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Tuesday, November 24, 2009
What to watch in the Big East, Week 13

By Brian Bennett

1. The Backyard Brawl: It's the oldest and best rivalry in the Big East, and it's as fierce as ever now that Pitt has gotten back on its feet. The Panthers bring a two-game series winning streak into Morgantown and will try to come out of Friday night's game with their Top 10 status alive. West Virginia wants to finish strong to help its bowl standing. It should be intense -- and a lot of fun to watch.

2. Solving Pitt's 'D': The Mountaineers have scored just 24 total points in the past two games against Pitt, as Dave Wannstedt has found the answer to stopping the West Virginia spread (hint: it helps to have really good players). Bill Stewart's offense has sputtered to put many points on the board in the past month anyway and now faces a huge test against a very talented defensive line. Noel Devine may or may not be healthy. What wrinkles have Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen devised for this game?

3. Welcome to the Brawl, kid: Pitt freshman running back Dion Lewis has nearly wrapped up the league's offensive player of the year award with his outstanding season to this point. Can he keep it going in his first exposure to the West Virginia rivalry? Last time out, the Mountaineers allowed Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead to run for 175 yards on just 18 carries. How will they stop Lewis from carving them up behind the league's best offensive line?

4. Cincinnati steps out of conference: The No. 5 Bearcats' drive for perfection continues Friday with a rare late November nonleague game against Illinois. Cincinnati needs to not only win, but win big if it wants to impress enough pollsters to possibly move ahead of TCU in the BCS standings. Could getting outside of a conference where teams know Brian Kelly's system well help that cause? It certainly seems like a coaching mismatch between Kelly and the embattled Ron Zook.

5. The return of Tony Pike: Cincinnati's senior quarterback is expected to make his first start since the Oct. 15 win at South Florida. Pike made a cameo in the West Virginia game, throwing two touchdown passes in his four plays from scrimmage. This will be a lot different, as the Illini will undoubtedly try to hit him and see how his twice-repaired left forearm holds up. Kelly has the option of going to Zach Collaros if Pike has any problems, but a healthy, productive Pike could be the difference in the Dec. 5 showdown at Pitt.

6. The Big Four, Part II: Some in South Florida's corner made the claim the Bulls belonged to a new "Big Four" in the Sunshine State after their win at Florida State. Coach Jim Leavitt said that was premature. But USF gets another chance to prove that it belongs with the state's big boys when Miami comes to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. Beating the 17th-ranked Hurricanes would prove even more impressive than the FSU win because of how the Seminoles faltered this season. And it would give South Florida a legitimate case for inclusion among a new Big Four.

7. Pressuring Harris: The Bulls' defensive game plan always starts with getting pressure up front, which was the key to their win at FSU. It will be just as important against Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes, who are averaging 31.7 points per game. Harris can do a lot of damage -- he's thrown for more 3,000 yards already this season -- but he can also be hurried into mistakes as evidenced by his 17 interceptions. South Florida needs to make him more Bad Jacory than Good Jacory.

8. Syracuse's rush defense: The Orange have allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season (Pitt's Dion Lewis) and have the best defense against the run in the Big East. In fact, they rank ninth nationally in that category. Well, here is a meeting of strength vs. strength. Connecticut lives to run behind its huge offensive line and with the terrific tandem of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon, both of whom went over 100 yards last week against Notre Dame.

9. Rutgers' response: The Scarlet Knights were truly awful in a 31-13 loss at Syracuse last week. Greg Schiano said overconfidence played a role, but the Orange also exposed a lot of weaknesses in his team that Louisville might also try to exploit. If Rutgers wants to salvage anything out of this season, it absolutely cannot lose to both Syracuse and Louisville in back-to-back weeks.

10. Kragthorpe's last game? All indications are that Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe won't have that job after Friday's game. An announcement on his dismissal would likely come no later than early next week. So what does Kragthorpe have to lose against Rutgers? Why not empty the playbook and put everything on the line in the season finale and try to go out on a high note.