Big East Report: Rising to Life?
It remains to be seen whether a corner has been turned, especially this late in the game following a disastrous overall non-conference performance. However, there are signs of life heading into the first games of conference play this week.
South Florida trounced Florida Atlantic 31-3 despite missing top rusher Demetris Murray. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone -- the Bulls' next opponent -- called it their most complete game of the season. The Bulls did struggle against Florida several weeks ago, but they look like a team that is starting to put things together.
First-year Bulls' coach Skip Holtz realizes he has a team on the rise. "It has been a swift transition," he said on this week's Big East coaches' teleconference. "I give a lot of credit to the seniors."
While also crediting previous coach Jim Leavitt for providing him the unusual situation of inheriting a quality football team, Holtz knew like any fresh-faced coach he would have to find a way to connect with his players.
"You don't get the pulse of a team meeting as a group," said Holtz. So, before the start of the season he carved out 15 minutes to meet with each player and give them a chance to talk. So far, the personal touch has paid off, with the team playing solid football in all three phases. USF set a school record Saturday in sacking FAU quarterbacks seven times. This despite the NFL departures of ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul.
In the process, USF has gone from a preseason No. 6 pick in the Big East to the upper half of the league.
Graham's their man. Sophomore tailback Ray Graham, that is. With standout sophomore tailback Dion Lewis suffering from what could be a case of the yips, as well as a shoulder injury, Graham has been an increasingly productive force for the Pittsburgh offense. Stalled earlier in the season due to an inexperienced quarterback, three new starters on the interior offensive line and Lewis' inexplicable struggles, Graham has perked up the Panthers' offense.
Since missing the opener against Utah, Graham has rushed for 115, 100 and 277 yards successively. His 492 total yards is good for 21st nationally, while his 123 yards-per-game average is 11th nationally. Both pale to his 9.46 per-carry average, second nationally. Graham's most recent outburst was the complete package, as he added 19 receiving yards and another 78 on kick returns for a grand total of 374 all-purpose yards. Both the single-game rushing and all-purpose marks are tops nationally this year and the rushing total is good for fourth on the all-time Big East single-game rushing charts.
Once Graham proved he could be productive for multiple games, the offense has improved, especially as he carried it to four consecutive second-half touchdown drives to put away a pesky Florida International last week, 44-17.
Despite all that, coach Dave Wannstedt has been reluctant to publicly give Graham the nod over Lewis, who sat out last week's game with a shoulder injury. Lewis is averaging just three yards per carry, while rushing for 27 and 41 yards in his last two appearances -- against New Hampshire and Miami. He's clearly struggling with or without injury and, for the time, being has been badly outplayed by his fellow sophomore.
Wannstedt also credited Pitt's improvement to quarterback Tino Sunseri's progress over the course of the game, some adjustments in the offensive line and quality play from defensive end Jabaal Sheard. "Those moves made us better Saturday," he said.
The Panthers did look better, but are not out of the woods yet as they'll face Notre Dame this weekend in one of the final big-name non-conference games remaining for the Big East. Although coach Brian Kelly's offensive system is new to many Irish opponents, the Panthers have faced Kelly's dangerous offense before when Kelly coached at Cincinnati. "There's lots of carryover as far as scheme and approach," Wannstedt said.
Rutgers and Syracuse
Even the 'bad' are looking good. Conference cellar-dwellers Rutgers and Syracuse don't look like world beaters but their coaches see improvement on the way. "We're a more competitive team than we were a year ago," said Marrone during the Big East's weekly coaches teleconference. Added Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose team had an embarrassing home loss to Tulane Saturday, "I'm seeing signs of a football team that will be very good in the near future."
The fate of both programs probably lies in the hands of a pair of highly touted quarterbacks, Tom Savage (Rutgers) and Ryan Nassib (Syracuse). Savage has battled injury the last few weeks but set Big East freshmen quarterback records last year. Nassib, meanwhile, drew raves from Holtz and not a week goes by when Marrone doesn't offer some impressive praise.
How the Big East programs shake out, in our view, after five weeks of play (Sagarin predictor national ranking in parentheses)
1. West Virginia (26)
2. USF (41)
3. Connecticut (57)
4. Louisville (79)
5. Pittsburgh (45)
6. Cincinnati (58)
7. Syracuse (67)
8. Rutgers (76)