What to watch in the Big East: Week 4


1. Showdown Saturday (and Thursday): It's put up or shut up time for the Big East, which faces perhaps its most difficult nonconference week ever. Three of the games -- Pitt vs. Miami, Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati and Rutgers vs. North Carolina -- are on Big East turf, while the lone ranked team -- West Virginia -- goes toe to toe with LSU. Win a couple of these games, and the league can get back a little respect. Lose them all, and the conference won't be able to silence its critics until bowl season at the earliest.

2. Pitt's running game vs. Miami: What's wrong with Dion Lewis? And can the Pitt offensive line hold up against an athletic Hurricanes defensive line? The Panthers' best shot at winning Thursday night will be to establish the running game behind Lewis, which will open up the play-action passing game and keep Miami's quick-strike offense on the sidelines. The line will have to play better than it did against Utah and even New Hampshire for that to happen.

3. Pitt's pass coverage: Jacory Harris threw four picks at Ohio State, but he was also victimized by several dropped balls and tipped passes. No doubt the Canes will try to exploit the middle of the field, where Pitt had all kinds of trouble at Utah and where Harris likes to go, anyway. The Panthers have shuffled their linebackers around and will need to mind their assignments and not miss tackles to prevent explosive plays by Miami's swift receivers.

4. West Virginia vs. the LSU deep ball: If not for a few breakdowns that led to huge passing touchdowns, West Virginia would have great numbers defensively. But, of course, you can't take those away, and the deep pass remains a major concern for the Mountaineers. Will coach Bill Stewart play suspended cornerback Brandon Hogan or have sophomore Pat Miller make his first road start? Can inconsistent LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson take advantage?

5. Offensive life in Death Valley: It's doubtful that West Virginia will see a better defensive line all year. Cornerback Patrick Peterson might be the best defensive player in the country. The Mountaineers have been putting up good yardage totals, but how will they attack LSU? Can the offensive line, especially if Josh Jenkins is out, give Geno Smith enough time and open enough running room for Noel Devine? Will the short passing game be as effective against a team with as much or more speed? It should be fascinating to find out.

6. Will the real Bearcats stand up?: Cincinnati's offensive ineffectiveness has probably been the most surprising development in the Big East thus far this year. The line can't block for Zach Collaros, and he and his receivers have rarely been on the same page. Still, the potential is there for a breakout, and Utah State and Air Force showed it's possible to score on Oklahoma. The Bearcats have seemingly no chance to make this a defensive slugfest, so it could be a long day at Paul Brown Stadium if they can't find a way to kickstart the sputtering offense.

7. Rutgers' kitchen-sink approach: Speaking of sputtering offense, the Scarlet Knights have had a tough time getting anything going, especially when Tom Savage is in the game. Rutgers had a week off to get ready for North Carolina in its lone marquee nonconference matchup, so don't be surprised if Greg Schiano and his staff don't try to come up with ways to manufacture yards and points with new wrinkles, as they have in past big games. Look for more Wildcat stuff with Mohamed Sanu and possibly even a few trick plays to keep the Tar Heels' aggressive defense on its heels.

8. Locking down the Yates: North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates has been a pleasant surprise for a program that's wallowed in mostly bad news for the past couple of months. He is leading the nation's No. 11 passing attack and has strong targets in receivers Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd and tight end Zack Pianalto. This will be the biggest test yet for Rutgers' defense and its secondary, led by Joe Lefeged and David Rowe. The Scarlet Knights are great at creating turnovers and defensive scores against lower-level opponents; can they do it against an ACC team?

9. UConn and USF bouncing back: Both Connecticut and South Florida lost on the road last time out, though USF's loss at Florida was much easier to stomach than Connecticut's defeat at Temple. Both should get back on track this week at home against lesser competition: the Bulls get FBS punching bag Western Kentucky, while the Huskies take on Buffalo. Both should win big and earn back some confidence; if not, that could be signs of trouble.

10. Halfway to six wins?: Syracuse should get to 3-1 this week with Colgate coming to the Carrier Dome. The Orange need to be more focused in the first half than they were against Maine, but this one should never really be in doubt. The significance? Syracuse hasn't gotten off to a 3-1 start since 2003, and it would be halfway to its first non-losing season since 2004.