The first week of the season was probably more eventful than Big East teams would have liked. Pittsburgh lost convincingly to Youngstown State. Syracuse squandered a four-touchdown comeback at home against Northwestern. And Rutgers took its time to put away Tulane.
The second week of the season brings more high-profile matchups, including the first conference game of the season on Thursday. The question is if the Big East is up to the challenge.
Connecticut and Temple won their openers by a combined score of 72-10, but those were against UMass and Villanova. They’ll take on ACC programs this week. USF was uneven on offense against Chattanooga. The Bulls will need to be on the top of their games in a road trip against Nevada. And Syracuse will look for any way possible to stay competitive with USC.
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What will we see from the new-look Cincinnati backfield?
The Bearcats didn’t play in the first week of the season, so Cincinnati will show off its new starting backfield for the first time. Senior George Winn is stepping in for Isaiah Pead, who averaged better than six yards per carry in his career. No one is expecting Cincinnati’s running back position to be as explosive as it was a year ago. Instead, Winn will lead a trio of runners, including Jameel Poteat and Ralph David Abernathy IV, who was a standout on special teams a year ago. After two season of Zach Collaros at quarterback, Cincinnati will turn to Munchie Legaux, who completed only 45.9 percent of his passes after taking over for Collaros in the West Virginia game last season. The backfield has been the strength for Cincinnati in most seasons under Butch Jones and predecessor Brian Kelly. For the first time since 2008, Cincinnati is all but starting over.
What signs of optimism can we find at Pittsburgh?
After losing by two touchdowns at home to Youngstown State, Pitt has some major work to do if its going to be a Big East contender -- or even a bowl team. The Panthers could start 0-3 with a road trip to Cincinnati this week and then Virginia Tech a week later. But it’s worth noting the Pittsburgh defense started four sophomores and two freshmen against Youngstown State. That unit may get better with experience (thought not necessarily after only five days rest against Cincinnati). On offense, the passing game misfired at times, but quarterback Tino Sunseri completed 69.3 percent of his passes and wasn’t sacked. Paul Chryst was pleased with the improvement there, but the most troubling part of the loss was the run game. Youngstown State crowded the line and limited Pitt -- and a healthy Ray Graham -- to 130 rushing yards. Pitt will need more than that to rebound in short order.
Where will USF find answers its ground game?
The Bulls head into a road trip to Nevada with more questions than answers at one of their weakest positions on offense. USF rushed for merely 85 yards and 2.7 yards per carry in the opener against Chattanooga. Moreover, the Bulls left the game with an injury to backup running back Marcus Shaw, who was one of the biggest risers during the preseason. Shaw’s emergence was the impetus behind redshirting Lindsey Lamar, a special teams whiz two years ago who was an odd man out in the running back competition. Lamar is back in the mix with Shaw out with an ankle injury, but Lamar was rusty at the position during the preseason. Demetris Murray, the returning rushing leader, ran for 55 yards against Chattanooga. Meanwhile, Nevada held Cal to 110 rushing yards in its road upset of the Bears last week.
Is Connecticut’s defense really this dominant?
With Yawin Smallwood, Sio Moore, Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Trevardo Williams, there’s a lot to like about the Connecticut defense last season, though the numbers didn’t show it, especially against the pass. The Huskies were the nation’s top team on defense last week, albeit against hapless UMass. The Minutemen never advanced the ball beyond their own 38-yard line. Although Connecticut tends to win with a run game and solid defense, the Huskies haven’t finished higher than sixth in the Big East in total defense since 2008. Could this be the group to change that statistic? We’ll get a better idea when Connecticut faces a much tougher challenge against NC State and quarterback Mike Glennon.
What hope does Syracuse have to keep its game against USC competitive?
The Orange is riding a six-game losing streak, the last win a 49-23 upset of West Virginia on Oct. 21. After losing 38-17 to USC last season, Syracuse likely will need to play a near-perfect game to stay competitive with Athlon’s preseason No. 1 team. Syracuse didn’t get that against Northwestern. The Orange allowed Venric Mark to take back two punts for long returns, one for a touchdown. The offense confused a lateral for an incomplete forward pass, allowing an easy defensive touchdown (one of two on the day) for Northwestern. That said, Ryan Nassib ran the new no-huddle offense well, despite absences from left tackle Justin Pugh and wide receiver Alec Lemon. Nassib passed for 470 yards with a touchdown and was sacked only once on 65 pass attempts. Trouble is, he won’t be the top quarterback on the field Saturday.
What does Rutgers need to accomplish in its freebie with Howard?
Considering what happened last week with Youngstown State and Pitt (not to mention Rutgers’ too-close-for-comfort win over Tulane), maybe no game is a freebie. That said, Rutgers clearly has some fine-tuning to do this week against Howard before back-to-back road trips against USF and Arkansas. The Scarlet Knights escaped with a 24-12 win, but the game was 10-6 in the fourth quarter before Brandon James’ pick six. The most glaring issue was Gary Nova’s numbers (11 for 20, 158 yards, one touchdown, one interception) against a Conference USA defense. Kyle Flood praised his play other than a poor decision on the turnover. Rutgers also committed nine penalties and allowed Tulane to convert 8 of 16 third downs. Numbers like that may produce a loss to USF in a week.
Will Montel Harris play for Temple? Does Temple need him to beat Maryland?
Montel Harris, who battled injuries throughout his time at Boston College, is facing them again at Temple. The running back is day-to-day after leaving the opener against Villanova with a hamstring injury. Temple did fine without him. Matt Brown rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Chris Coyer rushed for 80 yards and a score. If Harris doesn’t play this week, can Temple defeat Maryland without him? The Terrapins needed a touchdown in the final 9:52 to defeat William & Mary 7-6 last week for the Terrapins’ first win since Oct. 1, 2011. Temple defeated Maryland 38-7 last season with 285 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
How high is Teddy Bridgewater’s ceiling?
With Missouri State on the schedule this week, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will have a chance to put up big numbers again. The game probably won’t be in doubt, but the Cardinals’ opener against Kentucky, in which Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards, made us wonder what the quarterback can accomplish this season. For this current group of Big East teams, quarterback development has been incremental at best (see: Daniels, B.J., and Sunseri, Tino). If Bridgewater continues to develop, he could be a jolt of energy for the conference.
by David Fox
Pittsburgh (-4.5) at Cincinnati
NC State (+5) at UConn
NC State 21-10
NC State 31-20
NC State 27-20
Maryland (-10) at Temple
Howard (off) at Rutgers
USC (+26) vs. Syracuse (N.J.)
Missouri State (off) at Louisville
USF (-1) at Nevada
Year to date:
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