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This Week, The Onus Is On the Big East

What will we see from Tom Savage against the U,N.C. defense?

The Big East is always under the microscope, of course. This week is slightly different: seeing that the country always expects the conference to fail, Saturday’s slate provides the Big East with an opportunity to salvage its tarnished reputation. And that’s what it is, that’s how it should be viewed: as an opportunity. Big games abound, both home and away, with each providing a chance at national recognition — of the positive variety, believe it or not. Just imagine: the Big East in the national conversation! What a world it would be! All it will take is everything the conference has. Good luck.

First up: Pittsburgh. The Panthers host Miami (Fla.) in a game that’s lost some of its luster, thanks to Miami’s ugly showing in Columbus and Pittsburgh’s disappointing loss at Utah in the season opener. It’s still a marquee game, one pitting two teams in similar straits: it might be a reach to call it a must-win for either squad — it’s still a non-conference game, after all — but a victory would go a long way towards reclaiming momentum lost during an early-season lull.

Both the Panthers and Hurricanes want to establish the tempo offensively, though each goes about doing so in different ways. Pittsburgh remains run first, last and often in between, though quarterback Tino Sunseri, despite a late interception, impressed in the loss to Utah. The big story has been the poor play of sophomore Dion Lewis, who has followed up a sterling rookie campaign with an extremely slow start to 2010: 102 yards rushing on 2.9 yards per carry through two games; Lewis averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago.

The Hurricanes have also struggled maintaining production on the ground, though the offense will always go through Jacory Harris. Now, about those turnovers: Miami has a problem controlling the football, as the loss to Ohio State illustrated. Pittsburgh hopes to do the same; however, it will be far more difficult to get pressure on Harris without end Greg Romeus, out for the next six games — give or take — with a back injury.

Speaking of offensive ineptitude: Rutgers enters Saturday’s 2-0 despite ranking 102nd in total offense, 77th in scoring. That might have something to do with its schedule — Norfolk State and Florida International. U.N.C. presents a huge test for the Scarlet Knights, particularly up front: the Rutgers’ offensive line, extremely untested, hasn’t fared well against inferior competition thus far. The Tar Heels, despite their losses on the defensive side of the ball, might have too much along the front seven for Rutgers to handle.

Then again, this might be the game where quarterback Tom Savage finally breaks out. He’s been a disappointment through two games, throwing for only 220 yards and a score; he completed only seven passes for 72 yards in last Saturday’s win over F.I.U.

Plenty of blame falls on the offensive line, as noted. Still, we all expect more of Savage — and his fellow sophomore, highly-touted receiver Mohamed Sanu. To be fair, Sanu’s numbers remain strong when held proportionally against Rutgers’ success on offense. Nevertheless, this pair must come through with a big performance to help Rutgers move the ball against North Carolina.

Does Cincinnati have a chance against Oklahoma? Well, probably not. It doesn’t seem like a solid bet, based solely on what we’ve seen from the Bearcats through three games. The offense? Strangely inefficient. I understand that first-year coach Butch Jones tweaked Brian Kelly’s offense; we still expected similar results, even if the names had changed. Looking back, why was I confident that Jones could keep things rolling in Cincinnati?

Perhaps because of how Central Michigan not only retained the status quo, but improved under his watch when Jones replaced Kelly in 2007. Perhaps because the Bearcats returned Zach Collaros, who was a revelation under center as an injury replacement in 2009. Regardless of the cause behind Cincinnati’s offensive slide — and I hesitate to put the blame solely on Jones, though perhaps I should — the combination of a scoring drought with a very average defense has led the Bearcats to a shockingly poor start. It doesn’t get any easier come Saturday, obviously.

Then there’s West Virginia: the Mountaineers travel to L.S.U. to take on the equally puzzling Tigers. Both teams are 3-0; both teams are under fire for sloppy play; both teams struggle for 60 minutes. Yet both teams find a way to win, which surely counts for something.

Not that the Mountaineers are doing more than just surviving, at least through three games. The coaching staff, by and large, is under fire — the guys at L.S.U. knows how this feels. And for good reason, in my opinion.

My distaste for Gary Crowton’s offensive¬†malfeasance has been touched on countless times during this site’s brief existence; I’ve also had unkind words to say about Bill Stewart — his lack of offensive imagination, his inability to get his team ready to play — though those doubts were allayed somewhat during an investigation into his second half success.

Stewart can boost his team’s prestige — and his own, perhaps — with a win over the Tigers. It won’t be easy: L.S.U. is more talented, and we can’t discount the home field advantage. West Virginia can’t allow itself to become intimidate by the atmosphere, though that’s certainly easier said than done. The Mountaineers need to relax, play loose — and please, avoid any first half malaise.

The same can be said of Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Cincinnati: look at this weekend as an opportunity to make national noise, granting each team and its conference some much-needed respect. Again, easier said than done.

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  1. Jim Narby says:

    to miami’s defense.. yes it was an ugly showing in columbus, but they were playing against ohio state. it’s not like they were playing nebraska.

  2. Matt Rob says:

    Narby, what are Ohio State’s chances on Saturday versus Reynoldsville Tractor College?

  3. Matt Rob says:

    The Big East has been privy to a perfect storm of suck this year:

    – an offseason dominated by talk of Pac-10, Big-10, Big 12 (expansionism), ACC (new TV contract), and the SEC is always present in college media. (During this, the Big East was only talked about for its potential as new prey to Big-Time-Football through the well-greased hands of the bigger conference to the Midwest.)

    – inordinate amount of early games on the road: 52% of games by Big East so far have been road games (and that win/loss record is correspondingly awful)

    – instability in coaching ranks (3 new head coaches?). No current coach has won the conference outright.

    – a pair of sophomores as the most experienced quarterbacks in the league

    – an explosion of ACC teams taking up preseason spots in the polls (not that any currently unranked Big East teams are deserving)

    – terrible showings across the board.

    Not a good start. But at least basketball starts soon!

  4. Rookierookie says:

    Speaking of Dion Lewis – which running back in Pennsylvania is having a worse season, Dion Lewis or Evan Royster?

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