Big East offenses need spring spruce-up

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
10:30
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Pittsburgh's players watched beloved former coach Dave Wannstedt get forced out the door in December. A couple of weeks later, the new guy hired to replace him, Mike Haywood, found himself arrested in Indiana and quickly fired.

[+] EnlargeTodd Graham and Brian Kelly
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNew Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham, right, hopes to rev up the offense in the Big East, which suffered last season when offensive minds like former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, left, departed.
So when Calvin Magee came in as part of Pitt's third staff in roughly a month, he expected the players to act guarded and reserved around the coaches. Instead, they have responded with enthusiasm because of one thing: the new offense.

"All you have to do is look at the numbers, and it's hard not to get excited about that," Magee said.

Magee was Rich Rodriguez's offensive coordinator last year at Michigan, which ranked No. 8 in total offense. His new boss, Todd Graham, oversaw a Tulsa offense that finished fifth nationally in yards per game.

Now compare that to Big East offenses, which acted as if the NCAA mandated cement shoes for the 2010 season. No league teams ranked in the Top 30 of the FBS in total offense a year ago, and only one (Cincinnati at No. 32) finished among the best 66 offenses in the land. It's telling that in the Big East's top two bowl games -- the Tostitos Fiesta and the Champs Sports bowls -- its teams combined to score exactly one offensive touchdown in a pair of blowout losses. Connecticut, which won the league's BCS bid, had one of the worst passing games in the country and reached the end zone offensively only once in its two most dramatic wins (vs. West Virginia and at South Florida).

When the Big East churned out national title game contenders from 2006 to 2009, it was led by high-scoring outfits like Rodriguez's spread-option teams at West Virginia, Bobby Petrino's multifaceted attacks at Louisville, and Brian Kelly's high-tempo passing machines at Cincinnati. The league's reputation went down with its scoring last season, as no conference teams made the final Top 25 of either major poll.

So, it's not just Pitt players who should be excited about offensive changes this spring. It's everyone who'd like to see more points -- and perhaps a ranked team or two -- in the Big East.

A deficiency in scoring cost West Virginia a chance for a special season in 2010, and that's what convinced athletic director Oliver Luck to hire Dana Holgorsen as offensive coordinator/head-coach-in-waiting. In his first year calling plays last season at Oklahoma State, Holgorsen guided the nation's No. 3 offense to 40 points or more nine times. The Mountaineers have reached that mark only twice in the three seasons since Rodriguez left.

"They've been good around here on defense the last few years," Holgorsen said. "And they were pretty doggone good on offense when Rich was around here. If we can get the offense to match up to what the defensive production has been, then we'll have a chance to win a conference championship."

The revving up of Pitt's and West Virginia's offenses alone should force the rest of the league to follow suit. But there's more reason than that to think we'll see more 40-38 type games and fewer 16-13 ones.

Every offense starts at quarterback, and last year seven of the eight Big East teams played the majority of their games with either first-year starters or players in new systems under center. (The only team that didn't, UConn, went to the BCS.) This year, six league teams will have a veteran starting quarterback in place for spring practice.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireCincinnati's Zach Collaros is one of the Big East's six veteran starting QBs who return next season.
Cincinnati led the conference in scoring last season, and returns senior quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead. If the Bearcats can solve their turnover issues from a year ago, they could really rock the scoreboard in Butch Jones' second year as coach. South Florida is a trendy preseason pick because quarterback B.J. Daniels finally looked comfortable in a 31-26 Meineke Car Care Bowl win against Clemson. The Bulls also add two talented transfers at running back and will have more depth at receiver this year.

Rutgers still has major offensive line issues, but the hiring of former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti has hopes running high. The Scarlet Knights might have the best young receiving corps in the league, and will add superstar recruit Savon Huggins at running back this summer. UConn will no longer rely exclusively on the ground game under new head coach Paul Pasqualoni, especially with star tailback Jordan Todman gone. The last step of Doug Marrone's rebuilding job at Syracuse is to make the offense as tough as the defense, and he returns seven starters on that side of the ball. Louisville will be frightfully young and might start true freshman Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, but Charlie Strong has assembled a potentially scary amount of young talent in Year 2.

"The team that wins the Big East, defensively, is going to have to be able to adjust," South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. "It will have to hold up to the power run games in this league and also respond to this wide-open air ball that everybody seems to be going to now."

The adjustments, especially on offense, begin in earnest this spring. Holgorsen says his system is easy enough to understand that players will learn it quickly, "but that doesn't mean they'll be any good at it." Magee helped convert Michigan into a whole different style of offense and says it takes all of spring practice and then some to get things installed the first year.

"They'll need the summer as far as working on their own after spring ball," he said. "Then that kind of settles in, and once we get back for the fall, you see a lot more movement."

Big East teams must hope that successful spring practices will help their teams move the ball forward better in the fall.

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