NCF Nation: Jonathan Baldwin
Let's start on the offensive side of the ball and take a look at where some Big East hopefuls are ranked. First, the skill positions:
- Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: second round
- Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut: third round
- Dion Lewis, RB, Pittsburgh: fourth round
- Delone Carter, RB, Syracuse: fourth round
- Bilal Powell, RB, Louisville: fifth round
- Anthony Sherman, FB, Connecticut: fifth round
- Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia: sixth round
- Henry Hynoski, FB, Pittsburgh: seventh round
- Armon Binns, WR, Cincinnati: seventh round
Now, the offensive linemen/tight ends:
- Jason Pinkston, OT, Pittsbugh: fifth round
- Cameron Graham, TE, Louisville: sixth round
- Zach Hurd, OG, Connecticut: sixth round
- Ryan Bartholomew, C, Syracuse: seventh round
- Jason Kelce, C, Cincinnati: seventh round
Now let's move to the defensive side and see where Scouts Inc. rates some Big East defenders:
- Terrell McClain, DT, South Florida: second round
- Jabaal Sheard, DE/LB, Pittsburgh: second round
- Johnny Patrick, CB, Louisville: third round
- Greg Romeus, DE, Pittsburgh: fourth round
- Brandon Hogan, CB, West Virginia: fourth round
- Robert Sands, S, West Virginia: fourth round
- Lawrence Wilson, LB, Connecticut: fifth round
- Scott Lutrus, LB, Connecticut: fifth round
- Joe Lefeged, S, Rutgers: sixth round
- Chris Neild, DT, West Virginia: sixth round
- Derrell Smith, LB, Syracuse: sixth round
- J.T. Thomas, LB, West Virginia: sixth round
- Doug Hogue, LB, Syracuse: sixth round
- Greg Lloyd, LB, Connecticut: seventh round
These projections aren't gospel by any means, but they should give you a pretty good idea of how Big East hopefuls are being viewed right now.
The decisions by receiver Jon Baldwin and running back Dion Lewis weren't too surprising, while fullback Henry Hynoski's call was not something anyone would have predicted a month or so ago.
Baldwin has been a first-round type of talent since he stepped onto Pittsburgh's campus. The 6-foot-5 wideout was a two-time All-Big East performer who had 53 catches for 822 yards and five touchdowns this season. His skill set should allow him to flourish in the NFL if he continues to improve and mature.
Lewis is only a sophomore but is eligible for the draft because he went to prep school. Of course, he was the Big East's offensive player and rookie of the year in 2009, rushing for 1,799 yards. His numbers were way down this year, but he finished strong to go over 1,000 yards for the second straight year. It will be interesting to see how the NFL views a guy his size, as he is only about 5-foot-8. But when he's on his game, no one runs harder.
Hynoski was the team's fullback and is considered one of the top fullback prospects in the draft. Of course, not every team uses a fullback that much. He did an excellent job as a lead blocker for both Lewis and Ray Graham, and probably saw the writing on the wall for his Pitt future. While Dave Wannstedt used a pro-style system, the Panthers appear to be close to hiring Tulsa's Todd Graham, who runs a spread offense which has little use for the fullback.
All three guys will be missed, but the new coach will still have a lot to work with. Devin Street is a guy who could blossom next season in Baldwin's role, while Graham should pick up the torch left behind by Lewis.
But with the season looking like a lost cause, Wannstedt's status is just about all any Pitt fans want to discuss. My inbox is full of e-mails on the subject, most of which are a variation of the question, "How much longer must we put up with this?"
To be fair, it's not like Wannstedt has pulled a Greg Robinson and imploded a program. Pitt won 19 games the previous two seasons and still has a chance at an eight-win campaign in 2010, not to mention a share of the Big East title with a victory Saturday (and the Panthers could still back into a BCS bid if West Virginia and Connecticut collapse). Pittsburgh fans have an inflated view of their program's value, colored by the Jackie Sherrill glory years of the late 1970s and early '80s. Consider that the Panthers won 10 games last year for the first time since 1981; the team had reached that plateau once between 1917 and 1975.
The worst part for Pitt is, the window for claiming the program's first-ever outright Big East title has never been more wide open than the past two years. Yet after reaching the top 10 last season, the Panthers closed the year with a listless loss at West Virginia, then blew a 31-10 lead at home to Cincinnati with the BCS bid on the line. This year, with no dominant teams in the league and nemesis Brian Kelly gone, Pitt was supposed to finally break through. Instead, the team is just 6-5, with humiliating home losses to Miami (which just fired its coach) and last week to archrival West Virginia.
UConn coach Randy Edsall and South Florida's Skip Holtz each called the Panthers the most talented team in the Big East the week before playing them. And think of the talent that has gone through the Steel City the past few years without a championship to show for it yet: LeSean McCoy, Jon Baldwin, Scott McKillop, Greg Romeus, Jason Pinkston, Jabaal Sheard, Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson, Dion Lewis and on and on and on. There's no reason Connecticut might have more Big East titles and one more BCS bid than Pittsburgh during Wannstedt's six years if the Huskies win this weekend.
Perhaps we all overrated this year's team, distracted by the star power of Lewis, Romeus and Baldwin and ignoring the missing starters at other key positions. Injuries to Romeus and middle linebacker Dan Mason hurt, too. That's Wannstedt's story.
“The whole thing with the development of a new quarterback, the three new linemen and the new tight end and a new wide receiver, I knew it would be difficult," Wannstedt said Monday. "I knew that we had the least amount of starters returning in the conference out of anybody. I knew we were a young team and that it would be a work in progress."
But youth doesn't explain why the Panthers were still making the same mistakes in Game 11 as they were in Game 1. Or why a fifth-year senior center (Alex Karabin) would snap the ball over quarterback Tino Sunseri's head in a key situation against West Virginia. Or why Pitt even had to play Karabin, a walk-on before this summer, at that crucial spot when the coaching staff had already used a junior-college stop-gap at center the two years prior.
Does all of this mean that Wannstedt should or will be fired? Fans have clearly turned on him, and season tickets for 2011 will be a tough sell with his face on them. But Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg has always been a big Wannstedt supporter and personally awarded him a contract extension before the 2007 West Virginia game. Athletic director Steve Pederson didn't hire Wannstedt, but his relationship with the coach was so good that the two agreed to an extension to 2014 this offseason with almost no negotiation involved.
There's so much to like about Wannstedt. He's a terrific ambassador for his alma mater, he cherishes the school and what it means, and despite a string of embarrassing off-the-field incidents this year, he runs a clean program where players graduate. He's also a tremendous recruiter and currently has the No. 21 class of 2011, according to ESPN.com.
Even with Baldwin, Pinkston, Romeus and Sheard leaving, Pitt had only 12 seniors this year and should be well-stocked moving forward, with Sunseri having a year of starting under his belt. There are no obvious, ready-made successors roaming the sideline of college football. (Boise State's Chris Peterson was once a Panthers quarterbacks coach, but only the most delusional fans think he'd consider coming back).
The window might be closing fast for Pittsburgh with Louisville and Syracuse improving and TCU coming on board in 2012. I think Wannstedt should be given another year, considering all the positives he brings to the program, the talent still on hand and his recent record relative to the Panthers' history.
But things have to change at Pitt, and I understand why fans are ready for that change to start at the top.
3. Getting offensive: West Virginia's offensive struggles have been a hot topic in Morgantown and throughout the state all week, particularly after the team was shut out for the last 46 minutes against Syracuse. Quarterback Geno Smith will have to have a better performance than he did in his three-interception stumble against the Orange, and the Mountaineers are still trying to get their running game going. Look for them to try and unleash some things against a struggling UConn team.
4. Road warriors, Part III?: Syracuse has already won at South Florida and at West Virginia. Can the Orange do it again at Cincinnati on Saturday? Nippert Stadium had been the toughest home venue in the Big East the past couple of years before the Bearcats slipped up against USF last week. At 3-4, Cincinnati badly needs a win, while Syracuse is looking to remain a factor in the conference title race.
5. Zach or Chazz?: The biggest question for Cincinnati this week is whether quarterback Zach Collaros can play. He suffered a bruised knee in Friday's loss against South Florida and has been limited in practice this week. Collaros is leading the Big East in passing yards, touchdowns and passing efficiency. If he can't go, backup Chazz Anderson will get the start. Anderson is 2-0 as a starter in his career, but he hasn't played very much the past two years and isn't the all-around threat that Collaros is.
6. Scott Shafer vs. the Cincinnati offense: The Syracuse defensive coordinator has come up with game plans that have shut down both the South Florida and West Virginia offenses. Now he must devise a strategy to counter the Big East's top scoring and top total yardage attack. Syracuse loves to pressure the quarterback, while Cincinnati likes its passers to get rid of the ball quickly out of the shotgun. The Bearcats receivers could also give the Orange problems as Pitt's did two weeks ago in a 45-14 Syracuse loss. It's going to be a fascinating chess match to watch.
7. Can Pitt stay hot?: Pittsburgh has been the best team in the Big East through two weeks of league action, averaging 43 points per game and blowing out Syracuse and Rutgers. The Panthers host Louisville this week, and the Cardinals come in with a lot of confidence after their 26-0 shutout of Connecticut. If Pitt continues to stay balanced on offense and play good defense in the second half, it has a good chance of getting to 3-0 with a bye week coming up.
8. Bilal Powell vs. Dion Lewis: Saturday offers a look at last year's top Big East rusher -- Pitt's Dion Lewis -- versus this year's No. 1 -- Louisville's Bilal Powell. Lewis is starting to look like his old self after running for 130 yards last week against Rutgers. Meanwhile, Powell went over 1,000 yards for the season last week and surpassed UConn's Jordan Todman for the league lead. Whichever team controls the line of scrimmage and the rushing game will have a great chance to win this game.
9. Pitt's receivers vs. Louisville's secondary: Mike Box and the UConn passing game didn't really offer many challenges to Louisville last week. But the Cardinals had all kinds of problems guarding Cincinnati's receivers in a loss two weeks ago. The Cardinals' secondary is still vulnerable, and it will be facing the league's tallest trio of receivers in Jon Baldwin, Mike Shanahan and the emerging Devin Street. Look for Pitt to try and take advantage by having Tino Sunseri go deep.
How have the Scarlet Knights responded to the Eric LeGrand injury? They're playing hard, but it doesn't seem to have any effect on the game.
Typically, Rutgers isn't doing a whole lot on offense (less than 100 yards in the half) but is getting it done on defense and special teams. A great play by Charlie Noonan to pick off a shuffle pass and return it deep into Pitt territory led to the first touchdown. In the second quarter, Wayne Warren blocked a punt that Brandon Bing recovered in the end zone to tie the score. Rutgers continues to find ways to score in non-traditional ways.
Pitt has had some big plays, including a 46-yard pass from Tino Sunseri to Jon Baldwin to set up a score. It was good to finally see those to hook up for a big gainer. Ray Graham and Dion Lewis have combined for 95 yards. But the turnovers have hurt, and Rutgers' defensive pressure has come up big in key spots to stop Panthers' drives.
Pittsburgh has played better overall, but Rutgers likes to hang around with its defense and try to win the game in the fourth quarter. Knowing these two teams, the game will likely come down to that.
And this year, the second half can't come fast enough.
The Big East took more lumps than a washed-up boxer in the out-of-league portion of the schedule, as has been well documented. The conference has gone just 2-11 against opponents from other BCS automatic-qualifying leagues, including 0-for-5 versus ranked teams. It is just 13-15 against FBS opponents.
Well, maybe not if West Virginia (4-1) can keep playing at a high level. The Mountaineers are a six-point loss at LSU away from having had a great first half, and they once again look like the class of the conference thus far. They stand as the Big East's highest (and right now only) ranked team.
But West Virginia is hardly unbeatable. Just ask Marshall, which led its in-state rival by 15 points late in the fourth quarter before Geno Smith led a rally to win in overtime.
Behind the Mountaineers are a crop of hopefuls including, believe it or not, Syracuse. The long-suffering Orange (4-1) are more than halfway to bowl eligibility and tied for first place in the standings after one conference game. They're in better shape than two-time defending league champ Cincinnati or preseason favorite Pittsburgh, both of which are 2-3 yet still dangerous.
Connecticut (3-3) hasn't realized its high expectations, while Rutgers and South Florida are battling youth and inconsistency. Louisville, which many regarded as the clear favorite to finish last, is averaging close to 40 points its past three games and took Oregon State to the wire on the road.
The first half didn't go the way most Big East teams envisioned. But each has a chance to earn some redemption in conference play. The league race appears to be as wide open as it has been since 2004.
Sure, Big East teams might not have been able to beat much outside competition in the first six weeks. All that matters now is who can beat the most of its league brethren.
Offensive MVP: Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut
The Huskies haven't justified their preseason buzz, but Todman has been terrific. He leads the Big East in rushing yards, averaging more than 152 per game, and rushing touchdowns with eight. He's ripping off 6.2 yards per carry and has two games of more than 190 yards. If UConn had more help around him, Todman would be garnering more national attention.
Defensive MVP: Joe Lefeged, S, Rutgers
No defensive player has really stood out as head and shoulder pads above the rest this season, but the hard-hitting Scarlet Knights senior is hard to ignore. Not only is Lefeged leading the league in passes defended and ranked eighth in tackles, he's also been a monster on special teams with blocked kicks and fumble recoveries. If only Rutgers' offense had matched its defensive performance during the first half of the year.
Raise your hand if you had the Orange tied atop the Big East standings at any point this season. Granted, the league race is all of two games old. Still, Syracuse is 4-1 with a road victory at South Florida. It has added a credible passing attack to its solid running game and aggressive defense. In a conference where several preseason favorites have disappointed, the Orange count as a pleasant surprise so far.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh
The Panthers were the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the Big East; instead, they enter league having lost to every respectable opponent on their schedule. The low point was a 31-3 humiliation at Heinz Field to Miami. Their trio of stars -- Greg Romeus, Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin -- have all been slowed for various reasons, and the offensive line and new quarterback Tino Sunseri have taken time to jell. (Dis)honorable mentions: UConn, Cincinnati
Best game: Oklahoma 31, Cincinnati 29 on Sept. 25
The Big East doesn't have many big victories to hang its hat on, but the Bearcats gave a terrific effort against the Sooners in front of a rowdy crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. If Cincinnati didn't fumble it away a couple of times or miss an extra point, it might have beaten the top 10 team and given itself and the league a signature win. It didn't happen, but this game was entertaining and competitive throughout.
Best coach: Doug Marrone, Syracuse
Give it up to the big guy. Marrone has already matched last year's win total and has the Orange poised to chase their first bowl game since 2004. In two seasons at the helm, he's managed to correct most of the mistakes of the Greg Robinson error -- er, era. The most impressive trait of his Orange is their mental toughness. Honorable mentions: Bill Stewart, West Virginia and Charlie Strong, Louisville.
"I never even heard of him before we played last year," Baldwin told reporters this week about Walls, who is a Pittsburgh native. "He didn't really press me that much so I couldn't really determine if he was physical and he didn't tackle me."
So far this year, however, Walls is having a standout senior campaign. Meanwhile, Baldwin is struggling to get going. Their individual matchup will likely prove crucial to this Saturday's game in South Bend.
Walls leads the Irish with two interceptions and has been a sure tackler in space while providing great coverage this year.
"He's been outstanding," head coach Brian Kelly said. "He's probably been our most professional and locked in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint. He's very purposeful in what he does. He's somebody we can point to in our senior class and say, that's mental and physical toughness. He's displayed that each and every week."
Walls said he has matured a lot since he was banished from the team in 2008 for what the school called "personal reasons" and that he's much better than he was a year ago when he and other Irish defensive backs had trouble on deep balls.
"I'd say the biggest thing is just playing with confidence and not guessing so much," he said. "Just knowing what the offenses are going to do and receiver routes and knowing where the quarterback is going with the ball. I think just playing with confidence and knowing that my preparation has prepared me to play well."
There's little you can do to prepare for the physical skills of Baldwin, who's 6-foot-5 with a 40-inch vertical leap. But the preseason Biletnikoff Award finalist has yet to dominate this season as he and new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri continue to try and build chemistry. Baldwin has just 15 catches for 211 yards on the season.
Despite that, he sounded confident of breaking loose this week, when Pitt tries to beat the Irish for the third straight year.
"I circled the game on my calendar the last two years, and I circled the game again for this year, and I plan on having a great game," Baldwin told reporters.
Those quotes certainly made their way back to Walls, who refused to bite when asked about it.
"I've seen what he said," Walls said. "I really don't care really about it. I know that I'm a different player from last year, and so is he. I don't really talk much, and we'll see a lot on Saturday."
Whoever gets the last word in that matchup could help determine the outcome for both teams.
3. Rutgers' quarterback situation: Can Tom Savage play despite bruised ribs and busted-up fingers on his throwing hand? Will true freshman Chas Dodd be asked to win a conference game? Will Mohamed Sanu spend the night in the Wildcat? Rutgers has all kinds of questions at the most important position as its most important games begin.
4. How real is Syracuse?: The Orange are off to their best start in years at 3-1 but now must do something they've never accomplished: beat South Florida. Ryan Nassib leads the Big East in passing efficiency, but the Bulls are tops in the league in pass efficiency defense. Both teams have feasted on the chaff of their schedules; let's see how they do with the wheat.
5. B.J. vs. the blitz: One thing we know Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer likes to do is bring pressure. You can bet Shafer saw Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels toss four interceptions against Florida and would like to get him similarly rattled under heat on Saturday. Has Daniels' decision-making improved? He'll get Sterling Griffin back at receiver, which should help his options. But he'll have to keep his cool when guys like Chandler Jones, Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith are chasing after him.
6. Pitt vs. the spread: It's no secret that Pittsburgh has had trouble defending the spread offense and particularly Brian Kelly's brand of playcalling. The Panthers will face their old Big East nemesis in South Bend this week, but Notre Dame's attack should look pretty similar. Moving Dom DeCicco down from safety could be a boost for the linebackers trying to cover guys like Theo Riddick and Kyle Rudolph in space, but Pitt's defense will have to play a whole lot better than it did against Miami or Utah to give the team a chance.
7. Can Pitt's offense get going?: Other than Ray Graham, the Panthers' offense hasn't done a whole lot this year. Even against Florida International last week, Pitt had 16 points after three quarters. Notre Dame's defense isn't special, but the Irish have enough playmakers to cause problems if the newly restructured offensive line isn't sound. Dion Lewis will also return to the starting lineup and try to help Graham and the running game. It would be nice if Jon Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards last year against the Domers, could get involved, too.
8. Devine's durability: Noel Devine is still trying to recover from a bone bruise underneath his right big toe. Bill Stewart has a decision to make this week against UNLV: Let Devine work his way back or rest him for next Thursday's conference game against South Florida? Stewart will want to protect his star running back as much as possible, but job No. 1 is to beat the Rebels.
9. Cincinnati's comeback: The Bearcats finally looked like the defending Big East champs in a close loss to Oklahoma. That was two weeks ago. Can Cincinnati carry that momentum over into what should be a fairly sweat-free win against Miami of Ohio at home? Zach Collaros and the offense should slice through the RedHawks defense. At 1-3, Cincinnati needs to keep the positive vibes going, but mostly it just needs a victory.
10. Louisville over .500?: The Cardinals are heavily favored to beat a bad Memphis team at home, and their fans always enjoy defeating their old conference rivals. A win would make Louisville 3-2 for its first winning record of the season. For a team that won just four games a year ago, that would represent some pretty good work by Charlie Strong and his staff.
1. Ryan Nassib: It was only Maine, but still the Syracuse quarterback threw for five touchdowns in just his third college start. Nassib is completing nearly 59 percent of his passes and has eight scores. Says Doug Marrone: "I think he can be a special player."
2. Chandler Jones: Another Syracuse player makes the list. I thought this could be the year Jones turned in a breakout season, and the defensive end might be on his way after recording two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles against Maine.
3. Bruce Irvin: There was plenty of preseason hype about West Virginia's junior-college transfer, but there wasn't much production in the first two games. Then Irvin recorded three sacks against Maryland, and fans began chanting "Bruuuuuce!" He is looking pretty boss.
4. D.J. Woods: Cincinnati hasn't had a lot of bright spots in September, but Woods is one of them. The junior receiver had six catches for 146 yards and two scores in the loss at NC State.
1. Zach Frazer: The UConn quarterback hasn't thrown an interception, but he's also completing only about half his passes. As a senior, he should be playing with more consistency, and the return of Cody Endres from suspension may put some pressure on him to get better.
2. Pitt's police blotter: Taken individually, the three arrests of Pittsburgh players since this summer don't have much in common with one another. The latest incident involved a walk-on offensive linemen fighting someone. But given the spotlight the program was already under after the earlier incidents involving Jabaal Sheard and Jason Douglas, you'd think Pitt's players would be on their best behavior.
3. Cincinnati's returns: The Bearcats rank second-to-last in the Big East in kickoff return average, with only one return over 30 yards this season, and last in punt return average. It's clear that Mardy Gilyard doesn't work here anymore.
4. West Virginia's big-play defense: The Mountaineers gave up 60- and 80-yard touchdown passes against Maryland, a week after giving up a 96-yard pass at Marshall. Think LSU might try to hit a few deep balls?
Player of the year race: Offense
1. Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia: Has eclipsed 100 yards in all three games for the Big East's lone ranked team. But he'd better watch out for teammate ...
2. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Smith has simply been terrific since midway through the fourth quarter of the Marshall game and is the Big East's top-rated passer.
3. Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut: Leads the Big East in rushing and had a 192-yard day against Temple. But late fumble marred his performance.
4. Jon Baldwin, WR, Pitt: He can make a statement on Thursday versus Miami.
5. Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse: He leads the league with eight touchdown throws.
Player of the year race: Defense
1. Joe Lefeged, S, Rutgers: He was great in the first two games. Let's see what he can do against North Carolina.
2. Robert Sands, S, West Virginia: Still a force, but he's obviously dealing with some health issues.
3. JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati: Leads league in tackles, though his team needs to play better.
4. Derrell Smith, LB, Syracuse: Second behind Schaffer in tackles and had a big game against Maine.
5. Lawrence Wilson, LB, Connecticut: Mostly held in check against Temple, though he did have a sack.
1. Geno and Tino: Heading into the season, sophomores Tom Savage and B.J. Daniels had the most experience of any Big East quarterbacks. But it's a different pair of sophomores who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in passing yards among league signal-callers after two weeks: West Virginia's Geno Smith and Pitt's Tino Sunseri. Smith was mighty impressive in leading West Virginia on two long scoring drives to win at Marshall, while Sunseri made strides from Week 1 in a pass-heavy game plan against New Hampshire.
3. Demetris Murray: Yes, there was the costly fumble on the exchange from B.J. Daniels deep in Florida territory. But I really liked how Murray ran the ball for most of the game in The Swamp. South Florida might have found its No. 1 tailback in Murray.
4. Louisville's defensive pressure: The Cardinals registered eight sacks on Saturday versus Eastern Kentucky, led by Rodney Gnat's four. Sure, it was only Eastern Kentucky. But when you consider that Louisville had only 14 sacks in 2008 and 23 in 2009, this counts as a definite improvement.
1. Brandon Hogan: The West Virginia cornerback was arrested for DUI and has been suspended indefinitely. This comes after Bill Stewart already gave him plenty of second chances. Coaches get blamed a lot when players mess up. But some players just never "get it." Hogan has NFL potential, but he needs to get his act together fast.
2. Tom Savage: I still believe in Rutgers' quarterback, but the results after two weeks scream "sophomore slump." Savage has completed just 50 percent of his passes, has only one touchdown throw and is averaging just 110 passing yards per game. And that's not against Alabama and Ohio State; the Scarlet Knights have played Norfolk State and Florida International. The entire Rutgers offense is struggling, and Savage is a big reason why.
3. Greg Romeus and Dion Lewis: The reigning offensive and co-defensive players of the year probably won't repeat their titles. Romeus could miss the majority of the season after undergoing back surgery this week. I discussed Lewis' early struggles here.
4. Syracuse's frequent-flyer miles: After traveling about 6,000 miles, round trip, to their first two games against Akron and Washington, the Orange finally return home for this Saturday's game. The next two weeks should provide a happy homecoming, with Maine and Colgate lined up for what should be easy wins and a 3-1 record.
Player of the year race: Offense
1. Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia: Devine is averaging a solid if not spectacular 111 rushing yards per game but is capable of breaking one at any time.
2. Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut: Todman is leading the Big East in rushing yards (256) and touchdowns (four). But West Virginia is 2-0 and UConn is 1-1. Todman is definitely on the rise, though.
3. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Smith leads the Big East in completion percentage (72.2) and passing yards (532) and is tied for the lead with three passing touchdowns. He's also got the most memorable two drives of the season so far.
4. Jon Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: The Panthers showed a preference for throwing the ball last week, and anything that means more opportunities for Baldwin is a good thing. He's averaging 85.5 receiving yards per game and has two touchdowns. Look for those numbers to go up.
5. Bilal Powell, RB, Louisville: Powell is off to a really nice start, ranking second in the league in rushing yards and rushing TDs. But it will be hard for him to win the award unless Louisville finds ways to win more games.
Player of the year race: Defense
1. Robert Sands, S, West Virginia: Pass defense looked a little shaky at times against Marshall. But with Romeus sidelined, Sands is still the biggest star in the league on defense.
2. Joe Lefeged, S, Rutgers: A lot of his impact has come on special teams, but he's been really good on defense as well.
3. Lawrence Wilson, LB, Connecticut: Last year's tackles leader is tied with Syracuse's Derrell Smith for the most stops in the conference so far this year.
4. JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati: Had nine tackles and a pass breakup against Indiana State, and the Bearcats' defense has been pretty solid so far.
5. Mistral Raymond, CB, South Florida: Turning into a very good cornerback. Florida didn't look his way much on Saturday.
Dion Lewis vs. Noel Devine
So far, it's no contest between our two preseason favorites for offensive player of the year. Here are the stats:
Devine: 46 carries for 223 yards (4.8 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Lewis: 35 carries for 102 yards (2.9 ypc) and two touchdowns.
Tom Savage vs. B.J. Daniels
Lots of fuel for the debate about which QB is better after this week. Daniels was brilliant at times and awful at others against Florida, while Savage's struggles continue.
Savage: 17-for-34 (50 percent) for 220 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Daniels: 20-for-42 (47.6 percent) for 348 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. Has has also run for 130 yards and a score.
Last week, I highlighted a few players in the Big East who could factor into the Heisman Trophy race. One week in, and that list has dwindled.
Sure, players can climb back into the picture after a shaky Week 1. But to win the award from the Big East, the player's team pretty much has to go unbeaten or close to it. So Cincinnati's Zach Collaros is out of the discussion right now. Pitt's Dion Lewis, after gaining a career-low 75 yards at Utah, is too. Same for Jon Baldwin.
That means, the way I see it, there's only one true Heisman candidate right now in the league. And he is:
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia: You'd like to think Devine would have piled up huge stats against Coastal Carolina. Instead, he got 111 yards -- a respectable total, for sure, but not spectacular. And it took him 23 carries to get it, with a big 39-yard gain in the second half accounting for about a third of his total. He scored one touchdown.
Players don't win the Heisman against FCS opponents. Devine will have his chances to impress later, especially at LSU. And unlike other Big East hopefuls, he did nothing to lose the trophy in Week 1.
Quick analysis of Pitt's 27-24 overtime loss at Utah:
Turning point: Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri was intercepted on the first play of overtime. Utah kicked a short field goal on its overtime possession to win.
How the game was won: It really came down to who made the last mistake. Pitt didn't play well most of the night, getting repeatedly burned in pass coverage, looking shaky on the offensive line and leaving points on the board in the Utah red zone. But the Utes had three turnovers and a punt block and the game was marred by penalties. After Utah took a 24-14 lead with 7:59 left, its defense inexplicably left Jon Baldwin open for a long touchdown pass to let Pitt back in the game.
In the end, though, Pitt didn't feel comfortable going for the win in regulation because Sunseri was starting his first college game. And Sunseri made the last, key mistake.Stat of the game: Pitt RB Dion Lewis, who had 10 100-yard games last year, finished with a career-low 75 yards on 25 carries. Take away the 18-yard gain on his first attempt, and he had just 57 yards on 24 carries.
Player of the game: Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn went 21-for-36 for 283 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
Second-guessing: Should Pitt have taken a shot at the win late in the game? The Panthers had the ball on the Utah 14 on first down with 38 seconds left. They did dial up two pass plays, but the Utes pressured Sunseri into incompletions. With a rookie quarterback, it's hard to blame Dave Wannstedt for playing for overtime on the road, though at least one shot to Baldwin there would have been nice.
What it means: Pitt's national title hopes are over. Lewis' Heisman Trophy chances are already on life support. But it's not the end of the world. The Panthers showed a lot of heart in coming back and forcing overtime, and their main goal of winning the Big East is still alive. But they will have to shore up some weaknesses, especially in pass coverage, with Miami coming to town for the third game of the season.
If you saw how it happened, you'd say Pitt was in trouble.
The Panthers took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and looked pretty good. But the rest of the half was all Utah. The Utes exploited Pitt's main concerns on defense: pass coverage by the linebackers and two new starting cornerbacks.
Quarterback Jordan Wynn was 15-of-19 at one point, and Utes receivers were running wide open over the middle and down the field against busted coverages. Utah should have gone up 21-7, but Wynn threw an interception in the end zone to Jarred Holley.
Pitt is winning the turnover battle 3-1 but still trails. That's not normal for Dave Wannstedt's team.
Tino Sunseri is just 6-for-10 for 43 yards. The offensive line has shown some holes up the middle as feared. Jon Baldwin has only two catches for eight yards. Dion Lewis has run for 55 yards, but he had 18 yards on his first carry. Since then, he's run 12 times for a pedestrian 37 yards. Greg Romeus has been neutralized by the Utes offensive line, which is giving Wynn all sorts of time.
So, yeah, it's only a seven-point deficit. But unless Pitt makes some major halftime adjustments, particularly on defense, it could be an insurmountable lead for Utah.
Wannstedt didn't like the idea of making the long trip to Salt Lake City and back with games sandwiched around the travel. And he saw a benefit of having it serve as the first game.
"It gives you something going through training camp to shoot for," the Pitt coach said. "It makes it a little bit more of a training camp with a sense of urgency from the coaches and the players."
That's looking on the bright side.
There's no getting around the fact that this is a difficult assignment with a lot on the line for the No. 15 Panthers. Pitt has aspirations of a Big East title and beyond after winning nine games in 2008 and 10 a season ago. This could be the final hurrah for star players like Jon Baldwin, Greg Romeus and even Dion Lewis, who's a draft-eligible sophomore. A loss out of the gate could kill any early momentum.
So playing at Utah is not the path of least resistance. The Utes have been one of the nation's most successful programs the past decade, winning nine straight bowls and two BCS games (including the '05 Fiesta Bowl romp over Pitt). They were the last team to beat Alabama. They've won 17 straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
But the Panthers are trying to look on the bright side. If they pull off this early road victory, that should garner even more attention and help them climb the polls. They have a schedule (including dates with Miami and Notre Dame in the nonconference) that will give them a strong résumé if they can get into the BCS title hunt.
Of course, it all starts Thursday night.
"Everyone has been thinking about this game all summer," offensive tackle Jason Pinkston said. "If we win that game, that will give us a lot of momentum into the season. We could have a great season."
A loss in the opener doesn't necessarily wreck the season, either. Oregon looked terrible in a first-week defeat at Boise State last year but rebounded to win the Pac-10 and go to the Rose Bowl. Virginia Tech fell to Alabama in its opener and still won 10 games. Pitt's main goal is to win the Big East for the first time under Wannstedt and for the first time outright ever. So whatever happens in Week 1 doesn't really affect that mission.
Still, the Panthers want to show that they've turned the corner and are a national contender. And there's some Big East pride on the line versus the Mountain West -- Utah has never lost to a Big East team in seven tries.
"It's definitely a statement game and definitely an important game for us to start out the season strong," Romeus said.
If not, at least Pitt won't have to worry about this next year. The Utes' return game in Pittsburgh is scheduled for Oct. 15, 2011.
For a closer look at this game, national blogger Andrea Adelson and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down each team's strengths and weaknesses:
Strengths: The offense is a definite strength with eight starters returning, including quarterback Jordan Wynn. The sophomore started the final five games of last season and had a breakout performance in the Poinsettia Bowl against California, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdown passes. He is now completely comfortable in the spread system Utah runs, and has been given the ability to call audibles this season as well.
First-team All-Mountain West Conference running back Eddie Wide returns and so does Matt Asiata -- the two combined for -- 1,399 yards last season and 16 touchdowns. Watch for wide receiver Jereme Brooks to have a breakout season.
Weaknesses: Utah lost its top four tacklers from 2009 and has to replace seven starters on defense, including all three at linebacker and three in the secondary. The projected starter at rover, JJ Williams, is out with a foot injury, leaving Matt Martinez and Chaz Walker to start alongside converted quarterback Chad Manis. Tackle Koa Misi is also gone, along with his 4.5 sacks. But Utah does have depth on the defensive line, and leading sackmaster Sealver Siliga is back and expected to anchor the front.
Strengths: Start with the running game, as Dion Lewis returns after his phenomenal, 1,799-yard freshman season. When the Panthers aren't handing off to Lewis or terrific backup tailback Ray Graham, they're likely throwing the ball deep to Jon Baldwin, a 6-foot-5 athletic freak who is a potential NFL first-rounder next spring.
On defense, Pitt has two of the best defensive ends anywhere in seniors Jabaal Sheard and Greg Romeus. The Panthers don't need to blitz much because of the pressure their defensive front generates.
Weaknesses: Though strong on the edges, Pitt's offensive line is breaking in three new starters on the offensive line, including a former walk-on at center (Alex Karabin) and a thoroughly untested right guard (Greg Gaskins). That could mean less running room for Lewis and less time in the pocket for new starting quarterback Tino Sunseri. Coaches have confidence in Sunseri, but he's still playing his first important snaps in a tough road environment.
The Panthers also showed some vulnerability in pass coverage last year, and they will be lining up with two new starting cornerbacks.