NCF Nation: Eain Smith
I tried to give equal weight to all parts. In the end, I took the rankings in several special-teams categories and used an average ranking to help determine these. Special weight was given to game-changing plays as well.
1. Cincinnati. The Bearcats ranked in the top two in four of the five statistical categories I used to evaluate special teams as a whole. The only area lacking was field goals, but I thought overall Tony Miliano had a decent year for a true freshman, even considering his missed kick against West Virginia. Ralph David Abernathy IV emerged as a dynamite kickoff man, and Pat O'Donnell was the best punter in the Big East again. Kickoff coverage was solid as well. Preseason ranking: 5.
2. UConn. Nick Williams averaged just 5.6 yards a return on punts. He was not particularly dynamic on kickoff returns, either, ranking No. 4 in the Big East after going into the season as one of the top returners in the league. UConn was one of two Big East teams without a kickoff return for a touchdown. But still, the Huskies were solid in every other category. Dave Teggart once again was the Big East first-team kicker, and Cole Wagner averaged 41.1 yards a punt. Preseason ranking: 1.
4. Rutgers. Once again, the Scarlet Knights were highly effective at blocking kicks -- a staple under coach Greg Schiano. Jeremy Deering was solid in the kickoff return game as well. But San San Te had the worst field goal percentage in the Big East (64.5 percent), and kickoff coverage ranked No. 7 in the conference. Rutgers only had an opportunity to return 16 punts last season, averaging about 6 yards a return. Preseason ranking: 6.
5. Pitt. The Panthers lost their punter and field goal kicker from a year ago and did perhaps better than expected in special teams overall. Punter Matt Yoklic was second in the league in punts, though Kevin Harper did struggle at times with his field goals. Losing Cameron Saddler really hurt the punt return game as well. Preseason ranking: 8.
6. Syracuse. Ross Krautman led the Big East in field goal percentage (78.9) but he only had 19 attempts on the season, second fewest in the Big East. Punt returns were essentially nonexistent -- with only 12 attempts for an average of 3.1 yards a return. Jeremiah Kobena was a nice addition at kickoff returner, but the Orange still ranked No. 6 in the Big East in that category and kickoff return coverage as well. Preseason ranking: 4.
7. Louisville. Chris Philpott had a disappointing season, ranking No. 7 in the league in field goal percentage (66.7). He and Josh Bleser averaged 37.3 yards a punt. Punt returning ranked No. 7 in the Big East as well, and aside from Adrian Bushell's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, that category was just average for the Cardinals. Preseason ranking: 3.
8. USF. I think the Bulls were the biggest disappointment in this category. Lindsey Lamar, who was the first-team Big East selection at returner last year, had zero this year and ranked No. 9 in the league in kickoff return average. His average was down some six yards from last season. When Terrence Mitchell got hurt and missed the second half of the season, no one was dynamic at punt returner, either. Maikon Bonani ranked No. 3 in field goal percentage but fairly or not is going to be remembered for missing a field goal that would have beaten Rutgers, and eventually gotten the Bulls bowl eligible. Preseason ranking: 2.
Here's a preview of what to expect:
Spring practice start date: March 19
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- Nick Florence: It's not official, but the Baylor quarterback job is Florence's to lose. That means he inherits the unenviable task of replacing the school's first Heisman winner. He replaced RG3 in 2009 with mixed results, but showed some major potential in a win over Texas Tech when RG3 took a shot to the head and sat out the second half. Can he keep the bowl streak alive at Baylor? We'll get an idea this spring.
- The defense's progression: You didn't need to see much more than the 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington to know the Bears needed some work on defense. In the month of November, Baylor became the first team in FBS history to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each of those games. The defense can't make Florence pick up the slack to that level. Year 2 under Phil Bennett must be better. Baylor has no excuses. The Bears have the athletes on campus necessary to be at least a decent defense.
- The team's attitude/motivation: Baylor played with a lot of purpose the past two seasons, and made history in both, cracking a 16-year bowl drought and winning 10 games this year. Is that fire still there? Baylor has to prove it is without RG3 (and Kendall Wright) carrying the team on the field, emotionally and mentally.
Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- The quarterback battle: Or is it? Jared Barnett looked like the man of the future in Ames late in the season, leading the Cyclones to an historic upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State. But in the ugly Pinstripe Bowl loss to a mediocre Rutgers team, Barnett's inaccuracy posed big questions. He was benched and Steele Jantz stepped in, though he didn't play much better than Barnett. Turnovers were an issue for Jantz early on, but Barnett has to bounce back in the spring to make sure the job doesn't come open.
- The receivers: Darius Reynolds was the big-play man for the Cyclones, but he's gone. It's going to be tough to replace him. Slot receivers Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz were productive, but did little to stretch defenses like Reynolds did. Can ISU find someone to fill the void?
- The new man at left tackle: Iowa State had the luxury of having a future pro, Kelechi Osemele, at left tackle for the past three seasons. He earned All-Big 12 nods in each of those seasons, but he's gone now. Junior Carter Bykowski was behind Osemele on the depth chart, but will the converted tight end be the new man at tackle for the Cyclones?
Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- Uh, everything?: I mean, what's not to watch at KU? Charlie Weis steps in for the fired Turner Gill and tries to build KU up from nothing. The Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in Big 12 history last season, losing six games by at least 30 points. Weis will speak his mind and watching him rebuilding the Jayhawks is going to be fun. It all starts next month -- on the field, at least.
- KU's new pass-catch combo: Dayne Crist is on campus, and so is Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay, a former blue-chip recruit who didn't quite catch on in Norman. Quarterback and receiver were arguably the two biggest positions of need for KU last year, and we'll get a preview of what could be a productive combo next season. McCay isn't officially eligible for the 2012 season yet -- he needs the NCAA to waive its mandated redshirt year after a transfer -- but the coaching staff is confident he'll have it granted.
- The uncertainty on the depth chart: When a new staff comes in, you never know what to expect. Kansas' leading rusher in its final season under Mark Mangino, Toben Opurum, is now one of its best defensive linemen. Look for Weis to shake things up, too. Where? Who knows?
Spring practice start date: April 4
Spring game: April 28
What to watch:
- Collin Klein's maturation: Kansas State's quarterback could be fun to watch this spring and next fall. His throwing motion isn't pretty, but his accuracy improved in a big way throughout the season. If that continues at a pace anything close to what we saw last year, K-State's going to be a load for everyone. Look out.
- Developing depth at running back: John Hubert is back, and so is seldom-used Angelo Pease. Bryce Brown is gone, though. Klein handles a lot of the heavy lifting in the running game, but it'd be some nice insurance if K-State could establish some more depth in the backfield. Making Klein carry the ball 300 times again is tempting fate.
- Stars becoming superstars: Kansas State brings back more starters than all but seven teams in college football, so this team is going to look remarkably similar in 2012 to the way it did last year. However, it should get better. And its two transfers could look dominant this spring. Cornerback Nigel Malone and linebacker Arthur Brown emerged as stars last year, but we could see the duo emerge as true game-changers this spring. Look out, Big 12 offenses.
Spring practice start date: March 8
Spring game: April 14
What to watch:
- New faces on, off the field: Mike Stoops' arrival as the defensive coordinator was the biggest news this offseason in the Big 12, and Brent Venables, who had been at OU for all of Bob Stoops' tenure, left for Clemson rather than become co-defensive coordinator. Hopes are high that Stoops can revitalize Oklahoma's defense. He was in charge when the Sooners rode a dominant D to the 2000 national title, and the Sooners have the talent to win it all in 2012. Receiver Trey Metoyer joins the team this spring, and could be a major contributor immediately. Two of the team's four new tight ends are also enrolled early.
- QB Blake Bell's role: The Belldozer is back but so is full-time quarterback Landry Jones. How will the balance between the duo look this spring? And what new wrinkles will we see in Oklahoma's simple, yet near-unstoppable short-yardage formation that scored 13 touchdowns in the second half of 2011?
- The battle at defensive end: Oklahoma must fill two huge holes at defensive end. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander is gone, as is possible first-round pick Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington contributed late and has potential, but David King filled in for Lewis in the final three games of the season. The duo could be great, but it could also be pretty pedestrian. We'll get an idea this spring, but Lewis and Alexander set a high, high bar.
Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- The quarterback battle: This will easily be the highest-profile, highest-quality quarterback battle in the Big 12. It won't be at the level of Texas Tech in 2010, but it won't be too far off. Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt will go head to head. All have plenty of potential, though Lunt may have the most. The big-armed true freshman also has the least experience. Anything could happen here.
- Which receivers rise: Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper leave huge holes behind. It's not every day a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner walks on campus. Hubert Anyiam is gone, too. Michael Harrison is unlikely to play for the 2012 season, but the school has offered no confirmation on his status. He had the most potential, but OSU is deep at the position. Who emerges as the top target? Isaiah Anderson? Tracy Moore? Josh Stewart? Anything could happen there, too.
- Defense needs a leader: Safety Markelle Martin has been the heart of the defense the past two seasons, but his big-hitting days are over. Who becomes the new voice of the defense? It needs to find leadership this spring heading into summer voluntary workouts.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 1
What to watch:
- The quarterback competition: I still think having a competition at the spot, which Texas says it will, isn't the best option, but David Ash and Case McCoy will go at it alongside early-enrolling freshman Connor Brewer. If Ash secures the job, expect an announcement heading into summer officially anointing the sophomore.
- More sophistication on both sides of the ball: The progression is natural and likely. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had good first years in Austin, but this is Year 2. The spring won't be devoted to learning the playbook. It's time to master it. Both units could look markedly different, and much more refined next fall. Deny it all you like: Texas is back on its way to the top after a rough two years.
- Maturing offensive weapons: Last season, the Longhorns relied on two true freshman running backs (Malcolm Brown/Joe Bergeron), a freshman/sophomore rotation at quarterback and its top receiver (Jaxon Shipley) was a true freshman. No. 2 (Mike Davis) was a sophomore. I hope I don't have to tell you what freshmen and sophomores do in college football. Look. Out.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 25
Spring end date: April 5
What to watch:
- Can TCU shut out the scandal? Four team members were arrested in a recent drug sting and kicked off the team. How much of a distraction will that be for a program undergoing the most monumental change in its history? Quantifying the effects of the scandal will be pretty impossible, and we've got no idea how they'll handle the change, but will it be on players' minds?
- The offense tightens up: The Horned Frogs' offense is absolutely loaded and ready to go for 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns and brings his top three weapons (Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter) with him. Running backs Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker each topped 700 yards rushing in 2011 and all return. The spring will be all about fine-tuning an already stellar offense, and it'll be fun to watch.
- Replacing departed starters: All-America linebacker Tanner Brock was among the four football players arrested and booted from the team, as was all-conference defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and likely starting safety Devin Johnson. Those were unforeseen losses, but TCU can't feel sorry for itself. Gary Patterson has no choice but to find new faces to fill those holes.
Spring practice start date: Feb. 17
Spring game: March 24
What to watch:
- Once again, a new defense: Texas Tech sounds like a broken record these days when it comes to defensive coordinators. This time, Art Kaufman will be stepping to the microphone as the fourth defensive coordinator in Lubbock in four years. He's bringing a 4-3, a shift back to what Ruffin McNeil ran in 2009. Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 and James Willis' 3-4 failed miserably in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
- The battle at running back: No one knows yet if Eric Stephens will be back next season. There's still a long way to go in his rehab from a dislocated knee he suffered last season in a loss to Texas A&M. DeAndre Washington is also out this spring after tearing his ACL against Missouri. Harrison Jeffers hung up his cleats. Who will prove to be reliable this spring? Look for the Red Raiders to try to use sophomore Bradley Marquez, freshman Javares McRoy and junior SaDale Foster in a manner similar to the way Oregon uses scatback De'Anthony Thomas, with lots of short passes and bubble screens to get them the ball in space, where they can use their speed and shiftiness to make plays.
- Team health: Tuberville said earlier this month that the team is missing 15 players this spring. It can't afford any more injuries. It's already going to be tough to get enough done this spring, but Tech can't start getting banged up.
Spring practice start date: March 11
Spring game: April 21
What to watch:
- Dana Holgorsen's offense in Year 2: Holgorsen didn't get a chance to coach his talented offense at Oklahoma State in its second year. The results could have been crazy. They might be at West Virginia in 2012, and the beginning steps will be taken this spring as Geno Smith & Co. get more and more comfortable with the system and Holgorsen adds more wrinkles.
- The battle at running back: Sophomore Dustin Garrison hurt his knee in practices leading up to the Mountaineers' 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and won't be there for the spring. What does senior Shawne Alston have in store for the spring? Garrison was the featured back last season, but a big spring could help Alston earn a few carries next year.
- Defense needs help: Najee Goode leaves a big hole at linebacker, and defensive back Eain Smith's exit means the Mountaineers enter the season without two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller's talents on the defensive line will be tough to replace, and in a league that requires a great pass rush, Irvin, Goode and Miller's 19 combined sacks must be replaced somehow.
QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith was named the Discover Orange Bowl MVP after the Mountaineers routed Clemson 70-33. Smith ended up with Orange Bowl records for passing yards (401), touchdowns responsible for (six) and total offense (433). He threw just 11 incompletions and had zero interceptions.
RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The Big East Offensive Player of the Year turned in a terrific final performance as a member of the Bearcats in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt. Pead set a school bowl record with 149 yards rushing in a 31-24 win, his sixth 100-yard game of the season. His 12-yard touchdown run with 1:52 remaining sealed the team's first bowl victory since 2007.
RB:Jawan Jamison, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights run game was inconsistent all season, but the redshirt freshman stepped up against Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Jamison was named MVP of the game after gaining 131 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. It was his third 100-yard game of his career. All of them happened this season.
WR: Josh Bellamy, Louisville. Bellamy set a season-high with 98 receiving yards in a loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl. Still, he had the most receiving yards by a Cardinal in a bowl game since Harry Douglas had 165 against Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl. His 53-yard reception in the first quarter was a career long and the second-longest pass play for Louisville this season.
OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Martinez has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen for the Bearcats over the past two seasons, and he graded out near the top once again in the Liberty Bowl. Martinez helped pave the way for 221 rushing yards -- second most against FBS competition this season.
OG: Betim Bujari, Rutgers, OT: Desmond Wynn, Rutgers. Bujari made just his third start of the season, on the left side no less. Wynn slid over from guard to tackle. But the combination worked for the Scarlet Knights, who put together perhaps their best effort on the offensive line all season. Rutgers ran for 173 yards -- their second-highest total of the season. And they did not allow a sack.
OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia, C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia. One of the biggest knocks against the Mountaineers this season was their inconsistency on the offensive line. In the days leading up to the Orange Bowl, Madsen said he felt the unit had played to the level of its competition. The hope was that facing several NFL draft prospects on the Clemson line would help West Virginia play better. Whatever works, right? West Virginia ran for 188 yards and did not allow a sack in its domination of the Tigers.
DL: Myles Caragein, Pitt. The Panthers may not have had the greatest game in the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU, but Caragein was solid for most of the afternoon, with six tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup.
DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe ended his Co-Defensive Player of the Year season with six tackles, including two for loss, against Vanderbilt.
DL: Aaron Donald, Pitt. Donald did his part for the Panthers, with one sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and five tackles in all. Pitt racked up four sacks on the day and held SMU to 61 yards rushing in the loss.
LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a part of an outstanding defensive effort, with 1.5 tackles for loss, one sacks, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery against Clemson.
LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. After posting one of the best regular seasons in school history, Greene finished everything off with a team-high 13 tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish the year with 140, tied for fifth in the school single-season record books. Unfortunately, he could not complete the game after breaking his ankle. He is expected to be fine for 2012.
LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer had nine tackles, a sack and a tackle for a loss in a win over Vanderbilt. He closes out his career with 337 stops, a mark that ranks him ninth on the Big East career list.
LB: Nick Temple, Cincinnati. The true freshman saved his best performance of the season for the final game of the season. Temple had a career-high eight tackles, a forced fumble and his first career interception in a win over Vanderbilt. Simply put, he was everywhere for the Bearcats.
S: Darwin Cook, West Virginia. Cook had perhaps the play of the game in the Orange Bowl, when he scooped up a fumble by Andre Ellington and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown to seize momentum in the second quarter against Clemson. West Virginia ended up scoring 35 points in the frame to put the game way, way, way out of reach.
S: Eain Smith, West Virginia. With starting Terence Garvin out because of a knee injury, many wondered whether Cook and Smith would take more on their shoulders. They both delivered in a big way. Smith finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including 12 solo stops, and assisted on a tackle for loss.
CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy had six tackles and an interception on the night, and was part of a secondary that completely shut down Sammy Watkins, holding him to 66 yards on five catches. After a shaky start, West Virginia hunkered down and gave up just 78 yards passing in the second half. Tajh Boyd completed only 52 percent of his passes.
CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers. Ryan really seemed to grow up throughout the season and ended the year with another big performance. Logan had seven tackles -- 2.5 for loss -- one interception and half a sack in the win over Iowa State.
PK: Tyler Bitancurt, West Virginia. Bitancurt was 10-for-10 on extra-point attempts in the Orange Bowl, setting a new record for extra points attempted and made in any bowl game.
P: Justin Doerner, Rutgers. Doerner had a terrific performance against Iowa State with a season-best 49.7-yard average on six punts. Two of them went inside the 20. One of them went 57 yards. His average was tops among the five Big East punters in bowl games.
KR: Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati. After Vanderbilt went up 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, Abernathy took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a score to put the Bearcats up for good. It was the first return for a score in his career.
AP: Austin. See above.
The bad: Cincinnati took double blows on Saturday, losing the game and starting quarterback Zach Collaros, now out for the season with a broken right ankle. Bearcats fans can look to 2009 to keep their hopes up, when Collaros had to start the season while starter Tony Pike recovered from an arm injury. Cincinnati made the BCS that season. ... What has gone wrong in Syracuse? The Orange dropped their third straight game and have somehow forgotten how to score. After putting up 49 points on West Virginia, Syracuse has scored a combined 48 points in its past three games. ... Louisville also saw its three-game wining streak stopped after another subpar performance from the offense. The Cardinals appeared to be turning a corner, especially in their past two games, in which they had scored 14 points in each of the first quarters. In a loss to Pitt, they managed 14 points the entire game, the sixth time this season they have failed to score 20 or more points. In those six games, Louisville is 1-5. The defense also gave up a season-high 200 yards rushing, to a team missing its best player in Ray Graham.
Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia. Bailey had his seventh 100-yard game of the season in a win against Cincinnati, pushing him over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Bailey has 1,037 yards on the season.
Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse. Lemon had 10 receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns against USF, giving him 336 receiving yards in the past two games. He is the first Syracuse player to register back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since Taj Smith in 2007.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati. Pead now has 3,095 career rushing yards, ranking third on the school's all-time list.
Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse. Nassib has completed 217 passes this season, breaking his own single-season school record of 202, set last year.
Week 12 schedule
Cincinnati at Rutgers, noon, ESPNU
Louisville at UConn, noon, Big East Network
Miami at USF, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU
Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. Austin had 249 all-purpose yards in a 24-21 victory over Cincinnati, and had a crucial 23-yard catch on third-and-15 on the game-winning drive for the Mountaineers. On the day, he had 126 yards receiving, 117 yards in returns and 6 yards rushing.
B.J. Daniels, QB, USF. Daniels had a combined 371 yards of offense -- 117 yards rushing and 254 yards passing -- in a 37-17 win over Syracuse on Friday night. It was his second career game with more than 250 yards passing and 100 yards rushing; the first time was in 2009 against Louisville. It also was the second time this season Daniels went over 100 yards rushing in a game.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers. Sanu set the Big East single-season receptions record, catching 13 passes for 129 yards in a 27-12 victory over Army. Sanu now has 94 receptions this season, passing the mark of 92, set by Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.
Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. Sunseri was the guiding force for the Panthers in their 21-14 win over Louisville. Sunseri had one passing and one rushing touchdown, and went 16-of-22 for 196 yards in the game. His favorite receiver was Devin Street, who got his second consecutive 100-yard game.
Eain Smith, S, West Virginia. Smith came up with a huge play at the end of the game, blocking Tony Miliano's 31-yard field-goal attempt to preserve the 24-21 win over Cincinnati. It was the first blocked field goal of his career. It also was the first blocked field goal for West Virginia since 2004.
Smith envisioned his season-changing play as Cincinnati kicker Tony Miliano lined up for the game-tying 31-yard field goal with three seconds left. "I've gotta get the block," Smith thought to himself. "I don't want to go into overtime."
Although the play was designed for Ryan Nehlen to attempt the block, it was Smith who took advantage of a low-line drive kick. When he got it, the entire West Virginia sideline spilled onto the field, hooting and hollering over a 24-21 win Saturday afternoon.
In the West Virginia locker room afterward, everyone tried to take credit for the block. "Even guys who weren't on the field," coach Dana Holgorsen said.
For good reason. That block helped turn the Big East race into a free-for-all. Cincinnati lost its first Big East game after losing starting quarterback Zach Collaros to an ankle injury in the second quarter. Coach Butch Jones said afterward that Collaros would undergo more testing to determine the extent of the injury.
The No. 23 Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) still control their destiny in the Big East race as the only team with one league loss. But West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) and four others are right behind with two losses each. If Collaros is out for an extended period as anticipated, there are no guarantees that the Bearcats will win out to earn the BCS berth.
That is where West Virginia comes in, of course. The preseason favorites fell out of the Top 25 last week after a dispiriting 38-35 loss to Louisville. It was the second head-scratching league loss of the season for the Mountaineers, who lost to a Syracuse team that can barely get points on the board these days.
When Holgorsen addressed his team last Sunday, he never mentioned X's and O's. He had one message -- play with energy. Play with excitement. Play for each other. He harped on that message during his weekly news conference, when he threatened to bring only 55 players with him on the trip if his players did not pick themselves up and learn how to fight.
From the start against Cincinnati, you could see his message came through. After Cincinnati scored first, the Mountaineers immediately responded and did not get their heads down. When West Virginia put together a terrific goal-line stand, quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey ran onto the field to congratulate their teammates.
On and on it went, teammates lifting each other up through various spurts of adversity throughout the game.
"The energy was great," Bailey said. "It was great all over the sideline, even myself. I found myself running off the sideline a couple of times because I was into the game. Usually we're all quiet and stuff. Anything goes wrong for us, and we're quiet on the sideline; it hurts us. It was pretty good today. We just have to continue with that."
Why did it take so long to play that way?
"I'm not sure," Bailey said. "I wish we could get those losses back, but they're in the books. It's just a wake-up call for us. I'm not going to say we got big-headed. We probably just needed that to wake us up and get us on track."
There were bleak moments in the game for both teams. After Collaros went down, backup quarterback Munchie Legaux was extremely ineffective, going 1-of-5 for minus-5 yards on his first six attempts. But he got going as he got more comfortable, rallying Cincinnati from a 10-point deficit to take a 21-17 lead with 13:20 to go.
West Virginia, inconsistent on offense for most of the game, got its turn next. Smith and his teammates knew exactly what had to be done. Without saying a word to one another, they realized the season was on the line. A loss in this game would give West Virginia three in the Big East and effectively eliminate it from championship contention.
Smith began the decisive 12-play drive at the West Virginia 26, and made two huge third-down conversions: a 13-yard pass to Bailey and a 23-yard pass to Tavon Austin on third-and-15. Shawne Alston capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to put West Virginia up 24-21. Austin and Bailey were particular menaces for the Bearcats' secondary, each getting more than 100 yards in the game.
The Mountaineers tried to ice the game later in the quarter, but Tyler Bitancurt missed a 47-yard field goal. That allowed Legaux one final opportunity to rally the Bearcats to their fourth straight comeback win. He marched the team down to the West Virginia 15 before its drive stalled. Miliano, who made all four of his kicks last week, simply could not connect Saturday.
That sets up for yet another wild, unpredictable finish to Big East play.
"Our goal -- the BCS -- it's not over," Alston said.
West Virginia beat league leader Cincinnati 24-21 Saturday as the Bearcats took twin blows on the day. Not only did they lose their first Big East game of the season, they lost starting quarterback Zach Collaros, who went out with a right leg injury in the second quarter and never returned.
Backup Munchie Legaux gave a valiant effort, but the Bearcats were not able to post their third straight comeback win. Tony Miliano lined up for a game-tying 31-yard field goal with two seconds left in the game, but the snap was high and the kick was blocked by Eain Smith. It was Miliano's second miss on the day, after going a perfect 4-for-4 in a win over Pitt last week.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith led what turned out to be the decisive drive of the game. After Legaux scored on a 7-yard run, Smith delivered when it counted, thanks to a big assist from Tavon Austin. His 23-yard completion to Austin was one of the big plays on the game-winning drive. West Virginia marched 74 yards on 12 plays, and Shawne Alston scored the game-winner on a 1-yard run with 8:52 to go to put his team up 24-21.
Cincinnati was able to get pressure on Smith, but it was unable to contain Austin, who had 125 yards receiving. The Mountaineers may not have been perfect on the day -- too many penalties, another blocked field goal, missed chances in the red zone -- But their much-maligned special teams came up with the big play when it mattered most.
Now, there are five teams with two losses in the league behind Cincinnati (3-1). Buckle up.
1. The Big East in its current form will no longer exist. The biggest news Saturday was not what happened on the field. Pitt and Syracuse have elected to join the ACC, throwing the conference into shambles. Commissioner John Marinatto, in Maryland for the West Virginia game, spent his time on the phone trying to figure out how to keep his conference solvent. That is the next step. A lot of that depends on what happens with the Big 12. But he has got to convince his members that the league is salvageable before others try and jump ship, too. If 16-team superconferences are the way of the future, the Big East could be raided into oblivion. It is every program for themselves. Conference loyalty means absolutely nothing. Look at Syracuse, a founding member of the Big East. The twin moves are an unquestioned blow to the league.
3. West Virginia is ready for LSU. Not without a little scare from Maryland, mind you. The Mountaineers got off to the fast start coach Dana Holgorsen wanted, but they saw a 34-10 lead whittled away to 34-31 in the fourth quarter. Geno Smith and the offense responded with a field goal, and Eain Smith sealed the game with an interception. The Mountaineers rolled up 480 yards of offense and the offensive line played better. If there is one area of concern it is probably the running game. West Virginia had 90 yards and averaged 3 yards a carry. That line is going to be in for a major, major challenge against a ferocious, aggressive LSU defensive front.
4. Louisville has a future star. Maybe even two future stars. Teddy Bridgewater and Dominique Brown played one terrific game in helping the Cardinals upset Kentucky 24-17. When Will Stein went down with a shoulder injury, nobody really knew what to expect out of Bridgewater. He had played two series combined in two games, going 2-of-3 for 14 yards with an interception. But he did not make any critical mistakes and looked poised, directing two touchdown drives and doing enough to break a four-game losing streak to Kentucky.
5. Overmatched opponents are not a problem. Cincinnati and USF easily dispatched their overmatched opponents on Saturday. The Bearcats have now beaten Austin Peay and Akron by a combined 131-14, while USF has beaten Ball State and Florida A&M 107-24. Cincinnati gets a much bigger test with short rest, playing NC State on Thursday night. We will see whether the team that played Akron or the team that played at Tennessee shows up.
After jumping to a 34-10 lead in the third quarter, it appeared the Mountaineers would cruise. They were doing whatever they wanted on offense, and did not punt for the first time in the game until the 6:22 mark of the third quarter. But Maryland chipped away at the lead on the West Virginia prevent defense, having particular success running up the middle.
The Terrapins closed the gap to 34-31 with 10 minutes to go on a 2-point conversion. But Geno Smith capped off his unbelievable day with an answering drive, leading West Virginia to a field goal to go up 37-31. Eain Smith sealed it with an interception, and now West Virginia can start thinking about LSU.
Though the offense was not as efficient in the second half as it was in the first, you saw the reason why expectations are so high for this Mountaineers team under Dana Holgorsen. Smith threw for a career-best 388 yards, completing 36 of 49. At times, he made things look easy as he picked apart the Maryland defense.
The Mountaineers had three receivers go over 100 yards -- Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney. In fact, WVU had as many receivers with 100-yard games as it had during the entire 2010 season. That is what Holgorsen brings to West Virginia.
After creating no turnovers in the first two games, West Virginia got three -- including an interception return for a touchdown. The Mountaineers also gave the ball away three times, an area that has to be cleaned up against the Tigers.
The offensive line also played its best game of the season. It is going to have to play even better next week against an LSU defensive line that is ferocious. Looking forward to the build-up to that game!
Jefferson just threw an awful interception that should have been a pick-six. But Eain Smith got tripped up by teammate Robert Sands, and then drew a 15-yard penalty by tossing the ball to the ground in frustration.
No matter. The Mountaineers still scored on a Geno Smith pass to Jock Sanders, and Noel Devine is back in the game. So are the Mountaineers, who trail just 17-14.
They have a real chance here. LSU's offense isn't doing anything; in fact, the home crowd booed the Tigers during their last series. Even when LSU moves the ball, it often commits a penalty; it has eight of them Saturday night. And Jefferson remains as inconsistent and inaccurate a passer as ever.
West Virginia looks really energized right now as it should be. Game on.
Was that West Virginia or Syracuse practicing in the Carrier Dome on Monday? The new-look Orange showed off some zone-read plays with quarterback Ryan Nassib, Donnie Webb writes in the Syracuse Post-Standard.
• Robert Sands has moved from free to strong safety this spring, and the 6-foot-5 sophomore looks like a keeper there, Dave Hickman says in the Charleston Gazette. Eain Smith is now with the first team at free safety for the Mountaineers.
• A walk-on from the track team has been a pleasant surprise at running back for Rutgers, Keith Sargeant says in the Home News Tribune.
• Former Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford is working as a graduate assistant at his alma mater -- but is doing so with the defense. Paul Zeise has the story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
• Former Miami quarterback Robert Marve will begin a busy schedule of official visits this weekend and still has South Florida in mind after spending lots of time at Bulls practice this spring, Greg Auman notes in the St. Petersburg Times.