September 22, 2011

Week 4 preview in the Big East

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Despite ranking seventh in the nation in pass offense and 15th in scoring, West Virginia still is fine-tuning its new offense.

This is more than a coach being difficult to fully satisfy, though.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
N.C. State at Cincinnati, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY
Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, noon
Toledo at Syracuse, noon
Ohio at Rutgers, 2 p.m.
Connecticut at Buffalo, 6 p.m.
UTEP at USF, 7 p.m.
LSU at West Virginia, 8 p.m.
West Virginia's offense, though prolific statistically this season, will need to be at its best against LSU's defense Saturday night. The season hasn't reached its second month, and LSU already has a defensive resume to envy.

The Tigers held Oregon to 95 rushing yards, just the fifth time the Ducks failed to rush for 100 yards in five seasons with Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator and coach. Last Thursday, LSU limited Mississippi State to 52 rushing yards and two field goals. Saturday, West Virginia will see if LSU's defense is just as effective against a pass-first offense.

Quarterback Geno Smith, who has passed for 1,008 yards and seven touchdowns this season, doesn't expect to see anything different from what Oregon and Mississippi State encountered.

"They man you up a lot," Smith told reporters this week. "They feel like their athletes will beat your athletes."

That's where the fine-tuning and the adjustments come into play. Part of that starts with Smith. Despite his hot start, he's still learning to trust the scheme, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.

"He still has to totally understand what the system is and trust the system and not think about trying to do too much," Holgorsen said. "There were some instances out there where he didn't trust what we were telling him. That needs to be a constant.

"He needs to trust what we tell him and not think that he's got a better way of doing things. Not that that's an every-down issue or anything like that."

As well as West Virginia has thrown the ball, it has struggled with balance. The Mountaineers are averaging only 78.7 yards rushing yards per game.

Against Maryland, West Virginia showed progress in the run game, building a 24-point lead in the third quarter thanks in part to 75 rushing yards in the first half. That's not a huge number, but enough to show balance. But in the second half, WVU drifted away from the run game. The Mountaineers rushed for 21 yards on nine carries in the second half, not including a sack and three quarterback kneels.

Holgorsen at least saw encouraging signs from the line, which will be matched up against one of the best defensive fronts in the country.

"They proved our point that they were capable of finishing blocks and getting the running backs free and getting good pass protection," Holgorsen said. "LSU does have as good a D-line as anyone in the country; they got about eight or nine guys that can roll in there who all look the same to me. We're not going to able to wear them down because of their depth."

WVU players already are familiar with LSU's defense. LSU defeated the Mountaineers 20-14 in Baton Rouge last season, limiting West Virginia to 177 total yards. The Mountaineers trailed 17-0 in the second quarter before scoring two touchdowns to cut the lead to three. But WVU didn't score in the 27:30.

"It's a new year, new season," Smith said. "They have new players. That has nothing to do with this year."

BEST MATCHUP: West Virginia's wide receivers vs. LSU's secondary. Mountaineers WRs Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney each had at least eight receptions and 100 yards in last week's win over Maryland. They'll have a stiff test against LSU's cornerback duo of Morris Claiborne, the Tigers' only preseason All-SEC honoree, and Tyrann Mathieu, the star of the opener against Oregon.

PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: Pittsburgh's pass defense. Pittsburgh is outscoring opponents 26-0 in the first quarter, but opponents are outscoring the Panthers 49-16 in the fourth quarter. The main culprit is the pass defense. That was on full display in last week's collapse against Iowa. Hawkeyes QB James Vandenberg was 15-of-18 for 175 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Bad news for Pitt is that Notre Dame, this week's opponent, has been productive throwing the ball after halftime. The Irish are completing 74.2 percent of their passes in the second half.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Rutgers' offense. After an off week, Rutgers may make changes on its offensive line and in its running back corps to revive a ground game that accounted for 1 yard on 25 carries against North Carolina on Sept. 10. Redshirt freshman G Betin Bujari and freshman T Kaleb Johnson will play against Ohio, but Greg Schiano would not say whether either will start. The bulk of the carries will go to Savon Huggins, Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering. De'Antwan Williams, who led the team with 20 carries, left the program after the change in the depth chart. Schiano said the moves at running back were based on "upside" and who is most likely to improve through the course of the season.

NUMBERS GAME: Cincinnati has allowed an average of 35.9 points per game in its past 14 games against major-conference opponents, dating to Nov. 7, 2009, under former coach Brian Kelly. The Bearcats have allowed fewer than 30 points only twice in that span. Included in those 14 games is a 30-19 loss to this week's opponent, North Carolina State, on Sept. 16 last season.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"We're extremely excited, and after the season's over, I'll be more than happy to open it up and we can talk about it as much as anyone wants to talk about it. But right now, I hope to be the head coach carrying our team into the future, and we have to win football games. That's what's important." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, on his team leaving the Big East for the ACC

"In this day and age, people are going to do what they absolutely think is the best thing for them to do. They're going to take care of themselves first. This idea, this issue of loyalty to conferences, regions, it's not what it was years back. I've always been excited about the Big East. I think it just illustrates that people are going to do what they absolutely feel is best for them to do. I know our institution will do what is absolutely best for the University of Connecticut." - Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni

"He could have come back into the game on Saturday night if we needed him to play, but Teddy [Bridgewater] was playing so well I left him in. I told [Will] Stein, 'If I need you, I'll put you in.' " - Louisville coach Charlie Strong, on Bridgewater's play against Kentucky as a substitute for Stein, who left the game with a shoulder injury. Strong reiterated Stein is the Cardinals' starting quarterback

"I would say it's my best game played yet. I was very pleased with all of my reads. Even the interceptions were the right reads. I just have to put more air on the ball." - Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri, comparing his start against Iowa to the previous two games

POLL WATCH: West Virginia and USF continued to creep up in the coaches poll. West Virginia moved from No. 20 to No. 16 after the win over Maryland, while USF is 17th, the first time the Bulls cracked the top 20 since Oct. 19, 2008. This is the first time two Big East teams have been ranked in the top 20 since the final poll of the 2009 season (No. 8 Cincinnati, No. 15 Pittsburgh).

ETC.: Syracuse SS Shamarko Thomas is questionable for the game against Toledo. Marrone said starting DE Chandler Jones is "close" to returning to the lineup. ... C Moe Petrus and RG Adam Masters are the only players to retain their position on Connecticut's new-look offensive line. Mike Ryan has been moved from left to right tackle. Kevin Friend has been moved from right tackle to left guard. Jimmy Bennett has been moved from left guard to left tackle. ... Pittsburgh OL Chris Jacobson (leg) is day-to-day. He has started 17 consecutive games. ... Cincinnati and Rutgers are tied for the national lead in turnover margin at plus-four per game. Cincinnati was minus-15 last season (minus-1.25 per game). ... Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham led Tulsa to a 28-27 win over Notre Dame last season. The Panthers lost 23-17 to Notre Dame in 2010. ... Connecticut will continue to play three quarterbacks, Jonny McEntee, Scott McCummings and Michael Nebrich. McEntee has started all three games. ... Connecticut DE Jesse Joseph (knee) will return after missing the first three games because of injury. ... With two touchdowns on interception returns and one on a fumble recovery in the first half against Akron last week, Cincinnati became the first Big East team since 2000 with three defensive touchdowns in a game. The last was Miami in a 40-10 win over West Virginia that season. ... Syracuse allowed a school-record five touchdown passes to USC QB Matt Barkley last week.

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




 

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