NCF Nation: Ryan Kessling

Was that the real Syracuse last week? The real Louisville?

Both teams were able to do what they do best. The Orange had good balance on offense and attacked on defense against West Virginia. The Cardinals pounded the ball and let their defense lead the way against Rutgers.

The result: victories for both.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCan the 3-4 Cardinals, under coach Charlie Strong, beat Syracuse?
Now the two meet Saturday hoping to gain a little momentum in their push for a conference championship. Louisville has won two straight in the series but is still looking for back-to-back conference wins for the first time under Charlie Strong.

Syracuse is hoping to avoid a letdown after a 49-23 win over the Mountaineers, especially with increasing chatter that the Orange could be BCS bound if they play that way each week.

"With a great performance comes great expectations," Syracuse defensive end Mikhail Marinovich said. "People are going to expect to see that every week. We're just not focusing on the game after next or what’s happening in the future. Everybody is focused on the game at hand. Since this coaching staff has been here, they haven’t beaten Louisville. We’re just looking to really focus on the stuff that got us beat last year."

Louisville ran for 160 yards on the Orange last season. Their run game has not been nearly as effective this season, but the Cardinals picked it up against Rutgers as Jeremy Wright became the first 100-yard rusher of the season. Louisville did not exactly score a bushel of points, but the Cardinals did get enough to win.

But perhaps most impressive was the play of the offensive line, which has been banged up all season. The Cardinals entered the game ranked almost near the bottom in the country in sacks, allowing 3.7 per game.

Louisville had given up four or more sacks in four of the first six games. But the Cardinals did not give up one sack for the first time all season with the lineup of center Mario Benavides, guards Jake Smith and John Miller, and tackles Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper. Quite impressive considering Rutgers went into the game with 24 sacks.

"It definitely helps us on the offensive line in terms of confidence," Benavides said. "It helps across the board on offense because we play better. The quarterbacks have more confidence in us, the wide receivers have more confidence in us, the running backs. We’re starting to grow, but we have to keep growing and not get complacent. As a young team, you take success and you tend to get fat and happy. Our coaches are doing a good job of keeping us grounded."

Though the grind-it-out Louisville style presents a different challenge than the air-it-out West Virginia style, the Syracuse defense also got some much needed momentum from its performance last week.

It helped having defensive end Chandler Jones back. He had two of the team's four sacks to help boost a group that had not gotten as much pressure on the quarterback. That, of course, helps out the rest of the defense and Syracuse posted its largest margin of victory.

"It does give us confidence," Marinovich said. "When we’re firing on all cylinders, there’s no telling what we can do. But it also raises the bar to work harder every day and take our game to the next level."
Now by popular demand, we begin ranking the positions across the Big East. I know I am a little late to the party on this one, but better late than never, right? I asked on Twitter for suggestions on which position to start with today. There was no consensus. But I did like one suggestion: to work our way up from the line.

So first up is the offensive line. To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, position switches and depth. The truth is, this is not an area of strength for the league as a whole. Most teams have depth concerns and questions at one or more positions.

[+] EnlargeJustin Pugh
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Justin Pugh earned all-conference honors last season as a freshman.
1. Syracuse. The Orange have four returning starters, including two seniors. You have Justin Pugh, who made second-team All-Big East last year as a freshman. You have a more mature and experienced unit than the one last year, which had to replace four starters. There also is depth to have a nice eight-man rotation. The concern is at center, where Macky MacPherson is undersized. Actually, when you look at the entire group, it is undersized. Andrew Tiller is the only one who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.

2. West Virginia. The offensive line was an area of strength under Rich Rodriguez, but has struggled the past few years. It was hard to get a gauge on this unit in the spring, with both starting tackles Jeff Braun and Don Barclay out because of injuries. Starting guard Josh Jenkins also got hurt and is still not 100 percent. But the potential is there for this group to be significantly improved.

3. UConn. The strength of this unit is at tackle and center, where the Huskies return first-team All-Big East selection Mike Ryan (20 career starts) and Adam Masters (18 career starts). Moe Petrus, a second-team all-conference pick, has 39 career starts. Their experience should help along the guards -- nobody on the roster has started a game at the position. The good news is that Gary Bardzak does have starting experience, but it came at center.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers made so many position shifts during the spring that it is hard tell how this unit is going to shape up come fall. Chris Jacobson moving to center was one of the biggest moves, and Pittsburgh hopes it pays off with more stability there. Jacobson and starting tackles Jordan Gibbs and Lucas Nix have a combined 49 career starts, but Pitt has to make up for losing first-team Big East selection Jason Pinkston.

5. USF. The Bulls are going to be young on the offensive line this season after losing first-team All-Big East center Sampson Genus, along with tackles Jamar Bass and Jake Sims (second team All-Big East). Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren are a solid tandem at guard, and Mark Popek at left tackle and Kevin McCaskill at center do have playing experience. But at right tackle, USF plans to go with redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon. He does have loads of potential, but there will be a learning curve. Depth also is an issue, and the Bulls could have true freshmen in the rotation.

6. Cincinnati. The Bearcats had their share of problems last season, ranking second-to-last in the Big East in sacks allowed (31). This year, they have to replace three starters on the offensive line with unproven players. Senior right tackle Alex Hoffman has taken on some leadership responsibility with the loss of Jason Kelce, but players like Austen Bujnoch, Andre Cureton, Sean Hooey and Evan Davis are going to have to step up. Depth could also be an issue here.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals return just one starter in center Mario Benavides, who has been hampered with a knee injury. Ryan Kessling and Alex Kupper have playing experience, but most everybody else is pretty unproven, and that makes for one of the biggest question areas on the team headed into the fall.

8. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights own the bottom spot until the season starts and we can see how much this unit has improved. It is a well-known fact that they finished last in sacks allowed and were one of the worst rushing teams in the country last season for that reason. They suffered a blow when junior college transfer Dallas Hendrikson went down with a season-ending injury in the spring, but coach Greg Schiano said he saw plenty of improvement from this group. They certainly will have more experience, but how much better will they be?

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