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October 30, 2008
Big East: West Virginia starting to hit stride
The Big East's conference schedule has paid dividends for the league by featuring marquee games late in the season. Five Big East teams, though, probably would have preferred to play one league foe earlier in the season: West Virginia.
After struggling through the first six weeks of the season under first-year coach Bill Stewart, West Virginia will look to use last week's 34-17 win over Auburn as a springboard for its Big East schedule. The Mountaineers are the only team in the league without a conference loss.
Each of West Virginia's remaining opponents have winning records, starting with Connecticut - which shared the conference title with the Mountaineers last season.
"They're really starting to hit their stride right now," Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. "They're starting to hit on all cylinders, which is scary."
West Virginia started 1-2, with losses to East Carolina and Colorado, but looked like the Mountaineers of old against Auburn. They scored 31 consecutive points. They rushed for 271 yards. The quarterback-running back duo of Pat White and Noel Devine accounted for 389 yards of offense and four touchdowns in West Virginia's highest-scoring game since the opener against Villanova.
In the meantime, WVU fell out of the polls completely, not even receiving a vote last week. Now, a healthy White has West Virginia atop the Big East race.
Going into the Auburn game, White missed eight of West Virginia's last 12 quarters, missing half of the win over Marshall with a thumb injury and half of the Rutgers win and all of the Syracuse game with a head injury. He returned to pass for 174 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn.
"He stayed in the framework of the offense," Stewart said. "I was afraid he'd get a little hyped-up. He did a little bit, but I don't know how he kept as cool as he did, being from Alabama."
The offensive line also is starting to come together. All five starters returned, including All-America tackle Ryan Stanchek and all-conference performers Greg Isdaner and Mike Dent. All three missed all or parts of spring practice and preseason camp while working with their third line coach in three seasons.
Devine has posted career-highs in each of the past two weeks, with 188 yards against Syracuse and 207 against Auburn.
"It started at Colorado," Stewart said. "We got better each game."
West Virginia's offensive line vs. Connecticut's defensive line. West Virginia's offense reappeared last week against an Auburn team in turmoil. Can the same kind of production happen against Connecticut, which reinserted itself in the Big East race with a 40-16 win over Cincinnati last week? West Virginia's offensive line has come together in the past few weeks, and the rushing attack has benefited. Connecticut defensive linemen Cody Brown, Julius Williams and Lindsey Witten have combined for 15 sacks this season and helped hold the Huskies' past two opponents to a combined 106 rushing yards.
Cincinnati's quarterback whoever it is. Coach Brian Kelly will make a game-time decision between junior Tony Pike, who is attempting to come back from a broken left arm, and redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson. Kelly put the offense in the hands of Pike against Connecticut last week, but because Pike got banged up, Anderson had to play the second half. The Bearcats were outscored 30-3 after the intermission. With a short week to get ready, Kelly is trying to prepare Pike, Anderson and reserves Zach Collaros and Demetrius Jones for South Florida. Both teams are trying to hang onto fading Big East championship hopes.
Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy has rushed for at least 140 yards in each of his past four games. He has nine touchdowns in the past three games. Connecticut freshman Dave Teggart converted all four of his field-goal attempts against Cincinnati in his first start. After defeating Auburn 34-17, West Virginia has won five in a row against SEC opponents. Cincinnati DE Connor Barwin is tied for the Big East lead with seven sacks and three blocked kicks. South Florida DE George Selvie has five tackles for a loss in his past two games. UConn RB Donald Brown has had eight consecutive 100-yard games.
Cincinnati is 0-for-25 on third down in the past two games. Rutgers has not rushed for 80 yards in a game in the past four games. Syracuse has been outscored 55-7 in the second half of three Big East games. USF and Cincinnati are the two most-penalized teams in the Big East. Cincinnati leads in yardage lost to penalties at 70.4 per game. USF leads in total penalties at 8.6 per game after getting flagged 14 times in last week's loss to Louisville. Connecticut RB Andre Dixon, who rushed for 828 yards last season, has carried the ball twice in the past five games.
"They beat us bad last year. There's no question about that. I was going to ask Bill (Stewart) if we could use Canadian rules, where I could play with one more on defense."
"It would have been easy for him to throw in the towel, but he didn't. I'm glad about that and I'm glad he had a performance like that because we needed it and Mike individually needed it."
"It's a lot more difficult when you've started a game and already cast the die as to what kind of game plan you're going to have. You've got to go back at halftime and do a lot of adjustments to change it. In the second half, the game plan being set to throw the football didn't suit Chazz as well. He's better-suited to be in more of a controlled offensive structure and we were wide open."
Pittsburgh QB Bill Stull is questionable for Saturday's game against Notre Dame after suffering a concussion and a stinger against Rutgers. Pitt center Robb Houser is out for the season with a broken ankle. He will be replaced by starting guard C.J. Davis; no replacement for Davis has been announced. Louisville WR Scott Long, who had 11 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns in three games since returning from a broken foot, is out for the season with a torn ACL sustained in practice this week. Connecticut's quarterback may not be decided until just before Saturday's game against West Virginia. Zach Frazer remains day-to-day after a head injury two weeks ago. Cody Endres was 18-for-42 for 196 yards with no turnovers against Cincinnati. USF guard Zach Hermann could return against Cincinnati after missing six games with a broken foot. UConn has won 11 in a row at home, the nation's fourth-longest home winning streak. Notre Dame beat Pitt on Sept. 3, 2005, the last time the teams met. That marked the coaching debuts for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame and Dave Wannstedt at Pitt. Saturday's matchup at Syracuse is just the second road game of the season for Louisville.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.