NCF Nation: Elijah Fields
Pitt corner Aaron Berry looks fine in warm-ups. He missed the West Virginia game with a shoulder injury and is vitally important to the Panthers' chances of slowing down the Cincinnati passing attack. Expect to see a lot of Elijah Fields in the nickel package as well.
There's a palpable buzz in the stadium, which isn't always the case here, especially for noon games. Should be a great atmosphere appropriate for this game.
Some other notes to consider, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
- Since Brian Kelly became head coach, Cincinnati is 32-0 when leading going into the fourth quarter.
- Seemingly no third down is too long for Cincinnati to convert. The Bearcats lead the nation by averaging 8.25 yards per play on third downs this season.
- Pitt has been one of the most productive teams on first downs this season, averaging over seven yards per play.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
PITTSBURGH -- Connecticut quarterback Zach Frazer has been moving around and throwing without any limitations. Frazer, who was injured in the North Carolina game, is wearing a large brace on his right knee.
Frazer was working with the second-team center, so it doesn't look like Randy Edsall will pull any surprises and start him over Cody Endres. And he shouldn't since Endres has been better than Frazer this season.
Another guy who is back for UConn is freshman tight end Ryan Griffin. He could prove to be an effective weapon in the passing game today.
For Pitt, Elijah Fields has not been out there working with the other defensive backs, making me wonder how much, if at all, the safety will play today.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
PITTSBURGH -- Greetings from Heinz Field, where it's a lovely fall day. About 55 degrees and sunny, perfect for football.
We should have a good one here between Connecticut and Pittsburgh, the Big East's two biggest smashmouth teams. Expect lots of running and good, hard-hitting defense.
The key might be who can make the most plays in the passing game, and Pitt seems to have a big edge with its superior talent at wide receiver. On the other hand, UConn has an excellent secondary. The Huskies don't have a great passing game, but the Panthers' pass defense has been leaky. So it's a great matchup all around.
Two players to watch are Pitt's Greg Romeus and UConn's Lindsey Witten. They are two of the best defensive ends in the Big East, and both could be high NFL draft picks next spring.
One of the Huskies' advantages is that they had a bye week after playing an FCS team, so they should be well-rested and healed. Pitt is a little banged up after games at NC State and Louisville; starting safety Elijah Fields (ankle) won't start and will be replaced by Jarred Holley, while receiver/kick returner Cam Saddler is out with an ankle injury of his own.
Much more to come as the afternoon moves along.
My colleagues Chris Low and Ted Miller have an interesting debate today over who's the best safety in college football: Tennessee's Eric Berry or USC's Taylor Mays.
Berry and Mays are getting a lot of attention this preseason, and rightfully so. But the debate made me think that the Big East has some pretty good safeties this year, too. In fact, it may be one of the deeper positions in the league.
Here are my top five Big East safeties for 2009, in no particular order:
• Nate Allen, South Florida: Incredibly athletic guy, with a prototypical NFL body. Needs to bounce back from a slightly disappointing junior season.
• Aaron Webster, Cincinnati: Brought a real toughness to the Bearcats' defense when he moved into the starting lineup after a few games last season. A big hitter who will be called upon to lead an inexperienced defense.
• Robert Vaughn, Connecticut: Flies a little under the radar, like most Huskies. All he does is produce, with nine interceptions the past two years and 27 straight starts.
• Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh: Really came on at the end of last year, including a big Sun Bowl performance. Has a nose for the ball.
• Robert Sands, West Virginia: Unusually tall (6-foot-5) for a safety, he started nine games as a true freshman and looks like a future star.
That's a pretty good list, and I didn't even include Rutgers' Joe Lefeged, West Virginia's Sidney Glover or Pitt's Elijah Fields. There may not be a Taylor Mays or Eric Berry in this league, but the Big East has some awfully good safeties, too.
Questions remain around the Big East, but a few teams found some help this spring at certain positions. Here's a list of where that help came from for a few teams:
Cincinnati: The addition of Marcus Barnett to the defense helped solidify a secondary that lost starting cornerbacks Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith and safety Brandon Underwood.
Pittsburgh: Elijah Fields finally played up to his potential, and Dom DeCicco was solid as the Pitt safety position looked strong this spring.
Syracuse: Moving Derrell Smith to the inside and switching Doug Hogue from running back solidified the Orange's linebacker corps.
CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh had the extra week to prepare for this game, but Cincinnati came in with the better game plan.
Coach Brian Kelly and his staff knew that Pitt's defensive line loves to get up the field and pressure the quarterback, so they countered that in the first half with a lot of quick throws and by getting Tony Pike out of the pocket. It worked beautifully, as Pike was 16-of-21 for 169 yards and had two touchdowns in the first half.
On at least two occasions, Pitt showed an obvious blitz at the line of scrimmage, and Pike checked into the right play to burn it. The first touchdown came that way, as Marcus Barnett walked into the end zone from 20 yards out after defender Elijah Fields fell down.
After going 69 yards on its opening drive to score, Pitt managed just 31 total yards the rest of the half. Even without Mike Mickens, the Cincinnati secondary has managed to contain the deep pass, and the one time Bill Stull tried to find Jonathan Baldwin long, DeAngelo Smith had good coverage.
The game's still very much in doubt, but it will be up to the Panthers to come out with a better second-half plan.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers made some personnel changes in their secondary after Rutgers ripped through it. Sophomore Elijah Fields saw a lot more playing time at Notre Dame, lining up occasionally at safety, nickel back and linebacker. Ricky Gary and Jovani Chappel split time at cornerback. Gary fell down on one touchdown pass, but overall Dave Wannstedt said he was pleased with their play. Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers are looking for a few good men to help shore up their kickoff coverage. They rank last among 119 FBS teams by allowing 29.58 yards per return and are about to face the league's best kick returner in Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard. Two members of the kick cover team -- safety Courtney Stuart and linebacker Archie Sims -- were injured in the UConn game. Head coach Bill Stewart handles special teams and said he would make some personnel changes this week.
Cincinnati: True freshman receiver D.J. Woods is starting to make a bigger impact. He had four catches for 67 yards against Rutgers, returned a punt 40 yards at UConn and made three key receptions in the South Florida win. Fellow slot receiver Marcus Barnett, the team's second-leading catcher a year ago, has only 21 receptions this year. Also for the Bearcats, center Chris Jurek was in a walking boot this week after suffering an ankle injury against South Florida. The team is hopeful he can play at West Virginia. If not, guard Jason Kelce could slide over and handle snapping duties.
Louisville: Senior George Bussey, an All Big-East left tackle, could be switching positions. The Cardinals moved Bussey to left guard on Saturday versus Syracuse to replace injured Mark Wetterer. Sophomore Greg Tomczyk played left tackle because he had fewer things to learn at that position. Wetterer's status is unclear for Saturday's game at Pitt. Other than Bussey and center Eric Wood, Louisville's offensive line has been spotty in recent games.
Syracuse: Wide receiver Dan Sheeran is expected back this week from the broken fibula he suffered in preseason camp. His return allows freshman Grant Mayes to switch from receiver to cornerback, a position he played until Sheeran's injury forced him to offense. The Orange secondary could be in trouble this week against Rutgers, as defensive backs Kevyn Scott and A.J. Brown were injured in the Louisville game. Coach Greg Robinson has declined to address their status so far this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Where else could we start the links but with West Virginia's win over Auburn? It wasn't just that the Mountaineers won but how dominant they looked in the second half. And get this: The game lasted just two hours and 52 minutes.
West Virginia got its groove back, Mitch Vingle writes in the Charleston Gazette. Perceptions changed dramatically in just three hours, Dave Hickman says in the same paper. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for the victory, Jack Bogaczyk says in the Charleston Daily Mail. Here are a couple of quotes from Chuck Finder's story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Offensive lineman Ryan Stanchek: "It's huge for the program. Huge for everybody. Especially for confidence. I think everybody needed a little confidence. Everybody."
Head coach Bill Stewart: "Tonight I did see that swagger back. I saw confidence oozing from everyone."
• Trevor Canfield has slimmed down, grown up and turned into one of the best offensive linemen in the Big East, John Fay writes in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
• Safety Elijah Fields could start seeing some time at cornerback, Kevin Gorman writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
• All the indications are that Cody Endres will start at quarterback for UConn on Saturday, Neill Ostrout writes in the Connecticut Post.
• Matt Grothe is off to the best start of his career, Gregg Becnel says in the Tampa Tribune.
• Rutgers' constantly shuffling offensive line may get some more new wrinkles for the Pittsburgh game, Tom Luicci says in The Star-Ledger.
Traveling to Tampa today, where I'll be covering South Florida-Kansas tonight at the pirate ship. So, posts will be light until game time but I will have a feature on Syracuse QB Cam Dantley a little later.
Now, onto the links, starting with Rutgers, where the sun did in fact rise this morning after last night's embarrassing loss.
- Greg Schiano did a wonderful job building Rutgers from almost nothing. But Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi says now, with everything in place, Schiano has to prove he can coach after this 0-2 start. As Schiano wrote:
"Now what, Greg?
Because the truth after this abomination of a 44-12 loss to North Carolina Thursday night is this: The 0-2 start falls squarely on the head coach. We will learn this season if Schiano can do more than build a program. We will find out if Schiano can actually coach a consistent winner, too, because the early returns in 2008 are not promising, to put it nicely.
"I would wait to see how this team turns out before you say it's a flop, because I don't think it will be," Schiano insisted when this one finally ended, which is easier to say with Navy and Morgan State up next on the schedule. His Scarlet Knights have given no reason for long-term optimism, and a brutal October could derail much of the progress his program has made the past two years.
To think, Michigan hoping Schiano would leave Piscataway last winter to take the reins in Ann Arbor. Right now, Eastern Michigan wouldn't bring him in for an interview. He has coached some bad teams in his eight seasons, but this is entirely different."
- Running back Kordell Young didn't play last night because of knee soreness, Tom Luicci reports. And backup defensive end Gary Watts is out for the year.
- Greg Auman of the St. Petersburg Times says USF defensive end George Selvie is getting the star treatment: double- and triple-teams and everything else to keep him from recording a sack this season.
"He's taking up two blockers, and a lot of times, he's just a step away from getting a sack," defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. "They're doing special schemes on him, and he's still succeeding. If people sprint away from him, what's he going to do?"
- Greg Robinson is a defensive guy. But since he arrived at Syracuse, the Orange have been miserable defensively, Dave Rahme writes in the Syracuse Post-Standard.
- Elijah Fields could take over as starting strong safety at Pittsburgh, Ray Fittipaldo notes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He played more snaps than starter Dom DeCicco against Buffalo. This notebook also includes word that Greg Cross might get a look at QB.
- Louisville offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm has decided to move to the coaches' box upstairs instead of being down on the field, C.L. Brown writes in The Courier-Journal.
- UConn backup guard Alex LaMagdelaine is out for the season after shoulder surgery, Desmond Conner writes in the Hartford Courant.
- West Virginia's offensive line is looking for redemption after their poor performance against East Carolina, Dave Hickman says in the Charleston Gazette.