Big East Stumbles Toward Scary Non-Conference Weekend
Next, the losses became comical. Washington pummeled Syracuse. North Carolina State battered Cincinnati on a nationally televised Thursday night game. Connecticut lost to former league outcast Temple. Even in victory, it sometimes felt like defeat with West Virginia having to mount several epic late touchdown drives to hold off rival Marshall.
Now, it's time for sobriety and a test of dignity.
Unfortunately the Big East cannot escape another wave of troublesome non-conference foes beginning this week. Pittsburgh has recovered since the Utah defeat, but hosts ACC power Miami on Thursday. Cincinnati could be staring down a third schoolyard beating at the hands of Oklahoma. Offensively-challenged Rutgers hosts a wounded but still loaded North Carolina team and West Virginia will head into the hotbox that is Tiger Stadium to take on LSU. It's a ridiculous slate -- great for college football but pernicious for a conference that, at least to outsiders, is going through a performance crisis.
Help is on the way once the league schedule begins, but for now the beatings will continue unless and until someone upends an opponent it shouldn't. Here's looking at you, West Virginia -- the runaway top team in the Big East at this point thanks to the rise of sophomore quarterback Geno Smith. Notes coach Bill Stewart of what lies ahead for West Virginia and the conference as a whole: "This is a big week for notoriety."
Something clicked for the Mountaineers late in that Marshall game. Staring down a 21-6 defeat, Smith coaxed 15 points out of 96- and 98-yard touchdown drives. He's been nearly flawless since, rolling past Maryland thanks to four touchdown passes. If he's as good as advertised it could be another productive week ahead, even against the mighty LSU defense and star cornerback Patrick Peterson. Flanked by star tailback Noel Devine, Smith and the Mountaineer offense seems to have caught stride.
The defense, however, isn't as certain. There was buzz in the preseason that this could be the best WVU defense in a long time, and although the Mountaineers pitched an opening week shutout against Coastal Carolina, several big plays surrendered late in the 31-17 victory against Maryland could be signs of trouble.
"I'm not in panic mode," said Stewart during the Big East teleconference, "but we can't continue to give up the big play." His answer could be a matter of coaching more than scheme, as he defended the Mountaineers' famous "3-3 Stack."
"It's been pretty good for West Virginia ... the defense has been pretty salty over the years."
Another program that may have turned a corner is Louisville. The Cardinals' undersized defense will be tested all year, but they may have found a rhythm offensively last week against a fast, talented Oregon State defense. Quarterback Adam Froman was solid both in the pocket and on the run -- passing for 288 yards to go with a pair of touchdown rushes. Shifty tailback Bilal Powell (pictured right, eluding a tackler) appears to be coming into his own with his productive tries when aligned in the Wildcat offense. For the season he has 328 rush yards with a 6.3 yards per carry average.
Moral victory talking point of the day: The Louisville offense could have easily added another 14 points, but was stuffed on 4th and goal from the two-yard line and then fumbled the ball just outside of the endzone for a touchback on two early drives.
"We played hard enough to get away with a victory," said coach Charlie Strong. "We needed someone to go make a play to win. We're looking for a complete game."
About the Scheduling
It's anecdotal but as the questions about the non-conference losses mount, the league's coaches have so far been less than panicked in response. Mounting defeats may make things more stressful at some point, but for now it is sufficiently early in the season to where the coaches are making it clear they're heavily involved in the day-to-day work needed to win and that eventually the wins will come if they stick to their program.
That said, something needs to happen soon to save some face -- after three weeks West Virginia's triumph at home against Maryland is the only Big East victory in seven tries against an opponent from a BCS automatic qualifying conference.
As frustrating as the league's performance has been, hopefully down the road they will hold to form and continue these matchups which are so good for college football. Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt made a solid point during the teleconference, noting that he doesn't mind all these big games -- he faces Utah, Miami and Notre Dame this year -- but that it's best if that kind of scheduling is done in an "all in" manner where either everyone in the league plays those kinds of games or nobody does.
Part of that is because he feels fans note wins and losses more than anything -- more than team performance, more than how well overall the offense or defense played. If one or more league members isn't living up to a hypothetical obligation to schedule those tough games they could sort of be cheating the system.
How the Big East programs shake up, in our view, after three weeks of play (Sagarin Predictor national ranking in parentheses)
1 – West Virginia (32 -- No. 22 AP)
2 – Rutgers (56)
3 – Pittsburgh (20)
4 – USF (40)
5 – Louisville (78)
6 – Connecticut (76)
7 – Syracuse (74)
8 – Cincinnati (70)