Big East teams passed three key nonconference tests a week ago even if Louisville had to survive a scare against North Carolina. In addition the Cardinals’ victory over the Tar Heels, Connecticut defeated Maryland and the coach who spurned them and -- most shockingly -- Pittsburgh easily handled Virginia Tech.
This week may as well be road test week for Big East teams. Six Big East teams will be on the road this week, including some odd road trips to two MAC schools and a Sub Belt program. Meanwhile, Temple and Rutgers will face two Penn State and Arkansas, respectively. Both of those programs are struggling, but the opportunity for Big East statement games remain.
Big East’s Top Storylines to Watch in Week 4:
What did Louisville learn out of last week’s collapse?
The Cardinals were a dominant team for two quarters, taking a 36-7 lead at halftime against North Carolina. The game ended with North Carolina stopped at the Louisville 4-yard line on a potential go-ahead scoring drive. North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner shredded the Louisville defense with 138 passing yards in the fourth quarter alone as the Tar Heels converted 5 of 6 third downs in the second half. Should Louisville be concerned about its pass defense? The numbers (Louisville ranks 90th nationally in pass efficiency defense) could be a product of picking up big leads on all three opponents this season or a standout run defense, but the Cardinals have recorded only three sacks on 120 pass attempts by opponents this season. Should we be concerned about Louisville’s resolve with three consecutive road games coming up (FIU, Southern Miss, Pittsburgh)? Or was the North Carolina comeback just a one-time event? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.
Could the Rutgers’ offense have a breakout game against Arkansas defense?
Arkansas’ struggles are well-documented after a 34-31 loss to Louisiana-Monroe and a 52-0 loss to Alabama in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Rutgers’ offense was as sound as it has been all season in the win over USF on Thursday. Quarterback Gary Nova made good decisions and helped the Scarlet Knights to convert 8 of 19 third downs. Jawan Jamison rushed for at least 100 yards for the third time this season. And the offensive line has allowed only one sack all year. The Scarlet Knights will take on a Arkansas team stinging from the last two weeks. The Razorbacks’ defense has been bad on third down (22 of 53 converted) and even worse on fourth (6 of 10). Arkansas may not be as bad as it’s shown but the Razorbacks’ defense is vulnerable. The question is if Rutgers is good enough to capitalize.
Will USF tweak its offensive line against Ball State?
Bulls coach Skip Holtz was not happy with the way quarterback B.J. Daniels was on the run for much of last week’s loss to Rutgers, even if Daniels was never sacked. Beyond pass protection, USF struggled to move the ball on the ground. Other than Daniels’ 68 rushing yards, USF managed only 1.9 yards per carry. The Bulls are tinkering with offensive line combinations, including moving veteran left guard Mike Popek back to left tackle, where he played last season. Youth has been an issue on the line, so Holtz could lean on Popek’s experience.
How will Syracuse fix its dreadful special teams?
Syracuse may be one of the worst all-around teams in the country on special teams. Thanks in part to kicking toward Northwestern’s Venric Mark in the opener, Syracuse is allowing 44.3 yards on punt returns, contributing to only 23.6 net yards per punt. The return units aren’t much better at 1.8 yards per punt return and 17.4 yards per kickoff return. Meanwhile, kicker Ross Krautman hasn’t made a field goal of longer than 40 yards in two seasons. On the bright side, Syracuse is allowing only 13.8 yards per kickoff return. With a new starting quarterback, Max Shortell, Minnesota may look to special teams to even the odds. So far this season, Syracuse has obliged.
How will Connecticut contain the Western Michigan passing game?
Connecticut’s run defense has been among the best in the nation this season, holding all three opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Western Michigan, though, may not be impressed. The Broncos generally are a pass-oriented team, a trend that has continued with quarterback Alex Carder attempting at least 40 passes in every game this season. And a year ago, Carder passed for 479 yards and five touchdowns against UConn. For that game, the Huskies were without top cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, and they’ll be short handed now without starting defensive end Jesse Joseph. He’s not UConn’s top pass rusher (that’s Trevardo Williams), but Joseph had one sack against NC State and 8.5 sacks two seasons ago. That said, UConn has shown signs its pass defense is nearly on par with the run defense as the Huskies held NC State quarterback Mike Glennon to 15-of-30 passing and 204 yards two weeks ago.
Can Temple find the balance it needs to upset Penn State?
After a week off, running backs Matt Brown and Montel Harris may be healthy for Temple, but it’s tough to see the Owls defeating Penn State for the first time since 1941 without some sense of balance on offense. The Owls haven’t attempted 20 passes in a game since Oct. 1 of last season and haven’t completed more than 10 passes since last year’s 14-10 loss to Penn State. The Owls were 12 of 28 with two interceptions in that game against the Nittany Lions. Penn State has shown it can be vulnerable against the pass allowing 324 yards and two touchdowns to Ohio and 263 and two touchdowns against Virginia. Even Navy completed 13 of 23 passes against Penn State last week.
Has the new-look Pittsburgh offense turned a corner?
After two embarrassing losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh looked like a new team on offense against Virginia Tech. The embattled Tino Sunseri enjoyed one of the best games of his career with his best single-game efficiency rating (181) since a win over Syracuse (218.9) on Oct. 16, 2010. Perhaps more impressive given Pitt’s history, Sunseri was sacked only once. Meanwhile, the Panthers showed the possibility of a strong two-headed run game with Ray Graham (94 yards, two touchdowns) and Rushel Shell (157 yards). Pittsburgh this week faces Gardner-Webb of the FCS, which the Panthers have learned does not equal an automatic walkover.
Week 4 Big East Predictions:
Week 4 Big East Games
Connecticut (-1) at Western Michigan
Temple at Penn State (-7 1/2)
Penn State 28-17
Penn State 21-14
Penn State 24-20
Penn State 24-13
Gardner-Webb at Pittsburgh (off)
USF (-10) at Ball State
Ball State 34-31
Rutgers at Arkansas (-7)
Louisville (-13 1/2) at FIU
Syracuse at Minnesota (-1)
by David Fox
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