strong

"He's 245 pounds, and he thinks he's going to be a hurdle champion jumping over everybody. At 245, you're a tank; you run through them." - USF coach Skip Holtz, on TB Darrell Scott, a former five-star recruit who transferred from Colorado

"I think this could be a defining moment in our season, to see how we bounce back. It reminds me a lot of our freshman year when we lost to Oklahoma [52-26] in the second game of the season and we ended up winning the Big East championship. It's all about how we respond. We have to come out and roll up our sleeves and get back to work." - Cincinnati LB J.K. Schaffer, to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

"We didn't get into this situation overnight. In 2006, 2007, we had Ray Rice, but we were great at protecting the passer. We had some great offensive linemen. It gradually declined, bottoming out last year. We're going in the right direction. You don't just snap your fingers and you're No. 1 in the country in protection and top five in the run game. We're going to work our way through it." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano

Poll watch: In The Associated Press poll, West Virginia moved up one spot, to No. 19, and USF moved up two spots, to No. 20. They were the only league teams to receive votes in the AP poll. Pittsburgh received no AP votes after receiving 11 last week. Despite Notre Dame's loss to Michigan, USF moved into the coaches' poll at No. 22 after being unranked the week after defeating the Irish. West Virginia moved up four spots, to No. 20.

Etc.: Syracuse is facing USC for the first time since 1990, when the Trojans won the Kickoff Classic 34-16. QB Todd Marinovich was the MVP of that game. His brother, Mikhail Marinovich, is a starting defensive end and a game captain for Syracuse. ... Syracuse DE Chandler Jones and starting nickel back Orlando Fisher will not play against USC because of injury. CB Ri'Shard Anderson could return after not playing last week. ... Connecticut expects to have RB D.J. Shoemate (ankle) back this week. He was dressed and ready to play in an emergency last week against Vanderbilt. Shoemate is expected to split carries with Lyle McCombs. DE Jesse Joseph (ankle) is unlikely to play against Iowa State but could return in the coming weeks. ... Louisville C Mario Benavides will not play against Kentucky because of injury, but DE B.J. Butler could return. ... USF DE Claude Davis has not started this season, but he has been one of the Bulls' most productive players with three sacks and two forced fumbles in two games. ... Cincinnati allowed 405 passing yards and four touchdown passes last week against Tennessee. This week's opponent, Akron, has total 282 passing yards this season and has scored three total points. ... Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead is averaging 11.5 yards per carry. He has scored a touchdown on his first carry of both games this season. ... During its off week, Rutgers worked on altering its offensive line after the Scarlet Knights rushed for 1 yard and allowed four sacks against North Carolina. Schiano did not reveal specifics to reporters, but freshmen Betim Bujari (a guard) and Kaleb Johnson (a tackle) could see more playing time. Against North Carolina, when starting OT Andre Civil was hurt, David Osei moved from center to tackle. Backup Caleb Ruch played center in that alignment. ... Rutgers TB De'Antwan Williams, who started the opener, plans to transfer. He was dropped to third on the depth chart this week.

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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