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Thursday, August 25, 2011
Big East needs dose of scoring

By Andrea Adelson

Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen
Todd Graham (left) and Dana Holgorsen were hired to jump-start the offense.
There are a few formulas to follow if your conference is in need of national attention. Scoring always works. Lots and lots of scoring.

That seems to be the theme this season for the Big East. With Pitt coach Todd Graham and West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entering the league, the expectation is for offense to grab the headlines. And if their offenses are anywhere near the offenses they coached at their previous stops, people will have no choice but to take notice.

“Offense sells tickets and brings excitement and all that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “Last year at Oklahoma State, we gained a lot of national attention based on the fact that our offense was exciting. But our team aspect allowed us to win a lot of games.”

No question, you need solid offense and defense to win games. Defense did its part last season -- three of eight league teams ranked in the top 22 in the nation in scoring defense.

But the “solid offense” part was missing. The league scoring average was 24.8 points a game, worst among all automatic qualifying conferences. It was the worst league scoring average since the reconfiguration of the conference in 2005.

The Big East was the only AQ conference that failed to have at least one team average 30 or more points a game. The Big Ten, Pac-10 and ACC each had four; the SEC and Big 12 each had seven.

You saw what solid defense did for the Big East last season. Not much. The league was not highly regarded on a national level, and it certainly did not help matters that its BCS representative, Connecticut, went 8-4 during the regular season.

While every Big East coach has praised the wide-open competitiveness of the league, it certainly would help the national image if there was some separation from the pack. Cincinnati did it under Brian Kelly. West Virginia managed to do that under Rich Rodriguez, and now hopes are high for Holgorsen to do the same.

There is a reason for that. Holgorsen comes to West Virginia having spent the last six seasons as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State.

Last season, the Cowboys averaged 520 yards of total offense and 44 points a game, both ranking No. 3 in the nation. In those six seasons, his offenses have averaged more than 495 yards a game five times. Only twice did his offense average fewer than 40 points a game.

Graham's offensive numbers at Tulsa are just as impressive as Holgorsen’s. In four seasons at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane averaged more than 500 yards of total offense and more than 40 points a game three times. In 2008, Tulsa set a school record with 661 points -- No. 2 in NCAA history.

Graham calls what he does “high-octane offense” so much so that the Pitt football website is HighOctaneFootball.com.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Graham said. “I think there are some very good defenses in this league, but if you look at the Big 12 defensive statistics, overall team defense, that number has gone way up. With the modern game, with the spread offense involved, there’s two things you have to focus on: one is scoring defense. Total defense doesn’t matter anymore. The other one is explosive plays -- that’s not giving them up.

“When you have an offense like ours, if we snap the ball 82 times, we’ll score 35 plus points. I do think you’ll see the statistics affected in the league, but how quickly that happens is going to depend on how we get these systems implemented.”

Aside from the new coaches, the league is full of veteran quarterbacks. Six teams return their starting quarterbacks from a season ago. That includes Cincinnati, which led the league in scoring offense (27.1 ppg), total offense (417.3 ypg) and passing offense (260.7 ypg). Zach Collaros made first team all-conference and is back for his senior season.

Rutgers has a new offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti, and the hope is that his pro-style scheme will help the Scarlet Knights take advantage of talented players at running back and receiver. B.J. Daniels is going into his third season as a starter for USF; Ryan Nassib should have an even better season at Syracuse.

“When you look at the quarterbacks returning and the skill players, there’s some great players,” Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. “But there are a lot of defensive returners, too. That’s why I think this might be the most competitive year in the history of the Big East conference.”