Big East Report: Even in Defeat, Several Teams Steady Sinking Ship
Its programs somehow oriented just a little bit different, a bit more confident and true. They need to be after a month of battery, fighting against stiff winds and waves aboard inappropriate sailing vessels.
A trio of games displayed a more tenacious, competitive Big East. Rutgers fell to a depleted but still dangerous North Carolina 17-13, but fought through an injury to its quarterback and several miscues. West Virginia nearly toppled LSU, losing 20-14 in Tiger Stadium, but again a small handful of mistakes kept it from overcoming a more talented foe. Most surprising, a listless Cincinnati righted its offense and gave powerhouse Oklahoma a legitimate scare. Four Bearcat turnovers were clearly the difference there.
All three looked sloppy and did not do the things essential to win, but all three games could easily have been more lopsided and embarrassing.
College football's season is short, a rapid-fire affair dizzying in pace. But there's always time for programs to evolve and show a face different from earlier in the year. That may just have happened for the Scarlet Knights, Mountaineers and Bearcats.
A shaky showing last weekend -- a 24-12 victory over laughingstock Western Kentucky -- spared the Bulls a mention here with the previous trio. However, here, too, the Bulls may be getting close to a turnaround. Coach Skip Holtz felt the Bulls would have gone "down to the wire" against Florida several weeks ago had it not been for an impossible-to-overcome five turnovers.
Erratic quarterback B.J. Daniels is a proven leader who had carried the USF offense for nearly a full season, but the development of a running game is critical to the Bulls' chances of being a power program. Enter sophomore tailback Demetris Murray, who came out of nowhere to produce a 15-carry, 115-yard performance (7.7 average) against the Hilltoppers. Holtz said Murray had at one point been fifth-string and physically ailing in camp. He challenged him to be tougher and work past some ankle pain. Murray responded, "I'm your guy," and has been a different player since.
Said Holtz, "he's a real positive addition to what we're doing."
Murray, in combination with senior back Moise Plancher, powered the Bulls' offense to a 226-yard outing on the ground. They were so successful that Daniels -- so important this last year to everything in the USF offense -- attempted just 11 passes.
There's no doubt who it'll once again lean on when an offensive spark is needed, but for the first time in a while USF may finally have a credible set of backs explosive and consistent enough to take pressure off its playmaking quarterbacks.
Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart is clearly peeved following his team's 20-14 loss to LSU. He was particularly brief in response to questioning during the Big East coaches' teleconference, often supplying one word answers. The 'aw shucks' persona was shelved as the competitive coach roared out. He "sure wanted to come out of there with a win," adding that West Virginia "didn't back up an inch."
Asked several times about passing efficiency and other empirical measures, Stewart deviated from his usual analytical ways and said simply, "the worst statistic was we lost."
Asked if LSU was the toughest place he'd ever been (as a coach) he said simply, "No."
It was that kind of an exchange Monday. Not that one can blame him, as the Mountaineer offense had looked sharp the previous two weeks before the Tigers slowed things down. West Virginia had its opportunities against a Tigers offense that had limped into the game, failing to cross 100 yards passing several games in a row. It remained ineffective, but the running game did just enough and Mountaineer turnovers plus a punt return touchdown by Heisman Trophy candidate Patrick Peterson made the difference in a game that was a classic 50/50 affair that ultimately went the Tigers' way. Those are the games that drive coaches nuts -- and Stewart's happy face clearly disappeared well after the shooting had stopped.
In 28 games played overall this season, Big East offenses have passed for over 200 yards in a game just 15 times. Rutgers has yet to throw for more than 200 yards in a game.
How the Big East programs shake up, in our view, after four weeks of play (Sagarin Predictor national ranking in parentheses)
1. West Virginia (26)
2. Rutgers (56)
3. USF (48)
4. Louisville (83)
5. Cincinnati (53)
6. Connecticut (67)
7. Syracuse (71)
8. Pittsburgh (47)