If there has been one problem area across the Big East, it has been at offensive line.
Nearly every team has struggled with the position -- one of the most critical for success. Some teams are having problems running. Other teams are having problems keeping their quarterback upright. A few have had problems doing both. Now to be sure, the fault for some of the issues is not on the linemen alone. Running backs and receivers play a critical role in blocking. Quarterbacks play a critical role when it comes to getting the ball out in a timely manner.
Still, it has been hard to avoid seeing some missteps on the offensive line throughout the league. Five teams rank 90th or worse in the nation in sacks allowed. Four teams rank in the bottom half in the nation in rushing offense. Coaches throughout the league realize that they need to get better up front and in a hurry, with big nonconference games in the next few weeks.
Perhaps the team that has had the most difficult time is Louisville, but those struggles are not unexpected. The Cardinals are without rock-solid center Mario Benavides because of injury and have five new starters on the line. Two are freshmen, including true freshman John Miller. Louisville has given up seven sacks this season, quarterback Will Stein has been flushed out of the pocket many more times and the running game that led the Cardinals last season has faltered.
"You would think each game they get better the more they play together and jell as a total unit," coach Charlie Strong said. "You look at our offensive line -- it’s a young, inexperienced group."
The same cannot be said for Rutgers, which had similar problems against North Carolina as it did last season. The Scarlet Knights gave up four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries against the Tar Heels, and had just 1 total rushing yard.
Although UNC has one of the best defensive fronts in college football coach Greg Schiano is still concerned enough with his line and the play of his running backs that they are going to be a big focus during the bye week.
"No. 1 is fundamental improvement, No. 2 is finding the five right guys," Schiano said. "There’s so much room for improvement there, we need to get better. The third thing is running the offensive line and running backs and better fitting together the plays. We need to see it the same way and we need to have the right reactions out of the running backs. A lot of that is a trust thing. Your running backs need to trust their their play. When there are breakdowns, it gets harder to trust it. I can see how we’re going to get it better, we just have to go do it."
West Virginia has had problems establishing the run, too, averaging just 72 yards a game. Coach Dana Holgorsen does not want to become one-dimensional because it does not allow opposing defenses to stay off balance. The struggles on the offensive line are nothing new to Mountaineers fans, who have watched similar problems under former coach Bill Stewart. Just before the start of the season, the starting lineup was switched around when they lost left guard Josh Jenkins for the season.
"You’ve got to get people up front who can block people and sustain blocks," Holgorsen said. "If they come into the game saying we know they can’t run the ball, so they’re going to drop eight all the time, then that’s going to be hard."
In Syracuse, the Orange were supposed to have one of the better offensive lines in the league. But they, too have struggled to run the ball and Ryan Nassib has been sacked four times in two games. Three of those came against FCS team Rhode Island last weekend. Connecticut, one of the better lines in the league, gave up five sacks against Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, Pitt had a terrible day up front Saturday against FCS Maine. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked seven times -- the most sacks allowed since Cincinnati also had seven on Nov. 22, 2008.
Coach Todd Graham had shuffled a lot of players around during fall camp, and their play has been inconsistent. Part of the problem has been Sunseri holding onto the football too long, because he is just not used to throwing the ball at a certain time.
"Our biggest improvement has got to be up front and at quarterback," Graham said.
That seems to be a theme early in the Big East.