NCF Nation: Noel Devine

What to watch in the ACC: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
For the first time in conference history, the ACC is hosting four ranked teams. That alone is enough to keep you busy this weekend. But you're going to need more than four TVs. We've got the South's oldest rivalry in Chapel Hill, and somebody has to get a win in Chestnut Hill. There's plenty to watch. Here are a few that top my list, in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeRyan Broyles
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles had a huge day against the Noles last season, catching 12 passes for 124 yards and a score.
1. Florida State’s secondary against Oklahoma’s receivers. Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills make one of the best wide receiver duos in the country. The Seminoles’ secondary also has been billed as one of the best. They were out of position in this game at times last year, though, and got beat. Will this year be a more favorable matchup for FSU?

2. FSU’s running game and offensive line. Florida State won its first two games convincingly, but if there were any areas that showed some need for improvement, it was up front and in the running game. The offensive line needs to do a better job of sustaining its blocks, and the running backs need to work harder to create their own yards.

3. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. All eyes will be on Harris as he makes his first start since a forgettable performance in the Sun Bowl last year. Harris threw four interceptions against Ohio State last year, but first-year coach Al Golden is confident enough in him to name him the starter ahead of Stephen Morris.

4. Turnovers in Chapel Hill. UNC turned the ball over five times last week, and Virginia had five turnovers – all interceptions – the last time these two teams met. UNC’s secondary is still looking for its first interception of the season, and UVA quarterback Michael Rocco threw one in last year’s meeting.

5. Virginia Tech’s punters. There’s a competition still going on. Scott Demler won the starting job this summer, but has punted 10 times for an average of 35.1 yards, with a long of 44. Danny Coale is still an option, and coach Frank Beamer said they could give true freshman Michael Branthover a look.

6. NC State’s defense. South Alabama is in a transitional phase to FCS status, and will become full members in 2013. You would think that even with a few injuries, the Wolfpack could show some improvement. NC State has allowed an average of 422 yards of total offense, and 27. 5 points per game.

7. Maryland’s pass defense. West Virginia has yet to really find a replacement for Noel Devine and the running game has struggled, leaving too much depending on the arm of Geno Smith. Fortunately for West Virginia, he’s good enough to get it done. Smith has completed over 66 percent of his passes and will challenge Maryland’s secondary.

8. Defense in Death Valley. There hasn’t been much of it for either Clemson or Auburn, so somebody will have to show improvement. Clemson ranks No. 90 in the nation in total defense, and Auburn is 111th. Both teams are allowing over 200 yards rushing per game.

9. Clemson’s offensive line: The Tigers allowed four sacks against Wofford, and failed to pick up a fourth-and-1. The pass protection has to improve, and earlier this week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said left guard David Smith struggled, and fans could see more of Mason Cloy and Brandon Thomas at the guard positions.

10. BC’s secondary vs. the ‘Killer V’s’: The Eagles’ depleted secondary could have its work cut out for it against Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon. BC learned this week that cornerback C.J. Jones will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. Jones is the third player in what was projected to be BC’s starting secondary who won’t be in the lineup for various reasons.
Scouts Inc. has come up with comprehensive draft boards for every position as we draw ever closer to the 2011 NFL draft (and, hopefully, a 2011 NFL season).

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:
Now, the offensive linemen/tight ends:
Now let's move to the defensive side and see where Scouts Inc. rates some Big East defenders:
  • Doug Hogue, LB, Syracuse: sixth 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 Big East won't have a heavy presence at next week's Under Armour Senior Bowl, but some of the top seniors from the league in 2010 will be participating.

The game announced the invitees from the league Thursday afternoon, adding six alongside the previously announced inclusion of Noel Devine. Here is the list of invitees:

Connecticut: Lawrence Wilson, LB

Louisville: Johnny Patrick, DB; Bilal Powell, RB

Pittsburgh: Jason Pinkston, OL

Rutgers: Joe Lefeged, DB

West Virginia: Noel Devine, RB; Chris Neild, DL

Also, Rutgers announced on Thursday that defensive end Jonathan Freeny and linebacker Antonio Lowery will play in the inaugural Eastham Energy College All-Star Game this Sunday. West Virginia safety Sidney Glover, South Florida receiver Dontavia Bogan and center Sampson Genus, and Louisville defensive end Rodney Gnat are also listed on the rosters for that game. It will be held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

Three keys: Champs Sports Bowl

December, 28, 2010
Here are three keys for West Virginia in Tuesday's Champs Sports Bowl showdown against NC State:

1. Pressure Russell Wilson: Well, sure, you always want to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. But that's an even more important goal against Wilson, who is responsible for so much of what the Wolfpack does offensively. West Virginia will be playing without top cornerback Brandon Hogan, so if Wilson has time to scan the field, he could pick on replacement Pat Miller. Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme has been great at disguising coverages and confusing quarterbacks with blitzes from varying angles. Wilson has been more prone to mistakes this year than previous seasons, throwing eight interceptions in NC State's four losses. When the Mountaineers get near him, though, they can't let him break contain or he can burn them with his running ability.

2. Let it fly: This is the final game at West Virginia for offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, who will be replaced next week by Dana Holgorsen. It will also be the last game for Bill Stewart before his lame-duck year begins. So what's there to lose? The Mountaineers should be aggressive on offense, and go for whatever Mullen has left in the playbook. NC State is solid against the run, and Noel Devine probably still won't be his usual explosive self. But quarterback Geno Smith has been terrific during the current four-game winning streak, throwing eight touchdown passes and just one interception. Don't be afraid to put the game in his hands.

3. Limit turnovers: Another no-brainer for any team, but this is one stat that usually tells the tale for the Mountaineers. They committed eight in their three losses this season compared to 15 in their nine wins. Ball-carriers like Ryan Clarke have had trouble with costly fumbles in big games. If West Virginia plays a clean game against NC State, it should have an excellent chance to win its third bowl game under Stewart.
The No. 2 bowl in the Big East pecking order is also the second-earliest bowl for the league. West Virginia gets back to action after a few weeks of wild coaching news. Here's a quick preview of Tuesday night's Champs Sports Bowl:

WHO TO WATCH: West Virginia running back Noel Devine. It's the final college game for Devine, who has amassed more than 4,000 rushing yards in his career. He hasn't been the same player this year ever since a foot injury against LSU, which was later exacerbated by an ankle problem in the Louisville game. But now he's had a few weeks to heal, and perhaps he's ready to deliver a fitting swan song. When he's right, there's no more explosive player in the country. If he's not himself, then the Mountaineers may turn to Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke for the bulk of the carries.

WHAT TO WATCH: West Virginia's defense versus NC State quarterback Russell Wilson. The Mountaineers had one of the best defenses in the country this year, not once allowing more than 21 points. That defense will be facing the best quarterback it has seen this year in the dangerous, multi-dimensional Wilson. Add to that the fact that top cornerback Brandon Hogan will miss the game with a torn ACL, and this is arguably the biggest challenge all season for this defense. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme and a ton of veterans have made West Virginia difficult for any quarterback to solve this year. It will be fun to watch how Wilson fares.

WHY WATCH: West Virginia is the highest-ranked team in the Big East, and many people think the Mountaineers would have made a better BCS representative for the league than Connecticut, to which they lost in overtime on the road. Here is their chance to prove it. It will also be the final game before Dana Holgorsen takes over as offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting, so this marks the end of an era in some ways. The Big East is looking for respect, and so its top-ranked team needs to take care of business against an ACC also-ran.

PREDICTION: This is a tough one because nobody knows exactly how much of a distraction the coaching situation was for this team. Hogan's loss hurts, too. I think Wilson will help NC State exploit West Virginia's defense more than any other team all season, but in the end Geno Smith and the Mountaineers make one more play. Give me West Virginia by a field goal, 26-23.

Champs Sports Bowl

December, 6, 2010
West Virginia Mountaineers (9-3) vs. NC State Wolfpack (8-4)

Dec. 28, 6:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

West Virginia take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: Second place feels pretty rotten for West Virginia.

The Mountaineers won a share of the Big East title and are the league's highest-ranked team. Yet they could only watch helplessly on the final night of the season as Connecticut beat South Florida to claim the Big East's BCS bid via tiebreaker.

While a 9-3 record and league co-championship sound nice, West Virginia had the potential for so much more. A senior-laden defense dominated all year, finishing second nationally in points allowed and third in yards yielded. But an October slide that included back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut doomed the Mountaineers to hoping for help. They were their own worst enemy, as quarterback Geno Smith threw three interceptions in the home loss to the Orange, and the team lost four fumbles -- including one at the goal line in overtime -- against the eventual champion Huskies.

Since that skid, though, West Virginia has lived up to its potential, winning four straight by an average of 20 points. The defense is strong enough to stop anybody, even NC State's electric quarterback Russell Wilson. The offense has finally started to click even though star tailback Noel Devine has been slowed by a foot injury.

The Mountaineers should represent the Big East well. If they can get over the disappointment of being No. 2.

NC State take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Following the loss to Maryland in the regular-season finale, NC State coach Tom O’Brien tried to focus on the positives of an eight-win season, but it was hard for his players not to think about the opportunity they had just lost. NC State could have played in the ACC title game had it defeated the Terps, but instead settled for a second-place tie with Maryland in what was one of the most successful seasons since the Philip Rivers' era.

The Wolfpack now have a chance to take yet another step forward and win a bowl game for the first time in O’Brien’s four seasons in Raleigh. NC State played in the Bowl in his second season but lost to Rutgers, 29-23. NC State has struggled to run the ball this year, but quarterback Russell Wilson and the passing game have helped compensate for that. NC State is No. 19 in the country in passing offense, but turnovers and dropped passes have been a trend in each of the losses. That could be a problem against a West Virginia defense that ranks No. 11 in the country in pass defense and No. 2 in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 12.75 points per game.
West Virginia has done all it can do. Now it must wait until Saturday night and hope South Florida can provide the assist.

A big second half charge helped the No. 24 Mountaineers to a 35-14 win over Rutgers. They clinched a share of the Big East title, and they will go to a BCS game if Connecticut loses to the Bulls in Tampa. If not, it's off to the Champs Sports Bowl.

West Virginia reminded us all why it needs help with its poor ballhandling against the Scarlet Knights. It lost three fumbles inside the Rutgers 15 and very nearly coughed up two more. Turnovers led to defeats against both Syracuse and Connecticut and cost at least a better shot at beating LSU.

But the Mountaineers are good enough to overcome those mistakes, especially against a bad team like Rutgers, which ended the year on a six-game losing streak. West Virginia had 524 yards to 202 by Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights only put together one real scoring drive before tacking on a garbage touchdown late against the second-string defense.

Geno Smith was terrific, completing 23 of 28 passes for 354 yards and a touchdown. Tavon Austin had six catches for 121 yards and a score and also had a 46-yard touchdown run. The Mountaineers continue to move the ball well without getting much from the still-injured Noel Devine. They tried to get him a touchdown late in his final home game, but Devine fumbled.

Ryan Clarke, despite an early goal-line fumble, has three touchdowns despite rushing just seven times for 11 yards.

Rutgers gave up six more sacks, giving them an insanely high 61 for the season. That's the most recorded by an FBS team in the last five years. Head coach Greg Schiano has a lot of evaluating to do now that this season is mercifully over.

West Virginia just has some watching and rooting left to do. The Mountaineers showed Saturday why they'd be a tough opponent for anyone in a BCS game, but they have only themselves to blame for not controlling their own path to one.
PITTSBURGH -- Sorry, Connecticut fans. It's nothing personal. But in the best interests of the Big East, the Huskies need to lose a game.

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis
Charles LeClaire/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's defense stuffed Dion Lewis and the Panthers, forcing four turnovers.
This has been a historically bad year for the conference, maybe the worst ever. The only way the league gains any redemption is if its champion wins a BCS game. And the only team with a realistic shot at doing that is West Virginia.

The Mountaineers showed why Friday in hammering former front-runner Pittsburgh 35-10 at Heinz Field. Their most dominating performance of the year pushed them into a first-place tie atop the standings. Jock Sanders, the brash wide receiver who openly dissed Pitt at Big East media day in August, knows the true pecking order.

"Hands down," he said when asked if his team was the Big East's best. "We had a couple of stumbles and falls, but we're on a roll right now. We're playing unbelievable on offense and defense."

West Virginia does not control its own destiny, however. Because of its 16-13 overtime win Oct. 29, UConn will claim the BCS bid by beating Cincinnati on Saturday and South Florida next week. Ironically, the Mountaineers must root for the team that knocked them out of the title race the past two years (the Bearcats) and/or their recent league nemesis (South Florida).

The Huskies are a nice story. West Virginia is a better overall team.

"We dropped the ball twice, but everybody knows that's not us," linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "We do think we're the best team in the Big East, but the standings don't show it right now."

This discussion would be moot had West Virginia not lost four fumbles in that UConn loss, or if Geno Smith had not thrown three interceptions in a home upset to Syracuse a week earlier. Since then, however, the offense has cut way back on its mistakes; on Friday, West Virginia didn't turn the ball over at all and Pitt lost it four times. Coaches have harped on ball security ever since the bye week after the UConn game.

"We do the turnover circuit and our scout team always tries to strip the ball," receiver Tavon Austin said. "We had been doing that before practice, but now we're doing it after practice and all through [drills]."

Defense will keep West Virginia close in any BCS matchup. That unit came into Friday allowing just 12.9 points per game and remarkably managed to lower that number against Pitt. Yet head coach Bill Stewart took the rare step of yelling at his defensive players at halftime. He thought they looked out of sync and a step slow, confused by the Panthers' heavy use of quarterback bootlegs and rollouts.

Here's the thing, though: Despite dominating almost every offensive statistic, Pitt still trailed 14-7 at intermission. That's because West Virginia created three turnovers in the first half, one of the few things it hadn't done a great job of this season. Stewart challenged the defense earlier in the week to score its first touchdown; cornerback Brandon Hogan nearly rectified that with a 53-yard interception return to the Pitt 2 on the game's first drive.

"We feel like if the offense scores any points, we can win," Hogan said.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicWest Virginia QB Geno Smith, 12, greets tight end Will Johnson after throwing a touchdown pass to him in the second quarter against Pittsburgh.
The offense had only scored one second-half touchdown in Big East play this season. But on the third play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Smith fired a 71-yard touchdown pass to Austin. When the third quarter ended, the Mountaineers had 28 points on 32 offensive plays.

They flashed that quick-strike ability without much from Noel Devine. The star tailback still isn't all the way back from the bone bruise on his foot from the LSU game, and a sprained ankle suffered at Louisville last week limited him to just five touches Friday (though he averaged a tidy 18.8 yards per play).

"He still can run fast for most people," Stewart said. "But I don't think he has the jump-cutting ability that he once had."

Give West Virginia a month off to get ready for the Fiesta Bowl, though, and Devine could get close to 100 percent. The Mountaineers could finish the regular season 9-3 and give the Big East its first Top 25 team since late October. The program has a history of success in the BCS, winning the 2006 Sugar and 2008 Fiesta bowls, and it hung tough in a 19-14 loss at No. 5 LSU in September.

Connecticut, on the other hand, got blown out at Michigan, lost to Temple and was shut out by Louisville this season while winning only one game away from home. The Huskies are no safe bet to perform well on the BCS stage for the first time.

At least the Big East dodged a bullet by having Pitt bow out ungracefully. The Panthers have blown every big-game opportunity this year, and the overwhelming preseason favorite now stands 6-5. They must win at Cincinnati next week just to have a winning season. Dave Wannstedt's support is eroding in the Steel City.

West Virginia fans were ready to fire Stewart just a couple of weeks ago, and now he has them in position for at least a share of the Big East title. Before the Louisville game, Stewart urged his team to "match the mountains," a phrase he reiterated before Friday's game. He says that means his players should represent the majesty and high reach of the mountains that run through their state.

There's only one team that can climb the BCS mountain and plant a flag for the Big East this year. It's nothing personal, Connecticut, but the league has fallen down too much this year. It needs West Virginia on that hill.
PITTSBURGH -- Quick halftime analysis from Heinz Field, where West Virginia leads Pittsburgh 14-7 in the Backyard Brawl:

Turning point: Ray Graham fumbled on his own 46 late in the second quarter and West Virginia recovered. Two plays later, Geno Smith hit Noel Devine for a 48-yard pass to the Pitt 2, and then he found Will Johnson on a touchdown pass for the 14-7 lead.

Stat of the half: 3-0. That's the turnover stat, and it's all that matters. Both of the Mountaineers touchdowns were set up by Pitt turnovers, the first coming on Brandon Hogan's interception and long return on the first drive of the game. Pitt is dominating virtually every other statistic (it has 205 total yards to 75 for West Virginia and has 12 first downs to the Mountaineers' 2). But it can't stop shooting itself in the foot.

Best player in the half: Hogan. The West Virginia cornerback had that interception and recovered the fumble off Graham's gaffe. He has also held star receiver Jon Baldwin to a mere three catches for 15 yards, though he got bailed out once when Tino Sunseri overshot a wide open Baldwin.

What Pittsburgh needs to do: It's as simple as can be: hold onto the darn ball. Pitt is doing fine in every other aspect but it has no chance if it can't stop the turnover flood.

What West Virginia needs to do: Keep the pedal down. Remember that West Virginia's offense has scored only one touchdown in the second half in all of its Big East games. Pitt, meanwhile, has had its best scoring output in the second half this year. This one is not over yet.

What to watch in the Big East: Week 13

November, 24, 2010
1. Battle for first place: The three-team jostling match for the Big East's BCS bid could be down to two, or possibly just one team by Saturday. Pittsburgh can clinch the title with a win over West Virginia and a Connecticut loss to Cincinnati. West Virginia could force a first-place tie by beating Pitt, and UConn hopes for a Pittsburgh loss since it holds the tiebreakers over the Panthers and Mountaineers. This thing could be decided this weekend or set us up for an exciting finish next week.

2. Desperate measures: The margin of error is gone for three Big East teams. Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers each have six losses and must win this weekend in order to preserve bowl hopes. Louisville and Rutgers play in a postseason elimination game, while the Bearcats hope to get back to any bowl after winning the past two conference titles.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicTino Sunseri has led Pitt to victories in four of the team's past five games.
3. Brawl, y'all: The Backyard Brawl is always worth watching, especially with the stakes raised this year. And it should be a brawl. West Virginia's defense is allowing just 12.9 points per game, while Pitt has held opponents to under 16 points in conference play. A lot will ride on the shoulders of sophomore quarterbacks Tino Sunseri and Geno Smith, who could be making the first of three starts against one another. Can either offensive line handle the pressure from the opposing defense? Can either team mount a successful running game? This one might come down to one or two big plays, and both teams have the playmakers to spring one.

4. Pitt receivers vs. West Virginia's secondary: The Panthers and Mountaineers are the two most-talented teams in the league, which leads to some outstanding individual matchups. There's the head-to-head rushing battle between Noel Devine and Dion Lewis, Bruce Irvin versus Jason Pinkston on third down, Tino/Geno, etc. But the one I'm most looking forward to seeing is the Panthers wideouts going against the Mountaineers defensive backs. Jon Baldwin had eight catches for 127 yards last year, but West Virginia's Robert Sands had a key interception in the fourth quarter. Baldwin will likely get matched up against the Big East's best cornerback, Brandon Hogan, while league interceptions leader Keith Tandy will take on Mike Shanahan. Pitt has the tallest receivers in the league, but the 6-foot-5 Sands can give them trouble. Should be fun to watch all day.

5. Heinz special: In a game expected to be close and defensive-minded, special teams could make the difference. Watch what Pitt does if it stalls outside the West Virginia red zone. Panthers kicker Dan Hutchins has been money from inside the 40 but is just 1-for-5 from 40 yards and out, including last week's miss at South Florida that could have sealed the game. Pitt has struggled with special-teams plays in big games (see: Cincinnati 2009, UConn 2010). West Virginia won last year's game on a Tyler Bitancurt field goal. And remember the Heinz Field turf will be chewed up, which could affect footing on kicks.

6. Revved-up Bearcats: An arena football game broke out at Nippert Stadium last week as Cincinnati put up 69 points and 661 yards against Rutgers. The Bearcats got back to balance, as the previously missing running game exploded behind Isaiah Pead's 213-yard effort. And they had only one turnover. The performance was no surprise to Connecticut, which saw Cincinnati put up 711 total yards in last year's 47-45 win over the Huskies. But this year's Bearcats have been far more inconsistent. Did they finally find a groove, or was last week's outburst a product of Rutgers' implosion? West Virginia and Pitt will be hoping for the former.

7. UConn pass attack: The book on beating UConn has been to load up against the run and make quarterback Zach Frazer make plays. The Huskies, after all, have the Big East's worst passing offense. But Cincinnati can't stop anybody through the air; receivers often roam wild in the Bearcats' secondary. The last four Big East opponents have scored at least 31 points against Cincinnati, so Connecticut should have plenty of opportunities to connect on big strikes.

8. A little respect: The Big East went just 2-11 against BCS conference opponents this season, with the wins coming over Maryland (West Virginia) and Vanderbilt (UConn). This week brings a final chance to salvage a little nonconference respect before bowl season, and the opportunities involve the BCS league with which the Big East is most closely aligned: the ACC. In fact, both games (South Florida at Miami and Boston College at Syracuse) feature former Big East teams. The Bulls will be playing for more than league pride; they're looking to score another victory over one of the Big Three in their own state. The Orange, meanwhile, are trying to put a positive cap on a breakthrough season, and to finally give their home fans something to cheer about.

9. Points at a premium? Syracuse has mostly won games in spite of its offense, and the same can be said for Boston College. The Eagles rank just 106th nationally in scoring and will be without star tailback Montel Harris this week. The Orange, meanwhile, are 94th in the country in points scored. Neither Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib nor BC counterpart Chase Rettig will blow you away with stats. This could be a big-time defensive battle featuring some outstanding linebackers: Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich for the Eagles, and Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue for the Orange. And speaking of tough sledding for the offense, how is South Florida going to move the ball on a fast, aggressive defense that turned Pitt into mush earlier this season?

10. Louisville's pressure vs. Rutgers' offense: Just about every week, we wonder how Rutgers' offensive line is going to hold up against an opposing defense. It's clear by now what the answer is: not well. The Scarlet Knights have another major challenge Friday against a Cardinals defense that is second in the league in sacks and has been playing great overall for the past month or so. Both teams really need this game (see No. 2) and Louisville would like nothing more than to clinch bowl eligibility in the same place it was humiliated at the end of the 2008 season.

Noel Devine vs. Dion Lewis revisited

November, 23, 2010
In the preseason, we had a fun debate about who would have the better season: Pitt's Dion Lewis or West Virginia's Noel Devine. Just about everybody agreed that they were the two best Big East tailbacks and that one of them would run away with the league's rushing title.

Well, as the two prepare to go head to head in this Friday's Backyard Brawl, it's pretty stunning that neither Lewis nor Devine is among the top five rushers in the conference. It clearly hasn't been the kind of season anyone envisioned for Lewis, last year's Big East Offensive Player of the Year after a 1,799-yard campaign, or Devine, the nation's active career rushing leader who had 1,465 yards in 2009.

[+] EnlargeNoel Devine
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerNoel Devine was limited by injuries earlier this season, but he's been flashing some of his old form lately.
I predicted 1,500-yard seasons for both; with two regular-season games for both players, you could add up their rushing totals and not reach 1,500 yards yet.

Here are the stats for each player:

Devine: 184 rushes for 828 yards (4.5 yards per carry) with six touchdowns in 10 games.

Lewis: 144 rushes for 661 yards (4.6 yards per carry) with eight touchdowns in nine games.

There are reasons behind the decline in production for each player.

Devine hasn't been the same since he was hit out of bounds at LSU and suffered a bone bruise underneath his big toe. He has had only one 100-yard rushing day since then, a 122-yard effort against Syracuse. Before the LSU game, he had three straight 100-yard days, though his yards per carry were down from his career average.

The senior has looked much healthier of late, but he still seems to lack the ability to make his signature cuts and reverse-field runs. In four of his last five games, he hasn't had a run of more than 18 yards, and Devine has always been known for his big-play skills.

"He hasn’t had a break-away, but hopefully he’ll get back on track with that," head coach Bill Stewart said.

Lewis had a difficult time getting started this season, thanks in large part to a rebuilt offensive line and new starters at tight end not opening the same holes he enjoyed running through a year ago. He also didn't seem to be running with the same energy and explosion as he did during his freshman year early on; his rushing total through Pitt's first five games (206) was only 16 yards more than he earned in last year's season finale against Cincinnati alone.

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicDion Lewis' diminished workload has contributed to his more modest stats this season.
Lewis also dealt with the emergence of classmate Ray Graham as a force in the backfield. As a result, his workload has gone way down. He has only two games with more than 20 carries this year, and his season high was 25 attempts in the opener at Utah. Last year, he averaged 25 carries per game.

But while both star tailbacks have had down years by their lofty standards, they are still capable of having a major impact on Friday's game and, by extension, the Big East title race.

Devine probably won't be fully healthy until after the season. But he had the biggest offensive play of the game last week against Louisville, catching a 48-yard pass out of the backfield to set up the game-winning touchdown.

Lewis has looked more like his old self of late, producing his only two 100-yard games of the season in the past four contests. He had 105 yards last week at South Florida, including a vintage 22-yard touchdown run to put Pitt ahead for good.

"He has been a little more consistent than he was earlier in the year for whatever reason," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The run he had against South Florida was just outstanding. He makes a guy miss, he bounces off one guy, the safety comes up and he breaks a tackle and gets in the end zone. It was Dion at his finest.

"I think any player has to make some plays like that to gain confidence and maintain his confidence. We're going to need him this week, because this is one of those games where every play counts and every yard counts."

Neither Dion Lewis nor Noel Devine has made as many plays or gained as many yards as expected this season. But the true Lewis vs. Devine debate will be settled Friday if one can lead his team to victory.

Week 12 review/Week 13 preview

November, 22, 2010
Looking back on the biggest Big East week thus far:

Team(s) of the week: (tie) Connecticut, West Virginia and Pittsburgh. All three went on the road to hostile environments, and all three shut down opponents who had a lot to play for. This trio allowed only one offensive touchdown in Week 12 while separating itself from the rest of the Big East pack.

Best game: Not a lot of instant classics in Week 12. I'll go with Pitt's 17-10 win over South Florida, which at least had some second-half drama. West Virginia beat Louisville by the same score, but that game never felt more out of reach because of how the Mountaineers' defense shut everything down.

Biggest play: In the second half at Louisville, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith turned to call timeout at nearly the same time as the ball was snapped and hit him in the back. Officials awarded Smith the timeout to the dismay of the home crowd. On the next play, Smith hit Noel Devine for a 48-yard pass play to the Louisville 2. That led to a Ryan Clarke touchdown, and the Mountaineers never trailed after that.

Best call: South Florida couldn't get much going offensively against Pittsburgh. But in the third quarter, the Bulls pulled off a beautifully-executed end around with true freshman Terrence Mitchell, who sprinted 45 yards for a touchdown that tied the score at 10. Unfortunately for USF, it was not enough.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati. There are career nights, and then there are video-game nights. Pead had the latter, scoring five touchdowns and rushing for 213 yards in a 69-38 destruction of Rutgers.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Kendall Reyes, DE, Connecticut. Created two turnovers with an interception and a forced fumble, and both led to scores in the Huskies' 23-6 win at Syracuse.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Gregg Pugnetti, P, West Virginia. Bill Stewart called his punter "our player of the game" after the win over Louisville. Pugnetti averaged 44.9 yards on seven punts and downed two inside the 20 as the Cardinals brought the house at him over and over again.

Worst hangover: Rutgers. Sure, Syracuse and South Florida were virtually eliminated from the Big East race, and Louisville lost its second straight chance at a bowl. But how do the Scarlet Knights give up 69 points to a Cincinnati team that had been struggling for weeks? Things are not good in Piscataway these days.

Strangest moment: In the second half of the Syracuse-Connecticut game, Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib had one of his passes batted into the air by a Huskies defender. Nassib caught the ball himself, and then proceeded to throw another pass. Um, that's a penalty. My favorite part was the referee's explanation: "The quarterback cannot throw two forward passes on the same down." Insert quote from Dazed & Confused's Wooderson here: "It'd be a whole lot cooler if you could."

Now let's look ahead to the penultimate regular-season game for most and -- can you believe it -- already the final regular-season game of 2010 for Louisville and Syracuse (Games listed in descending order of interest/importance; all games Saturday except where noted):

West Virginia (7-3, 3-2 Big East) at Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1): The Backyard Brawl as it should be: full of meaning for the Big East title. (ABC, Noon ET Friday)

Cincinnati (4-6, 2-3) at Connecticut (6-4, 3-2): The Huskies have to win to stay alive in the Big East title race. Bearcats have to win to stay alive for a bowl game. (, Noon ET)

South Florida (6-4, 3-3) at Miami (7-4): The Bulls have accomplished many firsts this season. Winning a Big East title won't be one of them. But beating Miami would serve as a nice consolation prize. (ESPNU, Noon ET)

Boston College (6-5) at Syracuse (7-4, 4-3): The Orange's season will be judged a success no matter what happens the rest of the way. But 8-4 sure looks better than 7-5 with an 0-for-FBS record at home, doesn't it? (ESPN, Noon ET)

Louisville (5-6, 2-4) at Rutgers (4-6, 1-4): Loser is eliminated from bowl contention. Cardinals should be more prepared than they were two years ago in a humiliating season-ending loss. (ESPN2, 11 a.m. ET, Friday)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Quick halftime analysis from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, where West Virginia leads Louisville 14-10:

Turning point: In the second quarter, Geno Smith turned to the back judge to call timeout almost at the same time the snap came and hit him in the back. Officials gave the timeout to West Virginia. On the next play after the timeout, Smith hit a wide open Noel Devine for a 48-yard pass play to the Louisville 2. One play later, Ryan Clarke scored for a 14-10 Mountaineers advantage.

Stat of the half: Louisville, the top rushing team in the Big East, has 20 rushing yards on 16 carries. Sacks contributed to that total, but the Cardinals running backs' longest run of the half was two yards. Punter Chris Philpott had the longest run of the half by either team, going 21 yards on a fake.

Best player in the half: Give it to the entire West Virginia defense, which has been absolutely dominating. Louisville's lone touchdown came on a defensive play, as Rodney Gnat sacked Smith and caused a fumble that his teammates jumped on in the end zone.

What West Virginia needs to do: Protect Smith. Louisville, as expected, is blitzing on almost every down, and with a lot of success. When the line picks up the pressure, Smith has plenty of options downfield. When it doesn't, Smith is running for his life.

What Louisville needs to do: Get the running game going somehow. The Cardinals don't have a high-powered passing game, and when they don't have the threat of play-action, that severely limits this offense.

Mountaineers get passing game going

November, 20, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- West Virginia's offense was handcuffed on its first series and looked to be on its way to a second straight three-and-out until Geno Smith hit Tavon Austin for a 25-yard pass.

That seemed to loosen things up, and the Mountaineers found something they liked against the heavy Louisville blitz. On another third-and-long in the red zone, Louisville brought the house, but Smith found Jock Sanders on a well-executed wide receiver screen, and Sanders took it near the goal line. Noel Devine punched it in for a 7-3 West Virginia lead.

It looks like the passing game will be huge for both teams. Louisville found no running room at all for Bilal Powell on its first drive, but two long passes to Cameron Graham put the Cardinals in field goal range. Both these defenses are strong and are stacking the line of scrimmage. It's going to be up to the quarterbacks to pick up the pressure and find single coverage down the field.

West Virginia-Louisville kickoff notes

November, 20, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Justin Burke will start at quarterback for Louisville. Adam Froman warmed up but had a noticeable limp, and Burke took the snaps with the first-team offense in pregame.

West Virginia officials say Noel Devine had a great week of practices and looks as healthy as he has been since the LSU game. Let's see if he can have a breakout game.

The crowd is still very slow to trickle in here with only about 15 minutes before kickoff and Senior Day festivities about to begin. Hope both teams play with more urgency than the fans.