September 1, 2011

Week 1 preview in the Big East

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If everyone around USF - players' family and friends, students, media - is a little excited for this season's opener, it's tough to blame them.

Recent Bulls opening opponents have included McNeese State, Elon, UT Martin, Wofford and Stony Brook. This season, the Bulls open at Notre Dame.

Murray State at Louisville, 6 p.m.
North Carolina Central at Rutgers, 7:30 p.m.
Wake Forest at Syracuse, 8 p.m.
Fordham at Connecticut, noon
USF at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m.
Buffalo at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.
Austin Peay at Cincinnati, 7 p.m.
Marshall at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m.

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"There's a lot of circus that goes with playing a team like Notre Dame, the amount of media requests and everything that goes on," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "I want to make sure we focus on the game."

If there's a third ring to this circus Holtz speaks of, it may include his bloodlines and college degree. His father was the last Irish coach to win a national title, and Skip is a 1986 alum and former player as well as a former assistant in South Bend.

Beyond that, USF's road trip to Notre Dame is one of the few top-notch games during the first week of the season. It's the only Big East game against a ranked opponent, with Notre Dame at No. 16 in The Associated Press poll and No. 18 in the coaches' poll.

The run-up to USF's most intriguing opener since visiting Penn State to open the 2005 season (USF lost 23-13) is an event for the Bulls, but Holtz at least can take comfort knowing USF has had this kind of experience before.

Although USF has had a losing record in the Big East in each of the past three seasons, the Bulls have been able to rise to the occasion in these types of games, particularly on the road. In 2007, the Bulls upset Auburn on the road 26-23 in overtime in the second week of the season. Two years later, they stunned Florida State 17-7 in Tallahassee in quarterback B.J. Daniels's first career start. Last season, USF defeated Miami on the road 23-20 in overtime in what turned out to be Randy Shannon's last game as Hurricanes coach.

Although the Bulls lost 38-14 to Florida in the second game last season, the game was tied at halftime.

And this isn't the Notre Dame program Holtz left. Auburn, Miami and Florida State have won a combined six national titles since the Irish won their last one in 1988, and only a handful of USF's juniors and seniors were even born for that last championship.

The luster of the game is not so much facing Notre Dame but a quality opponent, Holtz said.

"It wasn't hard for our players to focus their attention when you watch what they did against Southern Cal to finish the season and Miami in the bowl game," Holtz said. "When you look at the way they finished the season and the expectations and when you put the film on, these guys are excited about this opportunity.

"These are big games for us as a young program. We're trying to find our way and prove who we are in the landscape of college football."

BEST MATCHUP: USF at Notre Dame. By far, this is the most interesting game in the first week for the Big East. Notre Dame's defense presents a test for the Bulls' offense, which struggled to find its footing last season. The Irish return eight starters to a defense that allowed three offensive touchdowns in the final four games last season.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: West Virginia OT Don Barclay. Dana Holgorsen's offenses have been notable for the huge numbers put up by the skill-position players, but the biggest test in the opener will be up front. The Mountaineers need to block Marshall DE Vinny Curry better than they did last season, when he had 11 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles against WVU. Barclay, the left tackle, likely will be matched up with Curry, who finished last season with 12 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. West Virginia allowed 2.1 sacks per game last season, fifth-most in the Big East, and that number must go down in Holgorsen's offense.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: Rutgers TB Savon Huggins. Greg Schiano called his tailback rotation a "play-it-by-ear situation" for the opener against North Carolina Central. Huggins, a four-star prospect from New Jersey, was Rutgers' top recruit. Hope are high he can help revive the Scarlet Knights' running game. Other backs will see time. Converted WR Jeremy Deering, the No. 1 back in spring, has slipped on the depth chart after a concussion, but Schiano expects him to be available, and junior De'Antwan Williams could earn the starting assignment.

NUMBERS GAME: Syracuse opens with Wake Forest but is 1-10 against the ACC since 1998, including 0-4 at home in that span. Last season's victory at Akron ended the Orange's nine-game losing streak in openers. Syracuse has not won a season opener at home since defeating Buffalo in 2000.

KEY INJURIES: Louisville C Mario Benavides (ankle), the lone returning starter on the line, is out. DE B.J. Butler (knee) will also miss the Murray State opener. ... Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce (ankle) is out. ... Pittsburgh LB Dan Mason (knee) is out. ... West Virginia DT Julian Miller is expected to play despite being hobbled by an ankle injury.

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"Whether he can be every down as good as he was on specific pass-rush things, I don't know. Time will tell. He set the bar pretty high as a third-down pass rusher. To be an every-down guy and be as effective as he was on third down is challenging. I don't know if he can play to that level on all downs or not. You have to get him in a game and make him play 60-65 snaps before you find out." - West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, on DE Bruce Irvin. Irvin's 14 sacks last season is the most of any returning player, but he finished last season with just 21 tackles overall

"I'm a firm believer that it's much harder to play at home than on the road. It is for me, and I'm not even playing. I give the kids this scenario. Here it is for Coach Marrone: 'My wife, her parents are coming to town, do we need a cab from the airport, are you picking them up, Do I need to pick them up? What hotel are they staying at? Are they staying at our house? Where are we going to dinner after the game? What do you parents want to eat? How many tickets? Your aunt's coming, my cousin's coming?' When we play on the road, here's the scenario: Good luck, I'll see you when you get home. No issues there. If I as the coach have these situations I have to handle, then I'm sure my players have similar situations." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, on the Orange's recent struggles at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse has not had a winning home record since 2004 and went 0-4 at home against FBS opponents last season

"The first snap of the game, we snapped the ball over the quarterback's head, and they picked it up and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown. A guy stood up in the stands and said 'High octane, my ... ." - New Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham, who calls his offense "high octane," to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, referring to a play in his first game at Tulsa

POLL WATCH: The Big East opens the season with just one ranked team - West Virginia, which is No. 24 in The Associated Press poll. That's better than 2009, when no Big East team was ranked in either poll. The 2009 season turned out OK for the league as the Big East finished with three ranked teams: No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 25 West Virginia.

ETC.: Connecticut rescheduled its opener against Fordham for Saturday at noon because Rentschler Field is being used by the National Guard for commodities distribution following Hurricane Irene. The game originally was scheduled for Thursday night. ... Former Rutgers DT Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a collision in a game last season, will join the Scarlet Knights' radio broadcast team as an analyst during halftime and postgame. ... Pittsburgh never faced Chazz Anderson while he was at Cincinnati, but the Panthers will face him as the starting quarterback for Buffalo, which is coached by former Bearcats offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn. Anderson won both his starts in 2008 but saw playing time only when starters Tony Pike and Dustin Grutza were injured. ... Holgorsen said he's not sure who will start at tailback - each of the candidates is a true freshman: Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison - but he says all three will play against Marshall. ... Louisville CB Adrian Bushell joined the team last week from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College but will not be available to play Saturday. Bushell was a four-star recruit who signed with Florida out of DeSoto (Texas) High in 2008. ... Cincinnati this week hired Dave Johnson, who coached the offensive line at West Virginia last season, to coach tight ends. He replaces running backs coach Jahmile Addae, who is sidelined by a health issue. Mark Elder will move from tight ends coach to running backs coach.

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David Fox is a national writer for He can be reached at, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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