NCF Nation: Mohamed Sanu

Mohamed Sanu vastly underrated

April, 24, 2012
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So his 40 time is slow.

I say: So what?

So he is not explosive.

I say: So what?

Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu will be a productive player in the NFL for years to come, regardless of what his measurables say about him. There are many talent evaluators who put way too much stock in 40 times and other assorted numbers, and not enough on actual game tape. I am obviously not an NFL scout, but I know what I saw out of Sanu in 2011.

To me, the tape speaks to what type of player you are going to get. Turn on the tape of Sanu last season, and you know exactly what you are in for -- a dependable receiver unafraid to go over the middle, to block, to put an entire team on his shoulders and carry them for an entire season. Sanu does not feel pressure. He thrives in big situations.

Consider that 69 of his Big East-record 115 receptions went for first downs. Twenty-seven of those receptions went for 15 yards or more. He had more catches in the second half or overtime of games than he did in the first half. He simply got better as the game went on. Drops? About as rare as catching a glimpse of Halley's Comet.

Not only that. Rutgers began to tailor its offensive game plan around Sanu once it became obvious he was pretty unstoppable early on last season. Opponents knew where the ball was headed. And yet he still had double-digit receptions in six games and 100 yards or more in seven.

In all, Sanu had 1,206 yards on the season, putting him in third place on the school single-season record list. None of that happened by luck or accident.

Recent mock drafts from Mel Kiper and Todd McShay on ESPN do not have Sanu listed as going in the first three rounds. Other mock drafts have him going in the second or third round. I respect the work Kiper and McShay do, being the foremost draft experts in the business. But I respectfully disagree with their assessment of Sanu.

A 4.58 time in the 40 makes him the slowest of the top receivers available in the draft. I understand teams want receivers who are blazing fast, can break open big plays and be electrifying. Whatever Sanu lacks in speed, he makes up for everywhere else. He works hard, never complains and makes catches when they count.

I would be shocked if he slips past the third round. No matter where he lands, I can all but guarantee Sanu will make his new team exceedingly happy.
It is time to evaluate the receiver position in the Big East. For the postseason rankings, I am going to include tight ends as well. Before the season started, I did them separately, but it makes more sense to do them together.

This is a position group that has a clear-cut 1-2. To me, the rest are pretty interchangeable, as no other group really stood out to me this season.

1. West Virginia. Slam dunk to have the Mountaineers on top, given the way Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey performed this season. Each had 1,000-yard seasons -- the first time in school history two players hit that mark. Bailey led the Big East with 12 receiving touchdowns, and was No. 1 in receiving yards per game. Austin was third in receiving yards per game and second in receptions per game. Add in Ivan McCartney, also ranked among the top-10 receivers in the Big East and that says it all. Preseason ranking: No. 2.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey led the Big East in touchdowns and yards receiving per game.
2. Rutgers. Mohamed Sanu had an unbelievable season for Rutgers with a school and Big East record 115 receptions. He dominated at receiver, leading the league in receptions per game and finishing second in receiving yards per game. That domination meant his teammates did not get as many opportunities -- Brandon Coleman only had 17 receptions; Mark Harrison 14, Quron Pratt had 32. But when you have an unstoppable force like Sanu, you keep going to him. Preseason ranking: No. 1.

3. Syracuse. When you think of the Orange, you don't necessarily think of high-profile receivers. But Alec Lemon and Nick Provo teamed to have outstanding seasons this year. Both posted career years, Provo made the Big East first team and Lemon made the second team. The two combined for 119 catches and 13 touchdowns. Depth wasn't great, but the performance of Lemon and Provo make up for that and vaults Syracuse here. Preseason ranking: No. 5.

4. Cincinnati. I thought the Bearcats receivers had a down year. D.J. Woods didn't really live up to his potential, and Anthony McClung led the team with 683 yards. That is the fewest yards for the team's leading receiver since 2006. What really sticks out: when Zach Collaros got hurt, the receivers as a whole never really stepped up the way they should have to help Munchie Legaux. Preseason ranking: No. 3.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals did get much better play out of their receivers, and were helped with the impact freshman DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers made. They didn't have anybody with eye-popping numbers, but they did have consistent enough performances out of this group. Preseason ranking: 7.

6. USF. The Bulls were really hurt by injuries at this position, and never really had a go-to guy emerge. Sterling Griffin was en route to a good season before he got hurt; A.J. Love got hurt as well. That left the position in the hands of many young, inexperienced guys. I thought Deonte Welch really had a nice second half. He was their best receiver when Griffin was out. Preseason ranking: 6.

7. UConn. Considering the way the Huskies struggled in the pass game, Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Ryan Griffin all put together solid seasons for UConn. Both Moores ranked in the top 10 in the Big East in receiving, and Griffin was the second-best tight end behind Nick Provo. Depth was lacking at the position -- as only five players caught double-digit passes, and only three are true wide receivers. Preseason ranking: 8.

8. Pitt. The Panthers got their tight ends and running backs involved heavily in the pass game, probably because there was depth lacking at the actual receiver position. Devin Street put together a solid season, with 754 yards receiving, and Mike Shanahan was decent. But otherwise, big plays were lacking. Passing game woes obviously had an impact. Preseason ranking: 4.
With one day to go before signing day, it is worth taking a look back at how the players on the Big East first-team fared when they were coming out of high school.

You will see, once again, that recruiting rankings generally have nothing to do with the way a player will do in college. So anybody freaking out about what your school does or does not have in the way of commitments for 2012, just take a deep breath. And look at how some of the most unheralded players out of high school become some of the best in the Big East.

I used ESPN recruiting rankings. Note only one player honored on the first team was ranked as an ESPNU150 player. Many on defense came in as either athletes, receivers or quarterbacks.

Offense

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe -- the 2011 co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year -- was unranked coming out of high school.
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu was ranked the No. 18 safety in the nation coming out of high school in 2009, with a scout grade of 80.

WR/RS Tavon Austin, West Virginia. Austin was rated the No. 41 running back in the nation coming out of high school in 2009 -- three spots behind De'Antwan Williams (Rutgers) and one spot behind Jason Douglas (Pitt). Know who else was ranked ahead -- Victor Marc and Bradley Battles of USF.

OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse. Unranked at his position for the class of 2009, Pugh got a scout grade of 40. Talk about making the most of somebody who was "undervalued."

OT Don Barclay, West Virginia. Ranked No. 65 at his position in the class of 2007. One other West Virginia player was ranked athead of him, at No. 55 -- Gino Gradkowski, who transferred to Delaware.

OG Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Rated the No. 161 defensive end in the class of 2007.

OG Art Forst, Rutgers. Forst was ranked the No. 25 offensive tackle in the class of 2008 -- the second-highest Big East player on the list behind Lucas Nix of Pitt.

OG Andrew Tiller, Syracuse. Tiller was unranked and did not even get a scouts grade when he was being evaluated in 2009 out of Nassau Community College.

C Moe Petrus, Connecticut. The best center in the Big East was unranked and had no scouts grade when he signed with UConn in 2007.

TE Nick Provo, Syracuse. Provo was ranked No. 86 at his position in the class of 2007

QB Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith has lived up to his billing -- ranking No. 97 on the ESPNU150 in the class of 2009. He was the No. 8 player at his position and No. 15 in the state of Florida.

RB Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The No. 152 ranked running back in the class of 2008, Pead got a scout grade of 71. He just won MVP Honors on the Senior Bowl.

RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. Rated the No. 66 running back in the class of 2009, Graham was rated behind West Virginia's Daquan Hargrett (left program) and USF's Adaris Bellamy (academics).

RB Antwon Bailey, Syracuse. Ranked the No. 128 running back in the class of 2008 -- well behind fellow signee Averin Collier (No. 42). Collier was considered the gem of the class, but academics derailed his career.

K Dave Teggart, Connecticut. Teggart was ranked the No. 25 kicker in the class of 2007.

Defense

DL Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe was unranked at his position in the class of 2008 and got a scout grade of 40. Four years later, he was the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

DL Kendall Reyes, Connecticut. Reyes also was unranked in his position in the class of 2007 with a scout grade of 40. Believe it or not, he came into UConn at 220 pounds (he's now around 300) and now has a shot to be a mid-round draft pick.

DL Chandler Jones, Syracuse. Jones came to Syracuse as a 230-pound tight end, unranked and giving a scout grade of 40. Now he is headed to the NFL draft as a projected second-to-third round pick.

DL Bruce Irvin, West Virginia. Irvin took an incredible journey to West Virginia through Mt. SAC junior college after dropping out of high school.

LB JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer was ranked the No. 93 outside linebacker in the class of 2008, behind such players as Tyler Urban, Marvin Booker (Rutgers), Quavon Taylor (USF) and Marcus Witherspoon (Rutgers).

LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. No ranking or scout grade for Greene, who went to prep school before arriving at Rutgers.

LB Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a quarterback and linebacker in high school who was not ranked.

CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville. Bushell was ranked the No. 21 cornerback in the class of 2008 and originally signed with Florida. After playing at junior college, he made an immediate impact with the Cardinals.

CB Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy was ranked the No. 207 quarterback in the nation in the class of 2007. The same group that featured Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett.

S Drew Frey, Cincinnati. Frey was a receiver coming out of high school and unranked, with a scout grade of 40.

S Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith was ranked the No. 93 receiver in the class of 2009, but his athleticism allowed him to switch to defense and emerge as one of the best safeties in the league.

S Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh. Also a receiver in the class of 2008, Holley was ranked No. 230 at that position with a scout grade of 65.

S Duron Harmon, Rutgers. The No. 49 athlete in the class of 2009, he was ranked below teammate Jamal Merrell, Todd Thomas of Pitt and Kayvon Webster of USF.

P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati. O'Donnell was unranked with a scout grade of 40, but he has emerged as one of the most impressive iron men in the league.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Big East's most improved players

January, 19, 2012
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This season saw plenty of players emerge throughout the Big East. But who was most improved among them?

It was tough in many cases to narrow this down to one player per team. My criteria might be different from yours. I am looking for players who were not on any preseason lists, who were not expected to have breakout seasons, who had yet to live up to their full potential.

For example, it would be easy to say West Virginia receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were among the most improved. There is no doubt they were, as they each got over 1,000 yards. But we all expected them to have big seasons because of Dana Holgorsen. So I went with a different player for West Virginia.

Here are my picks:

Cincinnati: Drew Frey, safety. Runner-up: Derek Wolfe, defensive tackle. This was an incredibly tough choice for me. Wolfe essentially doubled his stats from 2010, ranking No. 5 in the nation in tackles for loss (21.5) and No. 16 in sacks (9.5) en route to Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But Wolfe did make my preseason list of top 25 players in the Big East, as I anticipated he would be in store for a solid season. Frey, on the other hand, was a huge question mark going into the year because of the way the Cincinnati secondary played in 2010. He ended up second on the team in tackles (73) and had eight pass breakups. Do you know how many he had last year? One. Frey was first-team All-Big East and emerged as one of the best safeties in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrevardo Williams
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireHuskies defensive end Trevardo Williams, left, lead the Big East with 12.5 sacks.
UConn: Trevardo Williams, defensive end. What a leap Williams made this season, leading the Big East with 12.5 sacks and winning second-team honors. Though he started seven games last season, it was no sure thing that Williams would emerge as the full-time starter. But he more than held his own, and worked in the offseason to use more than just his speed to get after the quarterback. It paid off.

Louisville: Preston Brown, linebacker. When the season started, Brown was not even penciled in as a starter. He played in 13 games in 2010 but coach Charlie Strong was waiting on him to emerge and prove he could be counted on. He most certainly did that in 2011, finishing third on the team with 84 tackles. He was consistently good for most of the season, and he and Dexter Heyman proved to be a great linebacker duo.

Pittsburgh: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. Donald figured to be counted on to provide depth, but he went ahead and finished second in the Big East in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (16) -- both team-highs. He also added a team-high 11 quarterback hurries. He ended the season as a starter and a second-team All-Big East selection.

Rutgers: Khaseem Greene, linebacker. Runner-up: Mohamed Sanu, receiver. This was really, really, really hard to decide. Sanu set a Big East and school record with 115 receptions and was the best player on offense. Greene won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year after switching positions in the offseason. So why Greene? Well, Sanu was on my preseason top 25 players list and I thought he had a chance to have a good season because he was healthy and would be playing receiver. But Greene was more of a question mark because he had moved over from safety. He was on nobody's radar for Defensive Player of the Year when the season started, but emerged as one of the finest players in the league. So he gets the nod.

USF: Kayvon Webster, cornerback. Webster was one of the more highly touted prospects USF signed in 2009, but it has taken a while for him to live up to expectations. He did so this season, in his first year as a full-time starter. Webster had 49 tackles and seven pass breakups this season and made the All-Big East second team.

Syracuse: Alec Lemon, receiver. Lemon more than doubled his receiving and yardage totals from 2010 -- setting a school record with 68 receptions for 834 yards with six touchdowns, all career highs. He had seven or more receptions in six games; in 2009 and 2010 he had two games combined with seven or more catches. Lemon quickly emerged as a much-needed go-to receiver, especially with Marcus Sales out (suspension). His performance placed him on the All-Big East second team.

West Virginia: Tyler Bitancurt, kicker. Runner-up: Stedman Bailey. You can make the argument for Bailey and I would not disagree. Geno Smith and Tavon Austin were projected to have big seasons -- both were in my preseason top 25. Bailey was right on the outside. But the strides Bitancurt made were bigger than any other kicker in the Big East. He took his field goal percentage from 58.8 percent to 72.7 percent, moving him from last place to No. 4 in the league. He nailed a 28-yard kick with no time left against USF to give the Mountaineers a share of the Big East title and a BCS berth.

Early 2012 Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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Because I love you all so much, I now present to you my early 2012 Big East power rankings. The season is one day old, so I reserve the right to change my mind based on spring practice and then fall practice. To say these are way early is to say West Virginia beat Clemson. Understatement!

1. West Virginia.* You see the asterisk there for obvious reasons. Will the Mountaineers be in this league in 2012, or will somebody else get to be called the favorite in the preseason? Should West Virginia return to this league, that performance in the Orange Bowl should frighten the rest of this conference. Now granted, there will be some major questions on this defense, but if Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can put up half a hundred every week, the Mountaineers are going to be really tough to beat.

2. Rutgers. This was a tough call for me. The Scarlet Knights still have quarterback issues, a nonexistent running game and are losing Mohamed Sanu. But they also return 16 starters, including Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Everything should be in place for this team to make a serious run. The offensive line will be better; I firmly believe the quarterback play will be better; and there is enough talent at receiver to make up for Sanu's loss.

3. Louisville. Right now, I think it is a toss up between Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals also return a majority of their starters, including freshman of the year Teddy Bridgewater, along with a talented receiving corps and an offensive line that solidified itself as the season went on. What I worry about most right now is maturity and leadership. Louisville seems to thrive in an underdog role, and that will not be the case in 2012.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose 21 seniors, including Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead, Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, defensive leader JK Schaffer and starting quarterback Zach Collaros. There is a lot of young talent on this team, but the key word is young. How will the Bearcats handle themselves without so many of their best players?

5. USF. This has got to be the year the Bulls make a serious run at the Big East. The only problem is they have no idea how to win Big East games, and that prevents me from listing them higher than middle of the road in this league. There are going to be a lot of returning starters and returning seniors on this team, and plenty of talent. But there are some holes that have to be filled on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. B.J. Daniels must win this season.

6. Pitt. I truly believe Paul Chryst is the best hire Pitt could have made this time around. But does that mean he has what he needs to be able to turn this team into a serious Big East contender? There are major question marks at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. The defense was the strength of this team but it's losing most of its best players. How does Ray Graham come back from knee surgery? I think of all the Big East teams, the Panthers have the most questions headed into the offseason.

7. UConn. Should we talk again about quarterback issues for the Huskies? It was the same theme in the preseason last year. We are no closer today to knowing who is going to lead this team, because there will be yet another quarterback competition. Running back should be an area of strength, just like last season, and there are some good players returning on the defensive line. But offensive line and secondary are also two major questions that must be improved for this team to contend again.

8. Syracuse. The Orange lost their best players on defense in Phillip Thomas, Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, along with 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. There are also depth questions on the offensive line, defensive line and at receiver. Ryan Nassib took a good first step this season, but he's got to make bigger steps this year. First and foremost, this team must find an identity and solve all the issues that plagued them at the end of this season.

Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu declared for the NFL draft on Tuesday, leaving a big hole for the Scarlet Knights to fill next season.

Sanu set the Big East and school record for receptions in a season with 115 in 2011, while gaining 1,206 yards, the third-most in a single season in school history and eighth-most in a single Big East season.

A clearly emotional Sanu said it was a tough decision to make.

"I definitely was thinking about coming back," Sanu said. "I love Rutgers so much, and just being around my teammates all the time. I'm going to miss that aspect of it."
Iowa State and Rutgers are set to meet at 3:20 p.m. ET Friday in Yankee Stadium on ESPN. Here are three keys for Iowa State to grab another bowl win, as it did in 2009 against Minnesota.

1. Keep Rutgers' quarterbacks shuffling. Rutgers has moved Chas Dodd and Gary Nova in and out all season, and each has had pretty equal production and near identical passer ratings. Nova's had a few big games, but the rotation's been pretty unpredictable. Simply put, if these guys are still moving in and out during the game, Iowa State's defense is doing something right. If one gets comfortable, especially Nova, it could be a bad sign. We saw an inspired effort from this defense against Oklahoma State. It could use another on Friday.

2. Look to utilize Jared Barnett's legs. I mentioned it earlier, but when Barnett gets loose, Iowa State's offense is dangerous. When he tops 70 yards rushing, Iowa State is 3-0. When he was limited to 21 and 26 yards late in the season, Iowa State lost to Oklahoma convincingly and Kansas State. He's not a precise passer and is inexperienced at reading defenses. He has to be able to make plays with his feet to keep the chains moving for the Cyclones.

3. Keep Mohamed Sanu as quiet as possible. Leonard Johnson, this is your cue. The Iowa State corner is one of the most underrated in the league, and he can change that with a big game here. He'll draw the attention of NFL scouts too, who are already watching Sanu, Rutgers' big-time receiver. He's caught 109 balls this season for 1,144 yards and seven touchdowns. Those are positively Big 12-ian numbers, despite an uncertain situation at quarterback. Johnson helped limit Oklahoma's Kenny Stills (5 rec, 70 yards), Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon (10 rec, 99 yards, TD), and Kendall Wright (8 rec, 69 yards, TD) this season. Just another challenge. This won't be much harder than any of those guys.
Rutgers (8-4) takes on Iowa State (6-6) in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Friday at 3:20 p.m. ET. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: All eyes are going to be on Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu, because this could be his last game in a Scarlet Knights uniform. Sanu had a record-breaking season, setting the school and Big East records with 109 receptions to rank No. 5 in the nation. He also ranked second in the Big East with 1,144 yards receiving and had seven touchdowns en route to first-team Big East honors. To truly understand how much of a go-to guy he has been for Rutgers, Quron Pratt is the second-leading receiver on the team with 31 catches. No matter how he does in this game, the big question is whether Sanu will leave school for the NFL draft. Sanu is not pegged as a first-round pick but could go anywhere in the second or third round, so it may be worth it for him to leave. He said he would not announce a decision until after the bowl game.

WHAT TO WATCH: Who starts at quarterback? If Greg Schiano already knows, he is keeping his lips sealed. Schiano says the world will find out when the game kicks off. Chas Dodd started the season before he was pulled in favor of true freshman Gary Nova. After Nova threw too many interceptions, Schiano went back to Dodd. But Dodd was pulled in the season finale against UConn. The truth is, neither quarterback has lit up the scoreboard this season. Nova has thrown for 1,533 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions; Dodd has thrown for 1,398 yards with nine touchdowns to seven interceptions. Neither is completing more than 55 percent of his passes.

WHY TO WATCH: It's always fun to watch football in a baseball stadium, right? That novelty might not hold much with Rutgers and Big East fans who already have seen the Scarlet Knights play in Yankee Stadium. But there are a few streaks on the line here. Rutgers has won four straight bowl games and is 4-1 in the postseason under Schiano. A win would give Schiano his third nine-win season, and the seventh in school history.

PREDICTION: Rutgers 27, Iowa State 20. From my predictions post Monday: The key for Rutgers in all its wins this season has been simple -- create turnovers, limit mistakes and allow defense and special teams to carry the day. Schiano always gets his team up for bowl games, and Iowa State has dropped two games in a row since beating Oklahoma State.

Anthony Conner a true inspiration

December, 23, 2011
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Anthony Conner is a cornerback. So naturally, the gift of trash talk comes pretty easily.

The Louisville senior's matchup in the Oct. 21 meeting with Rutgers was the most daunting of the season. The assignment: trying to contain Mohamed Sanu. The two are friends and old nemeses, having played against each other several times in the Big East. It was early in the game, and Conner decided to let loose with a few choice words:

"Boy, I'm about to come smash you," Conner said.

Sanu laughed.

Two plays later, Conner had his opportunity. He went to make a tackle on Sanu and hit him a little too high and at the wrong angle. Conner went down, and stayed down. Coach Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and support personnel rushed onto the field. Conner had blacked out, but when he woke up, he started focusing on the coaches and trainers in front of him. Strong and Bedford were the first two faces he saw.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Anthony Conner
Jamie Rhodes/US PRESSWIREAnthony Conner may not make another tackle, but he's not deterred. "I'm going to focus on a new dream," he said.
"Are you OK? How do you feel?" they kept asking.

"I feel like I have a cramp in my neck," Conner replied.

He was in pain, but not an uncomfortable amount. He joked that they were taking too long to get him back into the game. They asked him to move his fingers and toes, and he did, alleviating his biggest concern. Conner was not paralyzed, so he thought he would be fine as he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

But when he got there, Conner got devastating news -- he had broken his neck.

His football career was over.

Rather than fade from view, however, Conner became a much more important part of his Louisville team. The night before he got hurt, it was the normally reserved Conner who stood up during a team meeting and told his teammates it was time for them to quit being so selfish and start acting like a family. Louisville was 2-4 at the time, and Conner felt it was "now or never" to step up and say something to effect change.

That speech, coupled with his injury, essentially saved the season.

His teammates rallied around him, and each other. Louisville went on to beat Rutgers, and an emotional Strong said the Cardinals won it for Conner. The following week, Conner made a surprise visit to the locker room just before kickoff against Syracuse, to rousing cheers and even a few tears. He got a standing ovation from the crowd when he rode onto the field in a golf cart during a break in the first quarter.

"The emotion that was in the locker room was something out of a movie," Conner said during a recent phone interview. "I was just melting inside. It was something that you had to be there to experience. Everybody was coming up to me, so happy to see me that I was back and doing well. It even made me cry. And I'm tough, but everybody was in there crying. I just felt all the love and support from my brothers. We were a family."

It is not overstating it to say Conner has been an inspiration to Strong and the players, a man so intent on being there for his teammates that he never missed a game after his injury. He attended practice, too, and served as another coach, another set of eyes and ears for his young teammates to follow.

Watching Louisville finish the season on a 5-1 tear -- a run that began with the win over Rutgers -- has been bittersweet, of course. Conner would do anything to play just one more down. But he is most proud of seeing his teammates act on what he said -- they came together. Because of him.

"I feel amazed that they rallied around me because they know I'm passionate about the game and I care about them as much as they care about me," Conner said. "They have shown me so much love and support, and have made me feel a part of all the victories. We had a meeting about us becoming more of a family so that's a primary reason we came closer as a family. It made me feel great."

After the injury, Strong preached to his players: today, not tomorrow. Live for the moment.

"Anthony's been the poster child for that because he's a great football player and a great person," linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "To not see him finish that season the way he should have hurt us. To see him come back into that locker room before the Syracuse game, to see him walk was a tremendous rush. You could see the pride and emotion in his eyes. It really gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of being, and makes you feel this Louisville football team is more of a family now. That's what Anthony brought to the table."

Conner is studying justice administration and communications and is set to graduate this summer. He has done a little bit of motivational speaking, and may even go into coaching. But the best part of all is that he is walking and on his way to a full recovery. His bulky neck brace has been replaced with a soft one, which should allow him more mobility and better sleep at night.

He is with his teammates in Charlotte as they prepare to play NC State in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday. Conner may never make another tackle, but he takes comfort in staying positive, and knowing there is plenty for him to do.

"I said back in the day if I didn't make it in the NFL, I wasn't going to be one of these players that keeps trying to chase it. Just be a player who can find something else that I love to do. I'm just looking at it in a positive manner. A lot of people didn't get this opportunity, so I can't be sad that I didn't go as far as my dreams, I'm going to focus on a new dream."

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
10:30
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Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

You saw what the coaches had to say when they picked the All-Big East team. Now it is my turn. I only have a few different opinions than the coaches. To start, West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey is on my first team over Tavon Austin. Bailey finished with more yards; Austin with more receptions. But I thought Bailey was a little more consistent over the course of the entire season.

I also have West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller on the first team ahead of Bruce Irvin. Miller got off to a slow start, mostly because he was hobbled with an injury. But late in the season with games on the line, he was almost unstoppable. Pitt running back Ray Graham also gets a nod even though he missed the final five games of the season with a knee injury.

Without further adieu:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati

RB: Ray Graham, Pitt

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati

OG: Andrew Tiller, Syracuse

WR: Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

WR: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

DEFENSE

DL: Julian Miller, West Virginia

DL: Kendall Reyes, UConn

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati

DL: Chandler Jones, Syracuse

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

S: Hakeem Smith, Louisville

S: Duron Harmon, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia

SPECIALISTS

PK: Dave Teggart, UConn

P: Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati

RS: Tavon Austin, West Virginia

Big East 2011 regular-season wrap

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
9:00
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Well, you can always count on the Big East for one thing: drama.

Off the field, on the field: drama dominated the 2011 regular season.

With the campaign just a few weeks old, the future of the league was thrown off kilter when Pitt and Syracuse surprised the college football world and announced they would be departing the Big East for the ACC. In short order, TCU and West Virginia followed to the Big 12. Rather than being able to focus on football matters, the Big East was forced into scramble mode to keep its league viable as an automatic qualifying conference.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Geno Smith
Andrew Weber/US PresswireGeno Smith led the Big 12-bound West Virginia Mountaineers to the Big East's BCS bowl berth.
As it stands now, the Big East has yet to add new members to make up for its departures, and is involved in a legal imbroglio with West Virginia. The plan is to become a 12-team league with an East and West division in order to protect itself from future raids. But all that will remain an uncertainty until moves become official.

On the field, the season came down to the final week for a third straight year. Drama, indeed. Cincinnati, one of the surprise teams of 2011, seemed in control of the Big East race until quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle against West Virginia in Week 11. Undefeated in league play at the time, the Bearcats lost to the Mountaineers on a last-second field goal, then lost to Rutgers the following week, losing their grip on the race to get to a BCS game.

But they still had a chance to win their third Big East title in four years. Wins in their final two games would get them there.

Meanwhile, Louisville closed with a major push, ending the season 5-1. Included in that run was a huge win over West Virginia, allowing the Cardinals to remain in play for a BCS spot until Week 14. Those dreams were dashed when Cincinnati won its finale against UConn, but the Cardinals can call themselves Big East champions for the first time since 2006.

West Virginia rebounded from its loss to Louisville with three straight wins to close out the regular season. In all three victories, the Mountaineers needed to rally. In two of them -- Cincinnati and USF -- the game was decided on the final play.

With all three teams finishing tied atop the Big East standings at 5-2, the Big East crowned co-champions for the second straight season and the third time in the past five. West Virginia, headed for the Big 12, won the right to represent the Big East in the BCS based on its finish in the final BCS standings.

In addition to the drama on the field, the Big East had several stellar standout performances. West Virginia rewrote school records for offense as Geno Smith led the way with 3,978 yards passing. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin each went over 1,000 yards receiving. Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu set the Big East single-season record for receptions with 109 for 1,144 yards. Khaseem Greene, Aaron Donald and Trevardo Williams -- unknowns on defense before the start of the season -- made themselves known in a big way.

What we are left with was another season high on drama. Now let's hand out some superlatives:

Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith leads the Big East and ranks No. 9 in the nation in passing and has done just about everything asked of him in Dana Holgorsen's new offense.

[+] EnlargeKhaseem Greene
Rich Kane/Icon SMIRutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene had 127 tackles this season, and ranked No. 12 in the nation in tackles per game.
Defensive MVP: Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers. Greene led the Big East in tackles with 127, ranking No. 12 in the nation in tackles per game. He added three sacks and was a big reason why Rutgers led the league in total defense.

Newcomer of the year: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Bridgewater is a big reason the Cardinals were able to go on their 5-1 run to close the season. He set the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,855 yards.

Coach of the year: Butch Jones, Cincinnati. This was a tossup between Jones and Charlie Strong. But Jones was able to guide a team that went 4-8 last season to a nine-win season and a share of the Big East title -- even after losing starting quarterback Zach Collaros. His team was able to win its final two games without him to hang on for a third league title in four seasons. Ultimately, the five-win improvement from last season to this season made the difference in choosing between Jones and Strong.

Biggest Surprise: Rutgers. People expected Cincinnati to be better, but Rutgers was the preseason choice to finish last in the Big East. Greg Schiano led this team to an eight-win season and back to a bowl game after going 4-8 in 2010. That qualifies as a surprise.

Biggest Disappointment: USF. Some people pegged the Bulls for dark horses to win the Big East when the season began, but they imploded, losing six of their final seven games after a 4-0 start.

Best Game: West Virginia 24, Cincinnati 21. This was a tough call to make because there were several exciting games this season that came down to the wire with major Big East implications. But the league turned on this game. Collaros went down with a broken ankle in the second quarter and all hope seemed lost. Cincinnati trailed 17-7 when Munchie Legaux took over. He struggled on the first few series, but came to life in the second half, rallying the Bearcats to a 21-17 fourth-quarter lead. West Virginia then went ahead 24-21, and blocked Tony Miliano's 31-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds to win -- opening the door for the wild finish to the season.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:19
PM ET
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-4) vs. Iowa State Cyclones (6-6)

Dec. 30, 3:20 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Rutgers take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: You understand why there might not be a joyous celebration among Scarlet Knights fans today, despite a terrific turnaround from 4-8 last season to 8-4 and bowl team this season. Rutgers had a chance to clinch a share of their first Big East title in the regular-season finale. All they had to do was beat a UConn team with a losing record. But the Scarlet Knights had one mistake after another and lost 40-22, ending the season on a sour note. Still, that should not take away what was accomplished this year. After being selected in the preseason to finish last in the conference, Rutgers went 4-3 in Big East play -- posting a winning league record for the first time since 2008. Receiver Mohamed Sanu showed everybody just how special he is, shattering school and Big East single-season records with 109 receptions. Sixty-five of his 109 receptions have been for first downs, the second-highest total nationally. The defense, which featured significant player position changes, finished as the No. 1 group in the Big East. Khaseem Greene, moved from safety to middle linebacker, led the league with 127 tackles and is a leading candidate for Big East Defensive Player of the Year. There have been a few hiccups – coach Greg Schiano switched quarterbacks in the middle of the season, going with true freshman Gary Nova over starter Chas Dodd. But he went back to Dodd in the fourth quarter against USF, and he rallied the team to a win. Nova relieved Dodd against UConn, so it is uncertain who will start the bowl game. The offensive line was better, but the run game was not, averaging 2.6 yard per carry and 91.5 yards per game. Still, Rutgers made enough improvement this season that it was a Big East contender, and is now back in a bowl for the sixth time in seven seasons.


Iowa State take from Big 12 blogger David Ubben: If there's one thing we know by now, it's that coach Paul Rhoads is SO PROUD of his team this season. The Cyclones are the biggest overachievers in the country. Favored in just two games, Iowa State scrapped its way to six wins and a second bowl game in three years under Rhoads. That stretch included a 3-0 start with fourth-quarter comebacks in each, including a win over rival Iowa. The Cyclones also played giant killer and handed Big 12 champion Oklahoma State its only loss. Midway through the season, the spectacularly named Steele Jantz was sent to the bench for redshirt freshman Jared Barnett, who helped spark a late-season run when the Cyclones beat Texas Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma State in Barnett's first three starts. Despite a loss to Oklahoma the following week, the Cyclones led the Big 12 in scoring defense over that stretch. There's nobody in the Big 12, except perhaps Kansas State, that does more with "team" than the Cyclones. Not many outstanding talents, but they play a physical brand of football and under Barnett, have played it much closer to the vest. The results have been ideal.

Big East awards tracker

November, 30, 2011
11/30/11
4:04
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With one week left in the regular season, my choices for Big East players and coach of the year have become clear. Here is my pitch for the award winners. The Big East will make its announcement next week.

Offensive Player of the Year: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith has shattered single-season school records for completions (291), attempts (448) and yards (3,741). He needs 283 yards to tie the Big East single-season passing record of 4,024 yards, set by Louisville’s Brian Brohm in 2007. The offense may not be a work of perfection right now, but there is no denying he has been solid running the new offense under Dana Holgorsen. Not only does he lead the Big East in passing, he ranks No. 8 in the nation in that category. He has thrown at least one completion that has gone over 40 yards in nine of 11 games this season, and has been hands down the best offensive player in the league. Runner-up: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers.

Defensive Player of the Year: Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers. Greene turned in the most solid performance of all defenders this season, making a huge impact in just about every game he played. When he started the year, Greene was a big unknown because he switched to linebacker from safety. But his exceptional speed allowed him to succeed in the middle of the revamped Rutgers defense. Greene leads the Big East with 127 tackles, to rank No. 9 in the nation. He had double-digit tackles in seven games this season, including a career-high 17 in a win over USF. Greene closed the season with double-digit tackles in three of his final four games. He also contributed two forced fumbles and three sacks as well. Runner-up: JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati.

Freshman of the Year: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. One of the big questions surrounding Bridgewater was whether he would be able to live up to the hype he had coming in as a four-star recruit out of Miami. After watching him lead the Cardinals to a come-from-behind win over Kentucky, most everyone could see he would develop into something special. Bridgewater took over the starting role after that game and has been solid all season. He broke the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,855 yards, and finished the year with 12 touchdowns to nine interceptions. Runner-up: Lyle McCombs, RB, UConn.

Coach of the Year: Charlie Strong, Louisville, OR Butch Jones, Cincinnati. This is a close one for me between Strong and Jones. Both have engineered remarkable turnaround seasons for their teams. Cincinnati went 4-8 last season and is one the verge of winning a share of the Big East title. Louisville started the season 2-4 and finished up on a 5-1 run that got the Cardinals at least a share of the Big East title. I have to wait for my final vote on this one until the games play out Saturday. Both are deserving of the award.

Does final game mar Rutgers' season?

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
9:00
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Greg Schiano AP Photo/Fred BeckhamDespite the ugly loss to UConn, Greg Schiano's Rutgers team still accomplished a lot this season.
The finale stung perhaps more than any loss in recent memory.

A first Big East title was there for the taking. In 11 seasons at the helm at Rutgers, that is the one thing coach Greg Schiano had never accomplished. And here was his best opportunity. All the Scarlet Knights had to do was beat UConn, a team Rutgers had beaten in three straight seasons. A Huskies team that went into the game at 4-6, struggling with shaky quarterback play and some big questions on defense.

It was a game on paper that Rutgers should have won.

Instead, the Scarlet Knights played their worst game of the season, turning the ball over six times and losing 40-22. That same UConn team went into the game averaging 20 points per league contest. Does it make any sense that the Huskies put up a season-high 40 points on what is the best defense in the Big East?

Not much made sense about that game. Now Rutgers is left to sit and think about what happened, an ending so bitter that it might take a while to forget.

“As a competitor, I’m not really looking back at the whole season and the 8-4 record and going to another bowl game,” coach Greg Schiano said. “I’m very proud of Rutgers going to its sixth bowl game in seven years, but right now I’m just disappointed in the opportunity we had and that we didn't perform the way we're capable. Usually now we’re well into game planning. That's always the best medicine after a loss. Without a game on the horizon at least in the forseeable future, it's recruiting and it's planning the bowl agenda. It doesn't quite take the sting away like getting back at it and getting football going. It's a tough one to shake off."

The question now is whether such a bad loss mars what Rutgers has accomplished this season. When the year began, Rutgers opened as the preseason pick to finish last in the league after going 4-8 a year ago. Nobody knew how the offensive line would fare. Nobody knew how Chas Dodd would do with a new offense. Nobody knew how all the changes Schiano made on defense would look.

There were even some critics who wondered about whether it was time for Schiano to move on, despite all he had accomplished at Rutgers. They pointed to his failure to win a Big East championship, at an inability to move the program that one extra step into becoming league contenders every season.

Given all the uncertainty and question marks, what Rutgers did this season should be applauded. The Scarlet Knights won four more games than they did last season, with an opportunity for one more. They made it back to a bowl game, where they have had extraordinary success. They also had incredible performances from Mohamed Sanu, who set the Big East single-season record with 109 receptions, and Khaseem Greene, one of the main contenders for Defensive Player of the Year.

The defense, led by Schiano again, still ranks No. 1 in the Big East in total defense, interceptions, opponent first downs, red zone defense and pass defense.

There certainly have been hiccups. The quarterback position remains in flux, with Dodd and true freshman Gary Nova splitting time this season. There was no consistency in the running game, and no consistency at receiver beyond Sanu. The offensive line was better, but shuffled starting lineups seemingly every week. The run defense was a problem at times as well.

It all adds up to a good team that just missed out on an opportunity to call itself a champion. How you perceive this season for Rutgers probably depends on your perspective. Seeing Rutgers perform so poorly to close out the season stings. But there must also be an appreciation for how far this team has come.

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