December 2, 2010

Week 14 preview in the Big East

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THE SCHEDULE
Rutgers at West Virginia, noon
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, noon
Connecticut at USF, 8 p.m.

While Big East commissioner John Marinatto was in Fort Worth announcing the addition of TCU to the conference, Connecticut is looking even farther west - to the Fiesta Bowl.

After 10 seasons in FBS, Connecticut is aiming for its first BCS bid Saturday against USF, which is led by the Huskies' former coach and is another Big East team that recovered from early-season woes. As with UConn, USF started slow, but the Bulls have won four of their past five, including two in overtime.

Thanks to victories over Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Huskies own every tiebreaker against the other Big East contenders. But with West Virginia facing Rutgers at home, Connecticut better win in Tampa. Rutgers is 1-5 in the Big East this season and 0-16 all-time in Morgantown.

"They know the implications if we win," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said of his players. "They've known for the last four or five weeks if we lose we're done. We've been playing playoff football for the last five weeks. It's a one-game playoff, basically."

The one-and-done mentality has served Connecticut well, as the Huskies have limited the miscues that caused losses to Temple and Michigan and a 0-2 start in the Big East. In addition to the production of star running back Jordan Todman, Connecticut can credit its turnaround a change in the Huskies' turnover fortunes. In losses to Rutgers and Louisville, Connecticut was minus-four in turnover margin. Since then, Connecticut is plus-11 and now leads the Big East in that category.

While the defense has been able to force turnovers, the offense has been more careful with the ball with quarterback Zach Frazer's return to the starting lineup. Frazer has thrown two interceptions since reclaiming the starting job while the defense has forced 14 turnovers during the four-game win streak.

The Huskies entered the season with two decorated veteran linebackers in Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus, but the key to the season has been the development of six starting sophomores on the defense. End Jesse Joseph leads the Huskies in sacks (eight), safety Jerome Junior and cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson have combined for seven interceptions and three touchdowns, and linebacker Sio Moore is second on the team in tackles (94).

"They're not young anymore," Edsall said. "They've done a good job of listening and doing what coaches have asked them to do and gone out and executed the game plan. Early in the season, we were giving up too many big plays. Through this streak that we've been on, we've minimized the big plays."

At this point, USF would welcome a few seasoned sophomores. If USF is going to upset Connecticut, the Bulls may need to rely on a true freshman walk-on quarterback who was a virtual unknown just a week ago. A graduate of Tampa Jesuit, Bobby Eveld walked on to USF after Holtz's arrival and moved up to second string after scholarship freshman Jamius Gunsby was injured during the spring; Eveld hung onto the backup job behind B.J. Daniels.

When Daniels left last week's game at Miami with a quadriceps injury, Eveld came on and sparked USF. Daniels was 4-of-12 and Eveld was 8-of-15 for 120 yards and a rushing touchdown in a 23-20 overtime win.

Holtz, who coached Connecticut as a Division I-AA program from 1994-98, said the Bulls are preparing as if Eveld is the starter.

"What [Eveld]'s done as a player is pretty special," Holtz said. "You never know as a coach how a young man is going to respond until he steps into that situation. The adage is that if a dog's going to bite you, he'll do it as a pup."

To keep its BCS hopes intact, Connecticut hopes it has sharper teeth than Eveld and USF.

Key matchup: Rutgers special teams vs. West Virginia special teams. Blocking kicks and punts are about the only things Rutgers has done well this season. The Scarlet Knights have blocked four punts this season and have gotten to three extra points in the past two games. Meanwhile, West Virginia is tied with Cincinnati for having the most kicks/punts blocked this season (three). This game figures to be a mismatch, but a blocked kick or punt could shift momentum for Rutgers.

Player on the spot: Pittsburgh RB Dion Lewis. He seemed to return to his old form in the weeks leading up to the West Virginia game, but last week could not have gone much worse. He rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries and fumbled once (he fumbled once in 325 carries all of last season). He should rebound against Cincinnati's porous defense, but if not, Pittsburgh could be staring at a 6-6 finish, including a 4-3 mark in the Big East; at the start of November, the Panthers were undefeated in the Big East.

Numbers game: USF's Daniels has the most career starts and most consecutive starts (21 for both) among Big East quarterbacks. If he does not start against UConn, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib will have the league's longest streak of consecutive starts with 12, though Pitt's Tino Sunseri and West Virginia's Geno Smith will match him with starts Saturday. Connecticut's Frazer has the second-most career starts in the Big East with 17.

What they're saying

"It seems to me it's always OK for these so-called great football leagues to have a three-loss team or a four-loss team. Our league is tough. ... We don't have to take a backseat to anybody. We beat each other up, also. The formula says the Big East gets a bid through 2013. To me, everyone agreed to that formula. If they didn't want to agree with that formula, they can get out of that formula and play somewhere else." - West Virginia coach Bill Stewart

"We know with a win in this game we can still win the Big East title. We have to go out and play hard; the Big East title is still our motivation. We can't worry about what is going to happen with everybody else; we only can worry about what we can control." - Pitt FB Henry Hynoski, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"We will not lose here at Rutgers. We will consistently win here at Rutgers. That has never changed nor will it ever change. Everybody hits some stretches. We hit a stretch. It is unfortunate, but we are going to battle through it." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano

Etc.: With TCU joining the Big East in 2012, the league will have four teams that were in Conference USA in 2004; the others are Louisville, Cincinnati and USF. ... Connecticut's Edsall said Monday he has not been contacted by other programs seeking coaches. He has been mentioned for the Minnesota vacancy. ... Cincinnati WR Vidal Hazelton may try to play in the season finale against Pittsburgh after sustaining a torn ACL in the opener. Hazelton hoped to obtain a sixth year of eligibility, but Cincinnati officials don't think that is likely. ... Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead is 68 yards short of becoming the Bearcats' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002 (DeMarco McCleskey). ... Freshman Jordan Thomas had only the second 100-yard game for a conventional Rutgers running back with 120 against Louisville. Joe Martinek rushed for 109 against Norfolk State. WRs Jeremy Deering and Mohamed Sanu have one 100-yard rushing game each. ... Louisville and Syracuse have completed their regular seasons. The Cardinals are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007, but they have not gone to a bowl since 2006. The Orange are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004 and have clinched their first winning season since 2001. ... Rutgers will miss a bowl for the first time since 2004. Cincinnati will miss a bowl for the first time 2005. ... The Big East re-entered the BCS top 25 with West Virginia landing at No. 24. ... West Virginia DT Chris Neild (hamstring) missed the second half against Pittsburgh. He should play against Rutgers, but he might not be at 100 percent. ... Pittsburgh DE Jabaal Sheard was named an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association as well as a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award presented to the nation's top defensive end.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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