Ten things to watch in the Big East, Week 4
Once again, this list comes out a day earlier than normal because of the Big East's wacky weekday scheduling. Here are the major story lines, beginning with tonight's Boulder-dash.
1. The West Virginia running game: It's been nearly two weeks, and it's still hard to believe that the Mountaineers scored only three points at East Carolina. This madness must end. Colorado's strength on defense lies up front, with tackles Brandon Nicolas and George Hypolite, while the secondary looks suspect. But West Virginia's passing attack is really only dangerous because of the threat of Pat White and Noel Devine running. It's time to re-establish that ground dominance.
2. The West Virginia defense: Very shaky through two games, the Mountaineers hope the return of middle linebacker Reed Williams can start to shore things up. Williams, though, likely won't be 100 percent after his offseason shoulder surgeries. Colorado will score some points with its spread offense and the explosive uncle-nephew combo of Josh Smith and Darrell Scott. But the Mountaineers need to show more competence in their open-field tackling and coverage assignments, at the very least.
3. UConn's defense vs. Robert Griffin: The Huskies have had no success slowing down Pat White over the years. No shame in that, because few have. Now they face a young version of White in Baylor freshman Griffin, who ran for 217 yards on just 11 carries last week against Washington State. Some have wondered whether the fundamentally sound UConn defense is athletic enough to stop speedy teams like West Virginia. This will provide a good early test.
4. Donald Brown in the spotlight: The Connecticut running back has steamrolled everyone in the first quarter of the season. Baylor has held its last two opponents to under 100 yards rushing after allowing 156 to Wake Forest. Brown is a humble, team guy who doesn't seem to care much about attention. But if he has another 200-yard, multiple-touchdown type game on a national TV stage, his name recognition will soar.
5. Tony Pike's opening salvo: Cincinnati fans have had two weeks to fret over their team's fate since starting quarterback Dustin Grutza went down with a broken leg. Pike won't have to win the game by himself against Miami of Ohio. But a sturdy performance in his first career start will build his confidence and restore faith that the Bearcats can still contend for the conference championship.
6. South Florida's focus: Let's be honest. Florida International is one of the most toothless teams in the FBS. So even though it's a road game against an in-state opponent, South Florida should have no trouble. But after two big victories -- the overtime win at Central Florida and the Kansas thriller -- the Bulls are primed for a letdown. If they come out with all guns blazing, that may tell us a lot about how much they've matured since last year's midseason collapse.
7. Pittsburgh's toughness: Dave Wannstedt wants to build his program around defense and hard-nosed running no matter how much his fan base pleads for more creativity. Here's the time to show that philosophy works. And that the Panthers can do it better than Iowa, a throwback-type Big Ten team. The Hawkeyes have barely allowed a point this season, are averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game and have a major size and strength advantage on their offensive line. If Iowa outplays Pittsburgh in the areas Wannstedt emphasizes, that's a troubling sign.
8. Rutgers' execution: The Scarlet Knights' toughest opponent so far has been themselves, as they keep making critical mistakes to kill drives and allow big plays. They need to bring some military-style precision against Navy, a team that yielded 41 points to Duke and 35 to Ball State. The talent and size chasm between these two teams is enormous, and the only way Navy can stay in it is by playing smarter and cleaner. Sadly, that seems like a real possibility.
9. Greg Robinson's last gasp: OK, Greg, you've got one teed up this weekend, as winless FCS school Northeastern comes in to play sacrificial lamb to your Orange. This might be your only chance for a win this season, and a convincing victory is what you need to keep the fans off your back for at least another few days. You can't possibly mess this up, right? (Also watch: the Carrier Dome attendance).
10. The Big East vs. the Big 12/Big Ten: No, there is no such thing as a Big East/Big 12 challenge in football. It only seems that way. In the last 12 days, the two leagues have squared off three times, with two more showdowns the next two days. So far, the Big East has two wins (South Florida over Kansas, Louisville topping Kansas State) to one for the Big 12 (Oklahoma blowing out Cincinnati). It must be noted that the Big East hasn't faced some of the other league's best teams, like Texas, Texas Tech and Missouri, and that the majority of the games are on Big East turf. Still, a winning record in these matchups, plus a good show by Pittsburgh over Big Ten contender Iowa, would provide a struggling conference a small shred of credibility.