NCF Nation: Oderick Turner
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
1. The battle of unbeatens: The last two undefeated Big East teams, No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 21 South Florida go head to head Thursday night in Tampa. The winner will have an inside track to the league's BCS bid and keep alive national title aspirations. The loser will have to hope for some help down the road.
2. Can Cincinnati handle the heat? We're not talking about South Florida's defensive pressure. We're talking about the climate. Temperatures have been in the 90s in Florida all week, and it should be in the 80s at game time. That's a lot hotter than what Cincinnati has been practicing in for the past few weeks, and it's worth monitoring the Bearcats' endurance as the game wears on.
3. Rutgers' pass defense: The Scarlet Knights got ripped apart for nearly 400 passing yards in the opening loss to Cincinnati. They haven't played a capable passing team since. Pittsburgh certainly fits that description, as Bill Stull is playing better than any quarterback not named Tony Pike in the Big East. Stull has lots of big-time receiving targets, too, including Jonathan Baldwin, Dorin Dickerson and Oderick Turner. Is Rutgers better equipped to handle a top-flight passing offense on Friday night than it was on Labor Day?
4. Tom Savage: The true freshman will make his first career Big East start against Pitt. The Panthers should bring lots of pressure on the rookie with their front four, but they are vulnerable in the secondary. Can Savage keep his composure, make big throws and avoid his first college interception?
5. Pitt vs. the blitz: The Panthers have not beaten Rutgers in the Dave Wannstedt era, and they know what they're going to get from Greg Schiano's team. The Scarlet Knights will blitz at least half the time from all angles. Rutgers' defense has been causing all kinds of turnovers and defensive scores, albeit against lesser competition. Pitt's offensive line, which has protected Stull wonderfully so far this year, has to be ready for the onslaught.
6. Connecticut's finishability: OK, so I just made that word up. But clearly the Huskies have had all sorts of trouble closing teams out this year, as witnessed by their fourth-quarter blown leads against Pitt and North Carolina. They're better than Louisville and should be leading again going into the final 15 minutes on Saturday night at Rentschler Field. Let's see if UConn can go for the kill this time instead of wilting down the stretch.
7. Louisville run defense and offense: For the Cardinals to have any chance of winning a Big East road game, they're going to have to both stop and start the run. They'll need to slow down Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman of UConn, both of whom are capable of going over 100 yards in the same game. And Louisville must get its own running game going with Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell. Bad news for the Cardinals: they rank seventh in the Big East in rushing offense and last in rush defense.
8. West Virginia's focus: After revenge games against Auburn and Colorado and the Big East opener at Syracuse, the Mountaineers get Marshall at home. They've never been challenged in this series, and Bill Stewart seems a little concerned that his players might be looking past the Thundering Herd. That's always dangerous against an in-state rival. It would be good for West Virginia to come out sharp and focused and put this game away early.
9: Mighty mite battle in Morgantown: The West Virginia-Marshall game features the No. 2 running back in the FBS -- the Thundering Herd's Darius Marshall -- and No. 3 in the Mountaineers' Noel Devine. Marshall will try to prove he can put up monstrous numbers against big-time competition. Devine could pass Marshall with a huge game. Both backs are small in stature but will provide large amounts of entertainment on Saturday.
10. The BCS standings: The first official standings come out on Sunday. If Cincinnati wins, where will the Bearcats be in relation to the other BCS title contenders? And if South Florida wins, how high can the Bulls begin their climb?
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Who will be the next batch of players to post have breakthrough seasons? Unlike the top newcomers, which we explored on Thursday, this list is about players who have already seen some time on the field but may be about to make you sit up and take notice. This is a tough exercise to do before seeing players in the spring, but here are five early possibilities:
• Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida: He appeared in only one game in 2008 before being shelved by an ankle injury, for which he gained a medical redshirt. Bulls coaches love him and think he has the most talent of any of their young interior linemen. Look for him to fight for a starting spot on what could be the league's best defensive line in '09.
• Dominique Battle, CB, Cincinnati: Battle was named the Bearcats' newcomer of the year after playing in every game as a freshman, but he was overshadowed by Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith. With both those guys off to the NFL Draft, Battle should step right in as a starting corner. Cincinnati has shown it knows how to develop ball-hawking defensive backs, and the athletic Battle fits that mode to a tee.
• Julian Miller, DL, West Virginia: Miller was the Mountaineers' scout team defensive player of the year during his redshirt season, then played all 13 games last year as a backup, recording 3.5 sacks. He should challenge Larry Ford for the starting job at defensive end. On a defense that returns most of its starters from a year ago, Miller could be the biggest depth-chart mover.
• Andre Dixon/Jordan Todman, RB, UConn: Donald Brown cast a long shadow by leading the nation in rushing in 2008, so one or both of these guys might emerge in his absence. Dixon led the team in rushing two years ago and was second team All-Big East, but he vanished as a junior. Todman made a strong freshman debut and has the burst to excel in many roles in the Huskies' new no-huddle offense.
• T.J. Porter, WR, Pittsburgh: Porter backed up Derek Kinder at flanker last season but still finished third on the team in catches, yards and yards per catch. The graduation of Kinder and Oderick Turner opens up plenty of playing time for the Florida-bred speedster. And with defenses no doubt gearing up to double team Jonathan Baldwin, Porter could be in line for a big senior season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
West Virginia: The Mountaineers have been strong in most areas on special teams, except for kickoff coverage. They're allowing more than 30 yards per return, ranking 115th out of 119 FBS teams. They gave up two long returns to Marshall last weekend. Head coach Bill Stewart, who oversees special teams, said he will concentrate on that area in practice. The loss of special teams headhunter Jim Lewis to a broken foot has hurt the unit.
Cincinnati: The decision on a starting quarterback this week may go all the way up until game time on Friday at Marshall, head coach Brian Kelly says. Kelly will choose between redshirt freshmen Zach Collaros and Chazz Anderson to replace the injured Tony Pike. Kelly said the late decision isn't about being coy but about giving both quarterbacks more practice time in a short week. He said the offense will concentrate on specific plays for whichever quarterback wins out.
Rutgers: Redshirt freshman Jourdan Brooks appears to have cemented his status as the team's No. 1 running back. Brooks started the past two games, scoring five touchdowns combined against Navy and Morgan State. He had twice as many carries as Joe Martinek and three times as many as Mason Robinson in the Morgan State game. With Kordell Young possibly out for the year with a knee injury, Brooks may become the team's workhorse back.
Pittsburgh: Weakside linebacker Shane Murray finally played last week after a preseason knee injury, getting in on about 15 snaps versus Syracuse. Head coach Dave Wannstedt said he thinks Murray's role will increase this week against South Florida, though Austin Ransom has played well in his place. Wannstedt said more time from Murray would allow Ransom to be fresher in his special teams roles. Starting receiver Oderick Turner, last year's leading pass catcher, has struggled with drops and may lose playing time to Cedric McGee.
Connecticut: The Huskies' defensive front had to hang on against Louisville last week after losing tackles Alex Polito, Kendall Reyes and Rob Lunn to ankle injuries. All three are expected to be available Saturday against North Carolina. Quarterback Zach Frazer will make his first start, replacing the injured Tyler Lorenzen, and his strong arm could allow UConn to do more things in the downfield passing game. But head coach Randy Edsall said Frazer is also a good runner who can make plays with his feet like Lorenzen.
The hardest part for Derek Kinder was knowing he could have made a difference.
|Jimmy DeFlippo/US Presswire|
|Now healthy, Derek Kinder hopes to return to the form that earned him All-Big East honors in 2006.|
Pittsburgh went 5-7 last year, and in three of those losses the Panthers had the ball in the red zone for a potential winning score. All Kinder could do was watch helplessly.
"I thought that if I were out there, I could have made a couple plays for my team and maybe we score a couple more touchdowns," Kinder said. "And maybe we could have had a couple more victories and go to a bowl game."
The Panthers have plenty of reasons to believe this is the year they break a three-year bowl drought. Kinder checks in somewhere near the top of that list.
The senior wide receiver earned All-Big East first team honors in 2006, when he caught 57 passes for 847 yards and six touchdowns. But then, in the first week of training camp last August, he made a cut on a route and heard a loud pop in his right knee. He'd ripped his ACL and would miss the entire year. When quarterback Bill Stull suffered his own season-ending thumb injury in the first game, the Pittsburgh offense was decimated. The Panthers averaged just 22.8 points per game.
Now both Kinder and Stull are back, and after LeSean McCoy's 1,300-yard, 14-touchdown performance as a freshman, the outlook has changed dramatically.
"Toward the end of season, teams were putting more guys in the box to stop LeSean and make us throw," Kinder said. "But I think this year we'll be able to stretch the field, and everybody knows what LeSean can do. It's going to be nice to see what defenses do this year."
Kinder is also anxious to see what he can do after a year off. He went through light workouts in the spring while wearing a brace and stepped up his running in the summer. He sat out for a couple of days earlier this month with some knee soreness but says now that he's 100 percent healthy.
"I got hit for the first time two weeks ago, and everything went well," he said. "I feel like my old self."
The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder can go over the middle and make tough catches, and he can also go deep. He had touchdown receptions of 80, 78 and 55 yards two years ago.
And if you've seen Pittsburgh's ESPY-nominated play against West Virginia from 2006, you know this: Dude can block, too. Kinder annihilated two Mountaineers pursuers to help spring a spectacular 73-yard punt return touchdown by Darrelle Revis.
While Kinder was out, junior Oderick Turner emerged as the team's top wideout, hauling in 36 catches for 496 yards and five touchdowns last season. Kinder said he has no problem deferring to Turner.
"He's the No. 1 guy," he said. "Hopefully I can match him and we can split reps and split touchdowns. We'll probably be battling it out for leading the team in receptions all year."
They will be joined this year by 6-foot-5 true freshman Jonathan Baldwin, a big-time recruit who adds a new element of athleticism to the offense. Kinder said he and Turner have taken Baldwin aside and tried to get him up to speed on the playbook as quickly as possible.
Kinder used his time off last year to finish his degree in economics and is now seeking a second degree in communications. He and Stull also spent a lot of time in the rehab room together, talking about how things could have been different if they were on the field. Now comes their chance to prove it.
"My personal goal is to try and get back to my junior-year form," Kinder said. "But the main goal is for us to have a successful year as a team and get back to a bowl game."
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
8:00 PM ET 20 Duke 1 Florida State 8:17 PM ET 2 Ohio State 10 Michigan State 4:00 PM ET 5 Missouri 3 Auburn 12:00 PM ET 17 Oklahoma 6 Oklahoma State 7:45 PM ET 7 Stanford 11 Arizona State 3:30 PM ET 25 Texas 9 Baylor 12:00 PM ET 16 UCF Southern Methodist 10:00 PM ET Utah State 23 Fresno State