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Thursday, January 12, 2012
Top 10 Big East moments from 2011

By Andrea Adelson

Now it is time to relive the top moments in the Big East for 2011 -- both the good, and the bad.

1. Eric LeGrand returns. Not only was this the top moment in the Big East, it was one of the top moments in all of sports in 2011. Seeing the injured LeGrand lead his Rutgers teammates onto the field in his wheelchair before the start of the West Virginia game Oct. 29 in middle of a snowstorm had to soften the hearts of even the most jaded. What LeGrand has been able to do is truly inspiring in the year since he was paralyzed making a hit against Army in 2010. He has gone further than anybody ever anticipated -- he has started rehab work on a treadmill and gotten twitches and sensations throughout his entire body. And he has begun to do radio and television work for Rutgers, as well.

Eric LeGrand
Eric LeGrand, injured in 2010, led his Rutgers teammates onto the field Oct. 29.
2. Expansion. This is the storyline that eclipsed most everything else for the entire season. First it was Pitt and Syracuse leaving, seemingly catching commissioner John Marinatto off guard. Then TCU jumped ship. Then West Virginia. When everything was tidied up in December, the Big East had gone Big Country, adding Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UCF and Houston. West Virginia's fate remains tied up in pending lawsuits. However that saga plays out, the Big East is prepared to launch Version 3.0 in 2013.

3. West Virginia goes BOOM! You could make the case that the way the Mountaineers dismantled Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl should be ranked higher. In any other season, it would be No. 1. But when folks look back on the 2011 season, I think the first two stories are more likely to come to mind because of the way they transcended sports, and signaled the dawning of a new era. If we are going with purely on-the-field stories, then this one is the hands-down choice. West Virginia scored a bowl-record 70 points on the Tigers. For perspective, not even the worst teams in the nation -- New Mexico, FAU, Indiana and Akron -- had 70 scored on them this year. The ACC champ did. Unforgettable moment: Darwin Cook returning a fumble 99 yards to swing momentum, then taking down Obie the Orange Bowl mascot.

4. Down goes Collaros. One play changed the entire complexion of the Big East race. Too simple to say? Nope. Cincinnati had a two-game lead on everybody else on Nov. 12 when West Virginia came to town. In the second quarter, Bruce Irvin sacked Zach Collaros, who fumbled on the play. Julian Miller recovered in the end zone for a touchdown but the damage was done for the Bearcats. Collaros broke his ankle, and Cincinnati dropped two straight. West Virginia won out and finished in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers clinched the BCS berth -- leading to the eventual walloping of Clemson -- because they finished as the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.

5. Todd Graham bolts. In one of the most stunning turns of events this season, Todd Graham decided he had enough of Pittsburgh after 11 months on the job and a 6-6 record. He bolted for Arizona State without saying good-bye to his players, gleefully spewing the same speech he gave to the Panthers when he was hired for his "dream job." His coaching move drew universal scorn, and outrage from his players, as well. They took to Twitter to lambaste their former coach for his lies and unseemly departure.

6. Four clutch plays. West Virginia faced a must-win against USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. With the game tied at 27 and 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls embarked on a drive that took them down to the West Virginia 28. That's when clutch play No. 1 happened. Najee Goode forced B.J. Daniels to fumble and the Mountaineers recovered. Geno Smith took over with 3:02 left. Clutch play No. 2: Stedman Bailey makes an unbelievable catch on fourth-and-10 for 26 yards, down at the USF 16. Clutch play No. 3: Shawne Alston drags Bailey back to the line of scrimmage after the catch so the Mountaineers can get the snap off without a penalty. Clutch play No. 4: Tyler Bitancurt hits a 28-yard field goal to win the game 30-27 and a share of the Big East title.

7. Ray Graham gets hurt. Pitt running back Ray Graham ranked second nationally and led the Big East in rushing yards per game (134.1) headed into Week 9 against UConn. But early on against the Huskies, Graham crumpled to the ground while making a cut, clutching his right knee. He had torn his ACL, and his season was over. You could almost say the same for the Panthers, who struggled to do anything on offense without their best player.

8. Charlie Strong, surfer. You know how momentous Louisville's 38-35 victory over West Virginia was this season? So momentous it sent coach Charlie Strong bodysurfing over his players in a jubilant locker room afterward. He had Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson to thank. On the first play of the fourth quarter, West Virginia lined up for a 23-yard field goal to tie the game. Bushell blocked the kick; Johnson returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and the momentum went to the Cardinals. It was their  first win in Morgantown since 1990, and third win ever in the series.

9. Syracuse does what? Surely Syracuse's win over West Virginia in Morgantown in 2010 was a fluke. Surely the Mountaineers would gain revenge in the Dome. Yeah. About that. The Orange schooled West Virginia and reintroduced the Mountaineers to the tight end, pulling the biggest upset of the season 49-23. Syracuse had not scored that many points in the series since 1960. The game also marked the triumphant return of Chandler Jones -- who had two sacks and six tackles in his first game back from a knee injury.

10. USF collapse. The Bulls began the year 4-0 with a national ranking and a victory at Notre Dame. Then Big East play happened. USF lost seven of its final eight games and missed a bowl for the first time as members of the Big East. The Bulls also posted their worst record in Big East play (1-6). A team pegged as a dark horse disappointed in every possible way, losing five games by six points or fewer.