NCF Nation: Jarrett Brown

Big East in the NFL draft

April, 26, 2010
4/26/10
8:00
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The NFL's fortnight of drafting -- what, it was only three days? Really? -- came to an end this weekend. I already touched on the first-round results on Friday. Here's a look at where Big East players went the rest of the draft, with some quick comments on each pick:

Second round

No. 37: Nate Allen, S, South Florida, to Philadelphia: No surprise here, as Allen was mentioned as a possible first-rounder at various points.

Third round

No. 65: Jerome Murphy, CB, South Florida to St. Louis: Here is proof that college production isn't always the most important thing to NFL scouts. Murphy struggled against some of the Big East's better receivers, but he has great physical tools and hopefully will find his niche in the pros.

Fourth round

No. 99: Mardy Gilyard, WR, Cincinnati, to St. Louis: If you watched any Bearcats games the past two years, you know that the Rams got an absolute steal. Think Sam Bradford will like having Gilyard around?

No. 101: Mike Williams, WR, Syracuse, to Tampa Bay: He was a first-round talent who was lucky to get picked this high given his off-the-field issues.

No. 107: Marcus Easley, WR, UConn, to Buffalo: Easley had great workouts, and though some thought he would go higher than this, it's still a great story for a guy who was a walk-on this time a year ago.

Fifth round

No. 157: Arthur Jones, DT, Syracuse, to Baltimore: Jones was talked about as a possible first-rounder earlier in his career. This is a great value pick for a player who will always give maximum effort.

Sixth round

No. 177: Carlton Mitchell, WR, South Florida, to Cleveland: Mitchell looked impressive in his workouts, but falling to the sixth round makes you question if he made the right choice in skipping his senior year.

No. 182: Nate Byham, TE, Pittsburgh, to San Francisco: The best blocking tight end in the Big East during his career.

No. 204: Tony Pike, QB, Cincinnati, to Carolina: Pike has to be disappointed that he fell this low and that he was drafted by the same team that took Jimmy Clausen a couple rounds earlier.

Seventh round

No. 226: George Selvie, DE, South Florida, to St. Louis: How much would you have bet against the notion that Selvie would be a seventh-round pick at this time last year? Selvie's production dropped after his breakout sophomore year, and now he'll have to prove himself again.

No. 227: Dorin Dickerson, TE, Pittsburgh, to Houston: Surprised to see Dickerson go this low after his great Combine performance. He's a tweener who needs the right team to showcase his skills.

No. 231: Selvish Capers, OT, West Virginia, to Washington: Capers has a lot of talent and potential.

No. 237: Ryan D'Imperio, LB/FB, Rutgers, to Minnesota: The Scarlet Knights' linebacker was drafted as a fullback although he never played it in college.

No. 238: Ricardo Mathews, DT, Cincinnati, to Indianapolis: Mathews didn't get as much attention on the Bearcats' defense as some other players but had a nice senior season.

No. 249: Robert McClain, CB, UConn, to Carolina: McClain had four interceptions last year and also served as the team's punt returner.

Here's a handy-dandy list of NFL Draft picks per Big East school:

South Florida: 5

Rutgers: 3

Cincinnati: 3

Connecticut: 2

Pitt: 2

Syracuse: 2

West Virginia: 1

Louisville: 0

And, finally, some notable players who weren't drafted (I'll have more later on those who signed free-agent contracts): Andre Dixon and Lindsey Witten from UConn; Aaron Webster and Alex Daniels from Cincinnati; Scott Long from Louisville; and Jarrett Brown from West Virginia.
Reviewing some of the highs and lows of Big East bowl season:

Best defensive performance: Connecticut clamped down on South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl, shutting the SEC opponent out until the final four minutes, and holding the Gamecocks to just 205 total yards. They play a little defense in the Big East, too.

[+] EnlargeMike Ford
John E. Sokolowski/US PresswireSouth Florida running back Mike Ford rushed for 207 yards and a touchdown in the International Bowl.
Worst defensive performance: Well, maybe they don't play defense in the Big Easy. Cincinnati's late-season struggles to stop anyone reached a nadir in the Allstate Sugar Bowl as the Bearcats allowed 51 points and 659 total yards to Florida. The plan going in was to make Tim Tebow strictly a passer; he gleefully accepted the challenge by throwing for a BCS record 482 yards while completing 31 of his 35 attempts.

Best out-of-nowhere performance: Mike Ford hadn't done a whole lot for South Florida in two years, and rushed for only 243 yards in the regular season. Then the Bulls tailback rumbled for 207 yards -- nearly all of it in the second half -- against Northern Illinois in the International Bowl. Maybe he just likes Canada. Alert the CFL.

Worst into-nowhere disappearing act: West Virginia's Noel Devine was nearly unstoppable for three quarters against Florida State. But Devine, who had 168 yards on 16 carries, never touched the ball in the fourth quarter of the Mountaineers' futile comeback attempt.

Worst break: Jarret Brown's injury at the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl. The senior waited patiently behind Pat White for three years but couldn't play after the first half of his bowl game because of an ankle problem. He deserved to finish his career in better fashion.

Best statement: Pitt and North Carolina both pride themselves on hard-nosed football. Well, Dave Wannstedt's team got the upper hand in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Trailing by one in the fourth quarter, the Panthers went on an epic, 17-play, 8:47 drive for the winning field goal. It was old-school, smash-mouth football at its finest.

Best atmosphere: The Gator Bowl. A record crowd of 84,129 packed the Jacksonville Municipal Stadium for Bobby Bowden's last game. The sight of Bowden throwing the flaming spear into the turf before the game was undeniably cool. You can forgive West Virginia for not enjoying some of the over-the-top Bowden tributes, though, such as having the Florida State coach's picture on all the buses transporting people to the stadium.

Worst atmosphere: International Bowl. Who thought pitting South Florida and Northern Illinois in Canada would be a good idea? Fewer than 1,500 fans from either school made the trip across the border, and the announced crowd of 22,185 was the smallest of any bowl game this year.

Best future preview: It's a four-way tie. Two true freshmen -- quarterback Tom Savage and receiver Mohamed Sanu -- formed a potent duo for Rutgers in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels had a solid game against Northern Illinois. And West Virginia fans got to see their next quarterback when freshman Geno Smith took over for Brown in the second half.

Worst bowl week buildup: Urban Meyer's seemingly unnecessary Sugar Bowl retirement/non-retirement drama overshadowed much of the pregame talk and excitement. Add in Cincinnati's own coaching controversies, and hardly anybody focused on the actual game (though from the Bearcats' standpoint, maybe that was a good thing). What happened to bowls being rewards for all the players' hard work?
[+] EnlargeJeff Quinn
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireCincinnati interim coach Jeff Quinn's loss to Florida dealt the Big East its biggest bowl defeat.
Thud.

That's the sound of the Big East in bowl season. Sure, the league is 2-2 right now, but its New Year's Day performance is what people will remember.

Cincinnati came up small on the biggest stage, getting absolutely steamrolled by Florida in a 51-24 Allstate Sugar Bowl loss that wasn't even that close. The Big East needs all the high-profile wins it can get on the BCS stage and against the elite in the sport; the Bearcats' performance, coming in as a 12-0 back-to-back league champ, did great damage to the league's credibility.

West Virginia's performance was almost as bad. Yes, the Mountaineers were playing in a no-win situation in Bobby Bowden's last game, and quarterback Jarrett Brown didn't play the second half after hurting his ankle. The bottom line is still that the Big East's No. 2 team -- West Virginia finished 5-2 in the league and beat Pitt -- lost to a 6-6 team by two scores.

At least Pitt won a virtual road game against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and a UConn win Saturday over South Carolina would give the league an SEC scalp. But both those opponents are mediocre, middle-of-the pack teams. And South Florida's game against Northern Illinois won't matter to anybody unless the Bulls manage to lose.

The sky is not falling. Cincinnati will finish in the Top 10 and Pitt probably ends in the Top 15. West Virginia and Rutgers won nine games.

But you make your rep in the highest-profile games. And at the very top, the Big East bottomed out.
Instant analysis of West Virginia's 33-21 loss to Florida State in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl:

How the game was won: The Mountaineers simply couldn't stop the run. Florida State rushed for 225 yards, more than half of them by Jermaine Thomas, as the West Virginia defense couldn't get off the field enough. After getting out to an early 14-3 lead, the Mountaineers struggled to do much more on offense and lost starting quarterback Jarrett Brown to an ankle injury late in the first half.

Turning point: West Virginia had a first down on the FSU 22-yard line late in the second quarter with a 14-10 lead. The next two plays resulted in a holding penalty and an intentional grounding foul, followed by a sack of Brown that knocked him out of the game for good. The Mountaineers came away with no points, the Seminoles got a field goal before halftime and the game was virtually all Florida State from there.

Player of the game: Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel. The youngster threw for 189 yards and ran for 69 yards and a score as he managed the game efficiently throughout.

Stat of the game: West Virginia had only 102 yards passing, and 35 of those came on the final drive when the outcome was well in hand. Outside of Noel Devine (16 rushes, 168 yards), the Mountaineers didn't have a lot of options on offense.

Unsung hero of the game: Florida State kick returner Greg Reid. His 69-yard return to start the second half set up the Seminoles' go-ahead field goal.

What it means: West Virginia was in a tough spot in this game, trying to play the villain in Bobby Bowden's curtain call. The Mountaineers could have reached the 10-win plateau and possibly secured a top 15 finish. Instead, they lost a bowl game for the first time since 2005 and became the first Big East to lose in the postseason. Still, the future looks pretty bright in Morgantown. Freshman quarterback Geno Smith played the second half and showed off some of his many talents. West Virginia could lose Devine to the draft but will return a lot of key players next year.

FSU now has experience edge at QB

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
3:56
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- With West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown sidelined, Florida State has the edge on the field and on the scoreboard. In a bowl game that has turned into a battle of the backup quarterbacks, E.J. Manuel has the upper hand in experience. WVU backup Geno Smith entered the third quarter having thrown just 34 passes in four games this season. Now he's been tasked with leading the Mountaineers to a come-from-behind win against an emotionally charged FSU team that leads 23-21 in the fourth quarter.

So far, Smith has played well enough to keep the Mountaineers in the game, and he's already thrown more than Brown. Manuel, though, has a 2-1 record as FSU's starter, and that experience could prove to be the difference down the stretch.

In his fourth career start, Manuel connected with Jarmon Fortson for 26 yards and the first down with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. It was a remarkable grab by Fortson, but two plays later, FSU scored on a 19-yard run by Jermaine Thomas. Manuel should have more confidence in this game, and FSU has done a good job of pressuring West Virginia's quarterbacks all day. If the defense can force Smith into a few rookie mistakes, the Noles could hang onto this edge.

WVU turnover proves costly

January, 1, 2010
1/01/10
2:28
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Finally, Florida State got a momentum-changing play from its defense. Jamie Robinson intercepted Jarrett Brown here early in the second quarter and Florida State was able to score off the turnover. WVU leads, 14-10, but the play gave Florida State some life in this game.

Florida State's running game should be one thing it can count on. Jimbo Fisher needs to keep things simple for rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, and with a veteran offensive line and talented running backs, it will help take some pressure off of Manuel. So far he's completed 50 percent of his passes. The best defense for Noel Devine & Co. in this game is to keep them off the field, and FSU will need to run the ball and control the clock to do that.

Revisiting preseason picks

December, 17, 2009
12/17/09
1:10
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I meant to get to this last week but never did because there was so much news going on. But with the regular season over and bowls approaching, it's time to look back at some of the preseason predictions I made for the Big East and laugh at how dumb I was. (I'll also be revisiting my best case/worst case scenarios for each team starting later today).

Yes, I picked Rutgers to win the league, which should subject me to ridicule in the public square. Here are some other wonderfully naive preseason prognostications from yours truly:
Offensive player of the year: Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike. "... I just get the sense that Pike is dialed in and ready for a monster year."

Well, Pike almost certainly would have won this award had he stayed healthy. And he did have a huge year when healthy. Nothing wrong with this pick.
Defensive player of the year: South Florida defensive end George Selvie. "This year, the Bulls have a deeper, more talented defensive line that should take some pressure off their senior pass-rusher ..."

Well, that sentence was true, as Jason Pierre-Paul added a lot to the defensive line. But Selvie was never able to really put up monster numbers even with that help. I went with the safe pick and got burned.
Newcomer of the year: Cincinnati receiver Jamar Howard. " ... This 6-foot-4 junior-college transfer has the size and speed to provide a compelling target for Pike."

Oy, vey. Howard had three catches on the year. My reasoning was that somebody would step in for Dominick Goodman and provide big stats. I was right about that. It's just that Armon Binns was the tall guy who did it, not Howard.
Comeback player of the year: Syracuse receiver Mike Williams. "After missing all of last year because of academic problems, the Orange's top playmaker from 2007 returns and will be the go-to guy in the passing game."

Can't blame me for this one. Until mid-October, Williams was clearly fulfilling every possible expectation. Until he went and, you know, quit the team. I guess that makes him the Go-away player of the year.
Freshman of the year: Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham. "Clearly, a freshman is going to have a huge opportunity to run behind the Panthers' offensive line, as true frosh Dion Lewis is battling Graham for the top spot on the depth chart right now."

This is the classic case of out-thinking yourself. I saw in person in the spring how good Lewis was, but I had heard reports of Graham's big-play ability coming out of fall camp. I projected Graham would take over instead of going with the safer pick in Lewis. So close.
Breakout player of the year: West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown. "Mountaineers fans already know what Brown is capable of doing, but the rest of the league and the country will finally see ... "

Brown had a few ups and downs, but he was pretty solid for the most part. With a do-over, I'd probably award this to Dorin Dickerson.
Most exciting player: Noel Devine. "The West Virginia running back can seemingly turn any play into a home run and is a threat to reverse field and run by 11 defenders at any time."

Arguments could be made for Lewis, Jonathan Baldwin, Mardy Gilyard and others. But nothing wrong with this pick.
Coach of the year: Greg Schiano. "If Cincinnati's [Brian] Kelly wins this award a third straight time, they should just rename it after him."

And they should.
Game of the year: West Virginia at Rutgers, Dec. 5. "This could turn into the de facto Big East championship game that league officials try to set up every year."

Well, at least I had the date right. Sigh.
Surprise team of the year: Connecticut. "Simply because no one is talking about the Huskies, and Randy Edsall always fields a solid team."

I count this one as a win.
Team that will disappoint: South Florida. "This is a program that, while loaded with athletes, still has to prove it can compete beyond September."

At least I can correctly peg disappointments. Like my own predictions.

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
9:50
PM ET
Florida State (6-6) vs. West Virginia (9-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m., (CBS)


Florida State take by Heather Dinich: In the end, Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett got what he wanted, but will the product on the field match the off-field drama? Probably not. This is still a 6-6 Florida State team with one of the nation’s worst defenses. That hasn’t changed just because it will be the last game of Bobby Bowden’s career.

Considering that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has already begun to build his staff, it could be an awkward preparation period for those assistants who know their time in Tallahassee is coming to an end. If the staff isn’t on the same page heading into this game, how are the players supposed to be? And those are just the off-field issues.

Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who took over late in the season for injured star Christian Ponder, will be making his first appearance in a bowl game. Sure, FSU has proven it can score, but the last time it was on the field, it suffered a humiliating 37-10 loss to rival Florida.

The Noles’ defense is ranked 108th in the country in rushing defense, 113 in pass efficiency defense and 110 in total defense, and 98 in scoring defense. West Virginia, led by Noel Devine, has the No. 2 rushing offense in the Big East, and leads the conference in pass efficiency defense.

This might be not turn out to be the celebratory sendoff Bowden supporters would like to see.


West Virginia take by Brian Bennett: Three weeks ago, the Mountaineers stood at 7-3 with an uncertain bowl future. They finished by winning their final two games to earn the Big East's second-best bowl spot and make it a nice season.

The West Virginia offense has lacked its usual firepower lately, failing to score more than 24 points in any of its final five games. But it remains a dangerous attack, thanks to quarterback Jarrett Brown's strong arm and scrambling ability and running back Noel Devine's capability of turning any play into a touchdown.

The cure for whatever has slowed that offense may arrive in the form of Florida State's 98th-ranked defense. The Seminoles haven't really been able to stop anybody since October.

The biggest boon for West Virginia the past few weeks has been its defense getting fully healthy, especially difference-making linebacker Reed Williams and safety Sidney Glover. They helped put the clamps on Pitt and Rutgers and hold Cincinnati to its lowest-scoring output of the season.

Of course, the storyline of this game will be all about Bobby Bowden coaching his last game for Florida State against the school that gave him his first Division I head coaching job. Current West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has a little bit of Bowden's folksy wisdom and down-to-earth style about him. And this year, he's got a better team.

West Virginia upsets Pitt 19-16

November, 27, 2009
11/27/09
10:38
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Next week's Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game just lost a little luster.

But that's another story. Right now, the story is West Virginia and its big 19-16 win over No. 9 Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. Tyler Bitancurt made a 43-yard field goal with no time left for the win.

There was a lot of talk all week about how the Mountaineers hadn't had a signature win since the interim tag was taken off coach Bill Stewart's title. Well, now they've got it -- and over their most bitter rival. It's not quite revenge for 2007 -- Pitt can still win the Big East and go to the BCS, while West Virginia was knocked out of the BCS title game two years ago -- but this does take the Panthers out of the Top 10. And West Virginia now has a chance for the Gator Bowl.

West Virginia turned in an inspired defensive effort, shutting down one of the Big East's top scoring offenses and holding them without a touchdown until the final three minutes. That's when Bill Stull hit Jonathan Baldwin for a 50-yard touchdown bomb to tie the score.

But the Mountaineers mounted a winning drive, one in which Stewart went for it on fourth down and let the clock run down before the field goal attempt. All the fans who had criticized his clock and field management against Cincinnati and USF aren't complaining now.

Good for the Mountaineers, and also quarterback Jarrett Brown, who's had his share of scrutiny. Brown calmly led that winning drive.

How does Pitt bounce back from this to get ready for Cincinnati? And how much does this hurt the Bearcats' argument for the BCS title game since they'll no longer get to play a Top 10 team to close the year?

Those are all questions for next week. Tonight, the story is West Virginia's big win.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. The conference race, defined: West Virginia will either be eliminated from the Big East title race or be right in the thick of things depending on Friday's game against Cincinnati. A West Virginia loss makes the Dec. 5 Pitt-Cincinnati game the de facto conference championship game. A Mountaineers win shakes everything up again.

2. B.J. vs. the blitz: South Florida offensive coordinator Mike Canales said earlier this week that he and his staff had spent an inordinate amount of time studying how Rutgers attacks with its blitzes. The Bulls need to be ready to counter, because they're relying on freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels to read the Scarlet Knights' defense. On the other hand, Daniels' running ability means he can break off big plays if he can slip by the pressure.

3. Rutgers' offensive line vs. the South Florida pass rush: The Scarlet Knights' O-line came into this season as the league's most experienced, and most figured it would be one of the most dominant units in the conference. Instead, the group has been disappointing for the most part. Rutgers, led by Anthony Davis, has had good success in the past against George Selvie but now will have to deal with Jason Pierre-Paul as well. Plus, the Bulls' Kion Wilson fired a salvo toward the offensive line earlier this week.

4. Zach Collaros and Tony Pike: Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly says Collaros will start but Pike will play this week. How much or what role Pike will have against West Virginia is a mystery. Will the senior quarterback be rusty, or can he pick up right where he left off? And can Collaros continue his astounding production against a Mountaineers' defense that's been vulnerable against the pass of late?

5. Jarrett Brown and Noel Devine: Both had ankle injuries last week against Louisville, but both are expected back. Devine may not be 100 percent, but he needs to rip off a few of his patented highlight-reel runs to give West Virginia a real chance. Brown's production has fallen off in recent weeks, and he must make plays with his feet and arm to get the Mountaineers offense moving.

6. Cincinnati's defense: Red flags were raised when the Bearcats allowed 45 points to UConn last week. West Virginia has a different kind of offense, but one that's still potent when it's on point. Cincinnati needs to tighten things up not only to win but to show it's a legitimate BCS title contender.

7. NFL talent on an NFL field: The Pitt-Notre Dame game will feature lots of guys who will probably be playing at Heinz Field on Sundays in the future. The list includes Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o and Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin, Greg Romeus and Dorin Dickerson, just to name a few. Even if you have no rooting interest in this game, it's worth checking out for the sheer amount of talent involved.

8. Can Pitt get pressure? Notre Dame's experienced offensive line has done a good job protecting Clausen most of the year, but USC managed to get pressure with its front four. Pitt has the second-best defensive line the Irish will have seen all year. The Panthers' defensive philosophy is based on getting those front four in to disrupt the pocket; they do not want to let Clausen sit back and pick his spots all night.

9. The Pitt running game: If Dion Lewis gets going, the Panthers will have a great shot at beating the Irish, whose defense just isn't good enough to contain both the running game and the play-action passing of Bill Stull. A solid running game will also slow down Notre Dame's frequent blitzing. Pitt may have the best offensive line in the league; it needs to take advantage of that against a so-so Irish defensive front.

10. The Basement Bowl: Syracuse-Louisville isn't going to pull in many outside viewers, but it's important for both teams. The Orange badly need something good after a string of losses both on and off the field. The Cardinals want to snap their embarrassing two-game losing streak to Syracuse. Whichever one loses may just wind up 0-7 in the Big East this year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. Cincinnati has flaws, after all: It was tough to spot any weaknesses in the Bearcats before Saturday. They were among the nation's leaders in nearly every statistical category and hadn't played a close game all season. But the 47-45 nail-biter over UConn exposed some areas to exploit. A team with a big, physical offensive line and strong running game can overpower Cincinnati's defense, as Ryan Mathews first showed in the Fresno State game and Jordan Todman and the Huskies screamed on Saturday night. There's one opponent left on the Bearcats' schedule that fits that description, which means ...

2. Make Pitt the Big East co-favorite: The Panthers are on a major roll right now, having won their last two games by a combined margin of 78-24. They've got a tough-nosed offensive line and a great running game behind Dion Lewis, with as many or more weapons in the passing game as Cincinnati. Pitt's defense has improved after some early struggles. Right now, the Dec. 5 showdown between the two Big East heavyweights at Heinz Field looks like a toss-up.

3. West Virginia has lost is offensive mojo: Ever since Jarrett Brown's concussion early in the Marshall game, the Mountaineers have not been the same on offense. They scored 30 points in each of their first five games and haven't done so in any of their last four contests. After putting up just 19 in a loss to South Florida, they mustered only 17 points in an uninspiring win over Louisville on Saturday. Defenses have managed to bottle up the running game the past two weeks, and the passing game has lacked rhythm. Going into this week's cauldron at Cincinnati, West Virginia will need to figure out what's wrong and get back on track.

4. No one needs a bye more than UConn: Connecticut must be the most competitive 4-5 team in America. Its five losses have now come by a combined 15 points, and the Huskies could almost as easily be 9-0. They showed incredible grit to come back from 20 points down and turn Saturday's game against Cincinnati into a shootout, a type of game they didn't seem capable of playing most of the season. Still, this team has had more heartache in one year than some programs experience in a decade. This week's off week is much deserved and needed.

5. Syracuse and Louisville lack the proper tools on offense: The Orange and the Cardinals are battling head to head this week avoid the Big East basement, and a dearth of offensive playmakers is the reason why. Louisville outplayed West Virginia in most facets Saturday, but with a walk-on quarterback, a third-string freshman running back and a mistake-prone offensive line, it couldn't get into the end zone. Syracuse badly missed Mike Williams at Pitt, as no receiver had more than one catch, and quarterbacks Ryan Nassib and Greg Paulus combined for three interceptions. Both teams play hard every game, but this could be an ugly slugfest between two teams with ugly records.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. Focus: That's the key word this week, as the top three contenders in the Big East all are heavy favorites at home. Showdowns between Cincinnati, Pitt and West Virginia loom on the calendar ahead. But for those to matter, they need to take care of business this week against the heavy underdogs and not start thinking ahead to the stretch run.

2. Cincinnati's receivers vs. the UConn secondary: The Huskies got burned by Tim Brown on an 81-yard pass play to lose this week, but they've been pretty good against the pass this year and have the league's two co-leaders in interceptions (Robert Vaughn and Robert McClain). They will face a major challenge this week against the Bearcats' Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. Syracuse had some small success slowing Cincinnati down last week by trying to keep everything in front of the defense. UConn might also want to make the Bearcats prove they can sustain long drives.

3. Attack of the backup Zachs: Cincinnati looks likely to go with Zach Collaros again at quarterback as Tony Pike continues to recover from his left forearm injury. Collaros has been outstanding the past two and a half games, though this will be the best team he's started against thus far. UConn's Zach Frazer is back at quarterback now that Cody Endres is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Frazer has been way too erratic this season, including three more interceptions last week at Rutgers, and can't afford those mistakes against the Bearcats.

4. Lindsey Witten vs. Jeff Linkenbach: Witten is tied for second in the nation in sacks with 10.5. Linkenbach has developed into the best left tackle in the Big East, in my opinion. If UConn can't get pressure on Collaros, it could be a long night at Nippert Stadium for the Huskies. Witten needs to bring the heat.

5. Dion Lewis: The Pitt freshman tailback was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award this week and floats on the periphery of the Heisman race. Syracuse has been surprisingly stout against the run this season, ranking first in the Big East with just 88.9 yards allowed per game on the ground. Another big game by Lewis against this defense should vault him into the lead for Big East player of the year and other award honors.

6. Paulus and the passing game: Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus was booed at home last week and then received a passionate defense by his head coach Doug Marrone. Paulus has struggled in Big East play, and he just lost his best and maybe only big-play receiver in Mike Williams, who quit the team on Monday. How do he and the Orange offense respond?

7. West Virginia's pass defense: The deep pass has hurt the Mountaineers the past few weeks and much of the season. Louisville has the worst scoring offense in the Big East but is capable of pulling off some big plays in the passing game with guys like Scott Long, Trent Guy and Doug Beaumont. If West Virginia can tighten that part of its defense up, it should have little trouble at home against the last-place Cardinals.

8. Louisville's quarterback derby: Three guys -- Justin Burke, Will Stein and Adam Froman -- have started, and it's anybody's guess who will get the call this week. Coach Steve Kragthorpe said earlier this week that Burke and Froman, who were both hurt at Cincinnati, should be available for practice. If they're all good to go, Froman likely gets the nod. But West Virginia has to prepare for all three just in case.

9. Speed on the edge: The main difference between West Virginia and Louisville the past two years was that the Cardinals didn't have the defensive speed on the perimeter to contain the Mountaineers' playmakers unlike, say, South Florida. Pat White got outside with ease in last year's game in Louisville, and the Cardinals' quickness hasn't gotten significantly better. Expect at least one huge run, if not several, from Noel Devine and maybe even Jarrett Brown or Jock Sanders.

10. Cincinnati's competition: We're not talking about UConn, but the other contenders for the national title. Keep an eye this weekend on Alabama against LSU, Iowa against Northwestern, Boise State at Louisiana Tech and TCU against San Diego State. Any of them faltering would help the Bearcats' national title chances.

Big East picks, Week 8

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
9:35
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Someone call the fire department, because my picks are a three-alarm blaze.

For the third week in a row, I posted a perfect 4-0 record. At the halfway mark, I'm predicting games at better than an 85 percent rate. Let's see if I can't keep moving that number up.

Friday

Rutgers 28, Army 14: The Black Knights could give their Scarlet counterparts some trouble with their triple-option offense. But Army scored only 16 points against Tulane and needed overtime to reach the same total in a win over Vanderbilt. So the Rutgers defense should be good enough to keep the points down. If Tom Savage and the Scarlet Knights offense can't break out in this game, there's trouble ahead.

Saturday

Pittsburgh 27, South Florida 24: This, for me, is the real toss-up game of the weekend. You have two standout defensive lines, excellent athletes at receiver, big-play offenses. Pitt could have problems stopping the deep throws from B.J. Daniels. The difference, I think, is the Panthers' running game. Dion Lewis will churn out the yards and keep the Bulls' offense on the sidelines.

West Virginia 31, Connecticut 21: All bets are off in this game, because we have no idea how the Huskies will respond to the Jasper Howard tragedy. They could come out inspired, or they could be drained from the emotional tolls of the past week. With Jarrett Brown apparently feeling better and ready to go, that greatly improves the Mountaineers' chances. And UConn has never had any success against West Virginia. The Mountaineers win but don't feel too good about beating a heartbroken opponent.

Cincinnati 27, Louisville 17: I look for this game to be a little closer than you might expect for a couple of reasons. One is obviously the quarterback uncertainty. Whether Brian Kelly goes with one of his backups, Zach Collaros or Chazz Anderson, or if Tony Pike plays through his forearm injury, the Bearcats would be wise to keep things a little more button-down than usual on offense. The second reason is that Louisville always seems to play well against Cincinnati, including last year when the game was still in the balance into the fourth quarter. The Bearcats will never seriously be threatened, but they'll be happy just to get a win and give Pike another week to heal.

Syracuse 35, Akron 16: The Zips are just 1-5, with their only win against Morgan State. But there's no chance that Syracuse will take them lightly after last year's upset loss to Akron in the Carrier Dome. With two weeks to get ready for this game and revenge in their minds, the Orange will come out strong and put this one away early.

Last week: 4-0

Season: 35-6 (85.4 percent).
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

1. Honoring Howard: The rest of the country will watch to see how Connecticut reacts to the stabbing death of its starting cornerback, Jasper Howard. There will be a moment of silence before the West Virginia game, and both teams will be wearing decals to honor Howard's legacy. Perhaps the best tribute the Huskies could pay to their fallen teammate is to play with passion and pull off a victory.

2. Jarrett Brown: The West Virginia quarterback is supposedly feeling much better from his mild concussion last week against Marshall. If he does indeed start, will he be his usual effective self? Or will he be gun shy at all when he takes off to run?

3. Battle of the front fours: Pitt and South Florida probably have the best defensive lines in the Big East, and it will be a treat to see both on the same field Saturday. Who gets the upper hand in the showdown of defensive end duos? The Bulls' George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul or the Panthers' Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard? All of them could be on an NFL field very soon.

4. B.J. Daniels:
The South Florida quarterback was an acrobat in escaping from Cincinnati's pass rush last week, but many times he was just running around in the backfield and not coming up with positive plays. Pitt's defense is quick and athletic and can slow him down on the option-read plays. Where Daniels can make something happen is in the deep passing game against the Panthers' secondary. Provided, of course, that he's not spending all his time dancing around would-be tacklers.

5. Dion Lewis: The true freshman leads the Big East and is second in the nation in rushing and will obviously be a key to Pitt's chances against the Bulls. As strong as South Florida's pass rush is, you can run right at them. Pounding Lewis between the tackles -- and he loves to run inside despite his small stature -- will keep those defensive ends at bay.

6. Cincinnati's quarterback situation: As of Thursday morning, it's unclear who will start under center for the Bearcats. It could be Tony Pike, who underwent an operation to repair a plate in his left arm Tuesday morning. Or it could be one of the backups, Chazz Anderson or Zach Collaros. The situation bears monitoring. Can Pike sustain his level of play with another cast on his arm? And can Cincinnati keep the same offensive pace with one of his understudies in the game?

7. Louisville's running back health: The Cardinals' top three tailbacks -- Victor Anderson, Bilal Powell and Darius Ashley -- were all hurt during last week's game at Connecticut, and the team turned to former walk-on Blayne Donnell late in the fourth quarter. The trio is supposed to be better this week. For Louisville to have any chance against Cincinnati, it will need all hands on deck.

8. Rutgers' offense: The Scarlet Knights had four different players either line up at quarterback or attempt a pass last week against Pitt. There is creativity, and then there is desperation. This offense is still seeking an identity. Army, of course, provides our nation with great defense. But the Black Knights shouldn't be able to stop a capable Big East attack. Rutgers needs to go out and have a big night on the ground and through the air in West Point.

9. Greg Paulus: Doug Marrone insists that Paulus is still his guy. Paulus says he's as confident as ever. Still, after throwing six interceptions in six quarters and being pulled for the second half against West Virginia, the quarterback could use a strong performance this week. If he can't avoid mistakes against the Akron defense, there will be questions about whether it's time to turn to Ryan Nassib.

10. The BCS standings: Cincinnati was barely ahead of Iowa in this week's initial BCS standings. Can the Bearcats maintain their No. 5 position, or even move up? Iowa plays at Michigan State, while No. 4 Boise State has to go to Hawaii. Another game that could help Cincinnati's computer ranking is Oregon State at USC, since the Bearcats beat the Beavers earlier this season. The suspense will continue each week as long as Brian Kelly's team is hovering near BCS title game qualification.

Big East midseason review

October, 20, 2009
10/20/09
9:30
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Reports of the Big East's demise were greatly exaggerated.

 
 Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
 Tony Pike has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1,633 yards and 15 touchdowns with just three interceptions.
The season began with no Big East teams in either major top 25 poll. Most observers figured the league would be down after losing such stars as Pat White, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy and Scott McKillop to the NFL.

But through the first half of the season, the Big East looks as strong as ever. This week, there are three teams from the conference in both major top 25 polls. That's more than the Pac-10, and the same number as the ACC and Big Ten. The league has a legitimate national championship contender in Cincinnati, which is No. 5 in the BCS standings. The Big East has gone 26-7 in nonconference games, and its .788 winning percentage is better than every conference except the SEC.

New stars have emerged, like Pitt's Dion Lewis and South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul and B.J. Daniels, while returning players like Tony Pike, Bill Stull and Jarrett Brown have taken a step forward. Even guys who were absent or invisible last year, like Mike Williams and Andre Dixon, have bounced back with career years.

Big East offenses have been potent, with six teams averaging at least 29 points and players like Pike, Lewis, Noel Devine and Mardy Gilyard among the national statistical leaders.

The second half of the season will be all about the conference race, with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia battling it out as the top contenders. But the Big East remains so balanced that just about any team can beat another.

If there are upsets in the second half, critics can't say it's because the league is weak or down. The Big East proved itself in the first half.

Now here's a quick look at some of the first-half highlights:

Offensive player of the mid-year: Tony Pike. There are a number of candidates here, including Devine, Lewis, Dixon and even Pike's teammate, Gilyard. But Pike is the trigger man for the best offense and the best team in the league, and he's been as good as any quarterback in the country so far.

Defensive player of the mid-year: Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida. There is no clear-cut leader for this award, but there are a plethora of candidates, including UConn's Lindsey Witten and Lawrence Wilson, Cincinnati's Aaron Webster, Syracuse's Derrell Smith, Pitt's Greg Romeus and Mick Williams and South Florida's George Selvie and Nate Allen. I pick Pierre-Paul because, even though he's only been fully involved in about four games, he's been the most disruptive defensive force I've seen this year. He already has 8.5 tackles for loss despite getting a late start, and he's been nearly unblockable at times. The scary part is, he should only get better.

Surprise of the first half: Cincinnati's defense. Those who paid close enough attention knew that the Bearcats had veterans and weren't starting from scratch despite losing 10 senior starters from 2008. But nearly everyone thought there would need to be an adjustment period, particularly with a new scheme and new coordinator. Hardly anyone could have forecast Cincinnati ranking 13th nationally in scoring defense, allowing a little more than 14 points per game.

Disappointment of the first half:
Rutgers. All of the momentum built from last year's seven-game winning streak ended in the opener, a humbling 47-15 home loss to Cincinnati. The Scarlet Knights had the perfect schedule to contend in the Big East but have lost their first two conference games, at home. Their offense has sputtered against good competition.

Best game: Syracuse's 37-34 win over Northwestern was an old-fashioned shootout that came down to a dramatic last-second field goal. That it was the first win for new coach Doug Marrone in a raucous Carrier Dome made it even sweeter for Orange fans.

Best coach: It was Brian Kelly in 2007. It was Brian Kelly in 2008. And it's Brian Kelly in the first half of 2009.

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