September 3, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the Big East

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THE SCHEDULE
Saturday
Minnesota at Syracuse, noon
Liberty at West Virginia, noon
Youngstown State at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Connecticut at Ohio, 7 p.m.
Wofford at USF, 7 p.m.
Indiana State at Louisville, 7:30 p.m.
Monday
Cincinnati at Rutgers, 4 p.m.
Despite Cincinnati's new defensive scheme and Rutgers' new quarterback, Bearcats coach Brian Kelly insists the opener between the Big East contenders won't have any surprises. But that hasn't stopped the coaches from trying to pull a fast one on their opponent.

"I don't think there are any secrets here," Kelly said. "Both teams know each other very well. The team that executes best will be the team that wins."

That's nice coach-speak, but that hasn't stopped Kelly and Rutgers' Greg Schiano from trying to keep as many of their plans as possible under lock and key.

The first is the identity of Rutgers' quarterback. Domenic Natale, Jabu Lovelace and Tom Savage have competed to replace Mike Teel, but Schiano does not intend to reveal his plans for the position before kickoff. The signs point to Natale, a fifth-year senior, taking most of the snaps. Schiano also has expressed reservations about playing Savage, a true freshman, against Cincinnati's defense.

"We've tried to take the name of the quarterback out of the preparation," Kelly said.

Cincinnati counters the mystery of Rutgers' quarterback with the unveiling of its 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Cincinnati ran a 4-3 last season. The personnel also will be drastically different, as there are 10 new starters.

"They're making a pretty significant change on their defense, or that's what's been rumored," Schiano said. "That's taken a little more time and guesswork on our part."

All the new looks and new faces could lead to sloppy play. That might not be a problem if either team were facing an overmatched FCS opponent. But a conference game between the defending league champion and a projected contender lessens the margin for error.

Though the winner gets an early advantage in a competitive Big East race, Schiano doesn't believe the loser will be eliminated from contention.

"This league is so darn competitive and so close," he said. "I don't know what [record's] going to win the league, but if I were a betting man, I'd say there's a very good chance a one-loss team will win the league."

The last Big East champion to make it through the league undefeated was 2005 West Virginia.

Best matchup: Cincinnati's offense vs. Rutgers' defense. It'll be strength vs. strength between Brian Kelly's experienced offense and Greg Schiano's tough defense. Both could end up being the best respective units in the conference. The key matchup could be Cincinnati's receivers against Rutgers' secondary. Cincinnati All-Big East WR Mardy Gilyard could be matched against experienced corner Devin McCourty.

Player on the spot: Syracuse QB Greg Paulus. No individual Big East player will be watched more closely than Paulus, the former Duke basketball point guard who won the starting quarterback job early in fall practice. Is he a legitimate major-conference quarterback, or will he be a disaster? New coach Doug Marrone says starting Paulus isn't a gimmick, and it has brought attention to the struggling program. Making the move more interesting is that the opener is against Minnesota, rather than an obscure FCS team. A Syracuse quarterback hasn't been received this much attention since Donovan McNabb left.

Numbers game: Syracuse's first three games are against Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern, all of whom represented the Big Ten in bowls last season. The cumulative score of Syracuse's six games (1-5) against those Big Ten teams since 2006 is 202-87.

What they're saying:

"The up-tempo wears you out. We were tired going against it in a simulated half. Imagine a whole game. ... [Offensive tackle] Mike Hicks, in the first spring practice, I thought he was going to die. I thought he was going to fall on his facemask." - Connecticut LB Scott Lutrus on his team's new no-huddle offense, in the Hartford (Conn.) Courant

"Greg was able to take in most of the offense, and at the end of the day, myself and the rest of the staff felt that our best chances of winning were with Greg at quarterback. ... If he wasn't good enough, he wouldn't play. I told him that from the beginning. There was no deals or anything like that. I feel really comfortable with it." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone on naming Paulus his starting quarterback.

"I don't know why we get hammered. I guess everyone thinks we're a basketball league. That's full of baloney." - West Virginia coach Bill Stewart on the absence of a Big East team from the preseason polls

Etc.: A couple of surprises on West Virginia's depth chart: Nate Sowers beat out returning starter Sidney Glover, who has been limited by injuries after starting 11 games last season, at one safety spot, and Jock Sanders was listed as the starting slot receiver. Sanders' status had been in question since a DUI arrest in February. He was suspended through the spring and was not reinstated until August. ... Pittsburgh will have an all-freshman running back corps, with Dion Lewis getting the bulk of the work. He will be backed up by true freshman Ray Graham and redshirt freshman Chris Burns. ... Louisville is still without a No. 2 quarterback behind Justin Burke for the opener. Adam Froman will miss the game against Indiana State because of a shoulder injury. ... The Cardinals' backups should get some work against the Sycamores, who have won one game since Oct. 2, 2004. Indiana State lost last week to NAIA member Quincy (Ill.), blowing a 17-0 lead and losing 26-20 in overtime. ... Mo Plancher will start at running back for USF in the opener against Wofford because of a suspension to Mike Ford and an injury to Jamar Taylor.

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




 

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