Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Wrapping up the Big East regular season
By Brian Bennett
In 2009, the Big East title came down to one game in the final week of the season. Cincinnati outlasted Pittsburgh in a 45-44 instant classic.
This year, the Big East title came to down to the last game of the regular season. Connecticut outslugged South Florida 19-16 during which the first -- and only -- offensive touchdown wasn't scored until the fourth quarter.
That disparity summed things up for the league this year. There were no dominant teams, no marquee nonconference victories, no national title contenders. Heck, there were no ranked teams most of the fall. Every team had major flaws, and the league race was marked by a lack of crisp execution -- at least on the offensive end.
West Virginia coach Bill Stewart calls the Big East a "black-and-blue" league, and that was definitely true in 2010. His Mountaineers finished second nationally in scoring defense, and six of the eight conference teams ranked among the top-23 nationally in that statistic. That owed to some excellent defensive performances, but also to the offensive issues that each team faced.
Connecticut rode running back Jordan Todman and his 1,574 yards to a Big East title and a BCS berth.
Pittsburgh and Rutgers dealt with offensive line problems. South Florida and Connecticut went through quarterback struggles. West Virginia and Cincinnati couldn't hold onto the ball. Injuries hurt Syracuse and Louisville.
Offensive inefficiency should probably have been expected, given that five league teams opened the year with sophomore starting quarterbacks. An inability to score contributed to the Big East's putrid 3-12 record against BCS auto-bid conference opponents. But one benefit of mediocrity: it created an exciting and unpredictable league title chase.
Every league team had hope of winning the BCS bid at some point. Syracuse and Louisville, which had nested in the cellar the past three years, both rose up and made bowls. Cincinnati, the two-time league champ, came back to the pack and then got lapped. Rutgers hit rock bottom. South Florida reversed its trend and played better in October and November than September. West Virginia started slow and finished strong in league play, while Pitt took the opposite track.
In the end, though, Connecticut got hot at the right time, winning its final five league games to claim its first-ever BCS bid. In other years, an 8-4 record and finish outside the Top 25 of the BCS standings wouldn't be nearly good enough to win the Big East. But this wasn't like other years, and the conference can only hope it was a one-year dip on the way to a brighter future.
Todman finished second in the country in rushing yards per game and carried the weight of the offense on his shoulders during the Huskies' season-ending five-game winning streak. He averaged more than 30 carries per game in that span. No way UConn makes a BCS game without him.
Defensive MVP: Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh
Opposing offenses double-teamed him more than any other Big East player, and yet he still could not be blocked. He finished with nine sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Pitt barely missed the injured Greg Romeus because of Sheard's play.
Newcomer of the year: Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia
I initially resisted giving this award to Irvin because he was such a specialist; the junior-college transfer played almost exclusively on third down as a pass-rushing artist. But he did what he did so well, leading the Big East with 12 sacks in that limited role. It's scary to think what he could do next year in a full-time job.
Coach of the year: Doug Marrone, Syracuse
In a narrow nod over Louisville's Charlie Strong, Marrone gets the call for leading Syracuse back to a bowl for the first time since 2004 and winning four conference road games. The Orange stumbled at the end of the season but were still in the mix for the league's BCS bid until their final conference game.
Biggest surprise: (tie) Syracuse and Louisville
You couldn't find a whole lot of people this summer who were picking either the Orange or the Cardinals to get to a bowl. That both did says a lot about the upside-down nature of this season.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh
Rutgers and Cincinnati disappointed, too, in finishing 4-8 each. But Pitt was ranked No. 15 to start the year and had the talent to do great things. The Panthers went 7-5, and it cost Dave Wannstedt his job.
Game of the year: Connecticut 16, West Virginia 13 (OT), Oct. 29
We didn't know it at the time, but this was the de facto Big East title game. It was a sloppy game in which West Virginia fumbled seven times and lost four of them, including one at the goal line in overtime. There wasn't much scoring -- only two total touchdowns. Connecticut used grit and toughness to surprisingly come out on top. In other words, this was the perfect microcosm of the Big East 2010 season.