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Friday, November 26, 2010
West Virginia is Big East's best BCS bet

By Brian Bennett

PITTSBURGH -- Sorry, Connecticut fans. It's nothing personal. But in the best interests of the Big East, the Huskies need to lose a game.

Dion Lewis
West Virginia's defense stuffed Dion Lewis and the Panthers, forcing four turnovers.
This has been a historically bad year for the conference, maybe the worst ever. The only way the league gains any redemption is if its champion wins a BCS game. And the only team with a realistic shot at doing that is West Virginia.

The Mountaineers showed why Friday in hammering former front-runner Pittsburgh 35-10 at Heinz Field. Their most dominating performance of the year pushed them into a first-place tie atop the standings. Jock Sanders, the brash wide receiver who openly dissed Pitt at Big East media day in August, knows the true pecking order.

"Hands down," he said when asked if his team was the Big East's best. "We had a couple of stumbles and falls, but we're on a roll right now. We're playing unbelievable on offense and defense."

West Virginia does not control its own destiny, however. Because of its 16-13 overtime win Oct. 29, UConn will claim the BCS bid by beating Cincinnati on Saturday and South Florida next week. Ironically, the Mountaineers must root for the team that knocked them out of the title race the past two years (the Bearcats) and/or their recent league nemesis (South Florida).

The Huskies are a nice story. West Virginia is a better overall team.

"We dropped the ball twice, but everybody knows that's not us," linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "We do think we're the best team in the Big East, but the standings don't show it right now."

This discussion would be moot had West Virginia not lost four fumbles in that UConn loss, or if Geno Smith had not thrown three interceptions in a home upset to Syracuse a week earlier. Since then, however, the offense has cut way back on its mistakes; on Friday, West Virginia didn't turn the ball over at all and Pitt lost it four times. Coaches have harped on ball security ever since the bye week after the UConn game.

"We do the turnover circuit and our scout team always tries to strip the ball," receiver Tavon Austin said. "We had been doing that before practice, but now we're doing it after practice and all through [drills]."

Defense will keep West Virginia close in any BCS matchup. That unit came into Friday allowing just 12.9 points per game and remarkably managed to lower that number against Pitt. Yet head coach Bill Stewart took the rare step of yelling at his defensive players at halftime. He thought they looked out of sync and a step slow, confused by the Panthers' heavy use of quarterback bootlegs and rollouts.

Here's the thing, though: Despite dominating almost every offensive statistic, Pitt still trailed 14-7 at intermission. That's because West Virginia created three turnovers in the first half, one of the few things it hadn't done a great job of this season. Stewart challenged the defense earlier in the week to score its first touchdown; cornerback Brandon Hogan nearly rectified that with a 53-yard interception return to the Pitt 2 on the game's first drive.

"We feel like if the offense scores any points, we can win," Hogan said.

Geno Smith
West Virginia QB Geno Smith, 12, greets tight end Will Johnson after throwing a touchdown pass to him in the second quarter against Pittsburgh.
The offense had only scored one second-half touchdown in Big East play this season. But on the third play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Smith fired a 71-yard touchdown pass to Austin. When the third quarter ended, the Mountaineers had 28 points on 32 offensive plays.

They flashed that quick-strike ability without much from Noel Devine. The star tailback still isn't all the way back from the bone bruise on his foot from the LSU game, and a sprained ankle suffered at Louisville last week limited him to just five touches Friday (though he averaged a tidy 18.8 yards per play).

"He still can run fast for most people," Stewart said. "But I don't think he has the jump-cutting ability that he once had."

Give West Virginia a month off to get ready for the Fiesta Bowl, though, and Devine could get close to 100 percent. The Mountaineers could finish the regular season 9-3 and give the Big East its first Top 25 team since late October. The program has a history of success in the BCS, winning the 2006 Sugar and 2008 Fiesta bowls, and it hung tough in a 19-14 loss at No. 5 LSU in September.

Connecticut, on the other hand, got blown out at Michigan, lost to Temple and was shut out by Louisville this season while winning only one game away from home. The Huskies are no safe bet to perform well on the BCS stage for the first time.

At least the Big East dodged a bullet by having Pitt bow out ungracefully. The Panthers have blown every big-game opportunity this year, and the overwhelming preseason favorite now stands 6-5. They must win at Cincinnati next week just to have a winning season. Dave Wannstedt's support is eroding in the Steel City.

West Virginia fans were ready to fire Stewart just a couple of weeks ago, and now he has them in position for at least a share of the Big East title. Before the Louisville game, Stewart urged his team to "match the mountains," a phrase he reiterated before Friday's game. He says that means his players should represent the majesty and high reach of the mountains that run through their state.

There's only one team that can climb the BCS mountain and plant a flag for the Big East this year. It's nothing personal, Connecticut, but the league has fallen down too much this year. It needs West Virginia on that hill.