Tag:Ray Graham
Posted on: September 29, 2011 11:41 pm
Edited on: September 29, 2011 11:52 pm
 

QUICK HITS: Pittsburgh 44, No. 16 USF 17

Posted by Chip Patterson

PITTSBURGH WON. The Panthers overcame both their offensive inefficiencies and their fourth quarter woes in their 44-17 rout of South Florida on Thursday night. Under the lights of Heinz Field and with the attention of national television, Ray Graham stole the show. Graham picked up 303 all-purpose yards (226 rushing, 42 receiving, 35 return yards) and was a crucial piece of every Pittsburgh scoring drive.

HOW PITTSBURGH WON: Head coach Todd Graham's "high-octane" offense finally lived up to their reputation against USF, and the result was a production of 523 total yards. South Florida's defense looked visibly worn down, starting with hands on hips as early as the second quarter and finishing with gasping defensive lineman in the fourth. Pittsburgh's defense also dialed up the pressure on BJ Daniels in the second half, and the junior quarterback - for the first time in a couple contests - looked completely out of sync with his wide receivers.

WHEN PITTSBURGH WON: The Panthers dominated most of the second half, but the game's fate was not sealed until Pittsburgh defensive back Jarred Holley forced Darrell Scott to fumble early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers flipped the turnover into a field goal, but most importantly ate up more than six minutes of clock to put the game out of reach.

WHAT PITTSBURGH WON: After a rocky start, the Panthers are rejuvenated. If there were any doubters, Todd Graham may have won the respect of the locker room with Thursday night's win. It was validation for Graham's system, and validation for his preparation to get Pittsburgh ready for a talented USF team on a short week. The Big East title race is focused on league play, and league play alone. At least for the next 40+ hours, Pittsburgh sits alone the top of the standings.

WHAT SOUTH FLORIDA LOST: A huge shot to the momentum that the Bulls have had rolling since the end of the 2010 season. The Bulls will likely lose their Top 25 status, and now will need to fight their way back into Big East title contention. The Bulls play three of their next four contests on the road, so this was not the best start to their October stretch. The next couple weeks will be crucial if the Bulls plan to contend in November and December.

THAT WAS CRAZY: I was going to write something about South Florida's tendency to choke on Thursday nights, or the strange trends regarding the Bulls and national television. Thankfully, our own Brett McMurphy summed up it well with this tweet.



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Posted on: September 11, 2011 1:27 am
Edited on: September 11, 2011 1:28 am
 

What I learned from the Big East (Sept. 10)

Posted by Chip Patterson

1. The conference got a reality check after 8-0 start. I wrote earlier this week about the Big East not getting to comfy with their undefeated record, and my suspicions became true this weekend. The conference went 4-4 with South Florida's victory over Ball State being the only win against an FBS opponent. Syracuse and Pittsburgh had to hold off late rallies from Rhode Island and Maine, while Rutgers and Connecticut were unable to capitalize on multiple opportunities to defeat North Carolina and Vanderbilt. But the weekend of frustration for the conference started with Louisville's 24-17 loss at home to Florida International.

2. Louisville's offensive line has to be fixed. Florida International exposed a glaring weakness in the Louisville offense on Friday night in their 24-17 victory over the Cardinals. The Panthers defense sacked Will Stein seven times and held running backs Jeremy Wright and Victor Anderson to a combined 83 yards on 28 carries (2.9 ypc). Youth has been a concern for Louisville coming into the season, particularly with four new starters on the offensive line. But the performance against FIU was embarrassing for Charlie Strong's squad, and now the entire nation knows where and how to beat the Cardinals. Luckily, their next game is their annual matchup with Kentucky - who looks even worse. My thoughts are that Strong uses Kentucky and the next bye week to fix the issues. But that's probably a lot more hope than thought.

3.Pittsburgh is still adjusting to new systems on both sides of the ball. Todd Graham was supposed to bring the "high octane" offense to Pittsburgh, but the only player up to speed appears to be running back Ray Graham. Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson installed a 3-3-5 attacking defense, and spent time refining it with Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. But neither system appeared to be clicking in the Panthers' 35-29 win over Maine on Saturday. Quarterback Tino Sunseri could not get synced with his receivers, only finding success on short and intermediate routes due to heavy pressure from Maine's defensive front. He was sacked seven times and tossed two interceptions before getting replaced by true freshman Trey Anderson.

The defense was picked apart by Maine quarterback Warren Smith in the second half, with the senior signal caller totaling 334 yards and three touchdowns in a failing effort to bring the Black Bears back from a 20-7 halftime deficit. The defense was hardly "attacking" down the stretch, and if Maine can make Pitt pay the Panthers have some serious concerns heading into next week's non-conference showdown with Iowa.

4. West Virginia's offense needs a consistent rushing attack. The statement sounds critical, but that is only because of how productive the offense is when the Mountaineers can move the ball on the ground. When Norfolk State was holding a 12-10 lead over West Virginia at halftime, they were daring head coach Dana Holgorsen to run the ball with only four men in the box. The Mountaineers were not able to get anything going on the ground with either Andrew Buie or Vernard Roberts, and Geno Smith was struggling to find receivers open in space. When the Mountaineers starting creating holes for their backs in the second half, it opened up the entire field and sparked the 45-0 second half run.
Posted on: August 17, 2011 2:30 pm
Edited on: August 17, 2011 2:42 pm
 

CBSSports.com Preseason All-Big East Team

Posted by Chip Patterson

As part of CBSSports.com's season preview, we offer this blogger's selections for the Preseason All-Big East Team.

Offense


QUARTERBACK

Zach Collaros, Sr., Cincinnati - Even with a questionable knee and even more questionable offensive line, Colarros led the Big East in in passing yards (2,902 yards) last season. The talented quarterback who first broke out as a backup to Tony Pike enters the season looking to bounce back from last year's dismal 4-8 record. The senior signal-caller is armed with a stable of skill position players (you will find many of them below on this team) and looking to return the Bearcats to the postseason after missing a bowl for the first time since 2005. He was a unanimous All-Big East first team selection a year ago and still remains atop this list until someone shows him up.

Also watch for: One person with plenty of potential to show him up is West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. Smith has been a popular choice by some outlets for all-conference teams because of his unique skill set and how well it matches Dana Holgorsen's offensive system. Smith, who threw for 24 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions in 2010, will be the point guard of the Mountaineer attack - making quick decisions to get the ball in the hands of the playmakers. Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri should also benefit from moving back into the shotgun with Todd Graham, and BJ Daniels is one to watch down at South Florida.

RUNNING BACK

Ray Graham, Jr., Pittsburgh - Under Todd Graham's watch, Tulsa had one of the most prolific offenses in football. The Golden Hurricanes ran 1006 offensive plays in 2010, ranking them seventh nationally. More than half of those (537) were rushing plays, which means you can expect Graham will get his fair share of touches. The high-octane system Pittsburgh plans to run is based on speed rather than a pass-first spread. Graham is just the type of strong and shifty back that fits this offense perfectly.

Isaiah Pead, Sr., Cincinnati - Pead rushed for 1,029 yards and six touchdowns in 2010, and is the conference's top returning rusher. Even though the Bearcats have some questions to answer on the offensive line, there are enough weapons on the field for Pead to get some space to operate. After being a part of back-to-back conference title teams, Pead will want to finish his career by bouncing back from 2010's 4-win season.

Also watch for: Louisville running back Victor Anderson broke out as a freshman in 2008 before being slowed by injuries the past two seasons. If he can repeat the types of performances that won him Big East Rookie of the Year, it would be a huge boost to a Cardinals team with questions on offense. Connecticut running back D.J. Shoemate is another one to watch, as he will try to step out from Jordan Todman's long shadow in Storrs.

WIDE RECEIVER

Tavon Austin, Jr., West Virginia - Austin's move to wide receiver is one that will benefit the talented playmaker in Dana Holgorsen's offensive scheme. He is a weapon that West Virginia plans to use in multiple ways, and will not be lacking in touches or targets in 2011. Spreading the field will give Austin several chances to take advantage of one-on-one coverage, and I imagine he will take advantage.

DJ Woods, Sr., Cincinnati - Woods won't be able to take advantage of lining up opposite 1,000 yard receiver Armon Binns anymore, but if JUCO transfer Kenbrell Thompkins pans out he will certainly get plenty of opportunities to at least match 2010's numbers (57 catches for 898 yards and 8 touchdowns).

Also watch for:Syracuse returns Van Chew, Marcus Sales, and Alec Lemon, but they all need to show more consistency before laying claim to all-conference honors. Rutgers wideout Mohamed Sanu has also gotten a lot of attention, and could be a threat if Chas Dodd is given enough time to throw.

OFFENSIVE LINE

C Moe Petrus, Sr., Connecticut - Petrus helped pave the way for All-Big East running back Jordan Todman a year ago, and now his role is more important than ever. With a new running back and new quarterback, the senior lineman much anchor the unit to give the Huskies a chance at recapturing the momentum that led to a Fiesta Bowl bid in 2010.

OG Justin Pugh, Jr., Syracuse - Pugh started all 13 games for the Orange last season, and is one of four returning starters along the offensive line. A second team All-Big East selection, Pugh is expected to repeat his strong performance protecting Ryan Nassib.

OG Chaz Hine, Sr., South Florida - With only two returning starters on the offensive line, Hine's experience (25 starts) makes him an the most valuable piece of the Bulls offensive line.

OT Don Barclay, Sr., West Virginia - With 27 career starts, the 305-pound left tackle has been a leader along the offensive line in the transition under Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen has been concerned with the depth along the offensive line, but repeatedly compliments Barclay's bounce back from spring injuries.

OT Lucas Nix, Sr., Pittsburgh - While new head coach Todd Graham continues to hold competition along the Panthers' offensive line, it seems that one of the only positions set in stone is Nix at right tackle.

Also watch for: Connecticut's All-Big East first team tackle Mike Ryan could easily have a spot on this list, as could West Virginia center Joe Madsen.

TIGHT END

Ryan Griffin, Jr., Connecticut - The Huskies did not throw the ball much in 2010, but Griffin was the third leading receiver with 31 receptions for 245 yards and a touchdown. Tight end is not a particularly strong position in this conference with all the odd schemes, but whichever unproven quarterback is under center for Connecticut will likely rely on Griffin to get out of tight spots.

Also watch for:Syracuse tight end Nick Provo has been getting some praise heading into the season, and I'm interested to see how Pittsburgh H-back Hubie Graham gets used in the new Panthers offense..

Defense


DEFENSIVE LINE

DE Bruce Irvin, Sr., West Virginia - Irvin was a monster pass rusher in 2010, finishing second in the nation with 14.0 sacks on the season - in a reserve role. Now the talented end is in the starting lineup and should create havoc for offensive lines, particularly playing opposite Julian Miller.

DE Brandon Lindsey, Sr., Pittsburgh - Lindsey has also proven himself as a dangerous threat getting into offensive backfields. After picking up 10 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss a season ago, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson says they will use Lindsey in some 3-4 looks as a "Panther linebacker." The flexibility of the down linebacker will allow the senior to get loose and try to use his instincts to make big stops.

DT Chas Alecxhi, Sr., Pittsburgh - Replacing Big East Defensive Player of the Year Jabaal Sheard is no easy task, but his 2010 teammate Alecxhi is ready to try and become the fourth straight Panther to be named to the same honor.

DT Kendall Reyes, Sr., Connecticut - Reyes is the anchor in the middle for one of the better defensive lines in the conference. He was an All-Big East first team selection a year ago, totaling 7.5 tackles for loss charging up the middle.

Also watch for:Reyes' Connecticut teammate Jesse Joseph and West Virginia's Julian Miller could easily pull in these same honors. Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe is one below the radar name to keep an eye on.

LINEBACKERS

Sio Moore, Jr., Connecticut - Moore got his first chance in the starting lineup in 2010 and made the most of it, finishing fifth in the Big East with 110 tackles. He is the only returning starter of the group, but should get plenty of playmaking opportunities behind a solid defensive line.

JK Schaeffer, Sr., Cincinnati - After finishing his second straight season with at least 100 tackles, Schaeffer was named to the All-Big East second team in 2010. Unfortunately the personal success was overlooked by a Bearcats defense that ranked near the bottom of the conference in many categories. Schaeffer has been outspoken in regards to the unit's improvement, and will likely be making a statement for the team on the field.

DeDe Lattimore, Soph., South Florida - Lattimore finished second on the team in tackles as a freshman, earning him some attention on the national level. The Bulls have some holes to fill on the defensive line, but Lattimore and fellow linebacker Sam Barrington have Skip Holtz feeling good about the back seven.

Also watch for: Syracuse linebacker Marquis Spruill has a tall order moving to middle linebacker and replacing Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. If he is able to lead the new unit to a successful season, he will certainly be deserving of some postseason honors.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

CB Keith Tandy, Sr., West Virginia - In addition to being an All-Big East first team selection in 2010, Tandy led the conference in interceptions and recorded 11 pass break ups. With many starters missing from last year's dominating defense, Tandy will be one of the few "sure things" at the start of the season.

CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jr., Connecticut - In addition to being a great playmaker and the team's third third leading returning tackler, Wreh-Wilson will benefit from playing alongside three other returning starters in the secondary. With few blatant weaknesses, it will be hard to avoid the cornerback and he'll get plenty of chances to have an impact on the field.

S Hakeem Smith, Soph., Louisville - Louisville is faced with the challenge of replacing two talented cornerbacks in the secondary. Luckily, there is a proven underclassman ready to step up in Smith. He was the 2010 Big East Defensive Rookie of the Year and finished 10th in the conference in tackles. He ball-hawking safety will be a key component in maintaining a defense that ranked among the best in the nation a year ago.

S Jarred Holley, Jr., Pittsburgh - Holley finished one pick behind Tandy in the Big East last year, and was named to the All-Big East second team. With the Panthers' front seven applying pressure on the quarterback, it will be Holley's job to make them pay after mental mistakes.

Also watch for: Syracuse safety Phillip Thomas will be a crucial part of the Orange's back seven once he recovers from a broken jaw and South Florida cornerback Quinton Washington is the third leading tackler on the Bulls' defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K Ross Krautman, Soph., Syracuse

P Cole Wagner, Soph., Connecticut

KR/PR Lindsey Lamar, Jr., South Florida

Also watch for: Connecticut's Dave Teggart and South Florida's Maikon Bonani both had impressive seasons in 2010 and should be just as consistent this year. But no one in the conference compared to Krautman's 18 for 19 (94.7%, a Big East single-season record) performance, including a 48 yard field goal in a 13-10 win at Rutgers.

As always, let us know what you the think about the selections in the comment section below. Also be sure to click on over to the Conference Preview for more coverage on the Big East
Posted on: June 27, 2011 3:43 pm
Edited on: June 27, 2011 3:50 pm
 

Zach Brown transfers to Pitt

Posted by Tom Fornelli

As Wisconsin picked up a new player on Monday morning, it also officially lost another. Running back Zach Brown made it official on Monday and let coach Todd Graham and the rest of the Pitt coaching staff know that he'd be transferring to the school, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Brown will likely serve as a backup to Ray Graham, and running back is a position that Graham had expressed concerns about recently, particularly the lack of depth with Ray Graham being the only option with experience. A concern that is alleviated somewhat by the arrival of Brown.

Brown originally announced he would be leaving Wisconsin back in May, where he spent the last three seasons as a backup to John Clay, Montee Ball and James White. Clay may be gone, but Brown still would have found himself fourth on the depth chart behind Ball, White and Jeffrey Lewis this fall. Since Brown has already graduated, much like Wisconsin's newest quarterback Russell Wilson, he will not have to sit out any time and can begin playing right away.

In three seasons at Wisconsin, Brown has rushed for 1,152 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

Posted on: May 5, 2011 4:46 pm
Edited on: May 5, 2011 5:01 pm
 

What I learned this spring: Big East

Posted by Chip Patterson

With all eight teams completed with their spring games, we wrap up spring practice in the
Big East.

CINCINNATI:
For Cincinnati, the goal this spring was to improve defensively. To be more accurate, improving defensively is not just the "goal" but really an "only option for improvement." Second-year head coach Butch Jones needs to prove that 2010's 4-8 campaign was a fluke, or else the Bearcats' fans will begin to wonder whether or not hiring the coach from Central Michigan was the best move. Cincinnati returns all 11 starters from last year's defense that ranked dead last in the Big East in scoring defense and next to last in total defense. But there have been reasons to believe that the same unit can turn around their performance in 2011.

For the first time since most of the active roster arrived on campus, there is no turnover on the defensive staff. For the last three years, the defense has had to spend their spring learning a new system. Instead the defense has been able to spend the spring focusing on fundamentals, while simply reviewing last year's scheme. In theory, this should lead to more development for a unit that struggled to prevent big plays and close out games in the fourth quarter. Offensively, quarterback Zach Collaros has continued to grow more comfortable and looks ready to try and sign his name in the Cincinnati record books. Collaros led the Big East in passing yards and touchdowns last season, and has spent spring focusing on his accuracy (also threw a league-high 14 interceptions). Highly-touted transfer wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins did not get to showcase his full arsenal due to a nagging hamstring this spring, but should make an impact lining up opposite returning starter D.J. Woods. Many of the Bearcats' spring workouts and spring game were based much more on situational drills, which tend to reveal very little about the team as a whole, but the pieces seem to be aligning for a bounce back season for Cincinnati.

CONNECTICUT: New head coach Paul Pasqualoni has quite a challenge ahead trying follow up the most successful season in program history. Unfortunately Pasqualoni, a veteran of the Big East and Connecticut native, has to try and repeat the success with two new coordinators and without the 2010 Big East Offensive MVP Jordan Todman. Wrapping up the spring, it is evident that expectations for repeating as Big East champs should be tempered. However, the Huskies do have the pieces in place to return to the postseason for the fifth straight year.

The Huskies' biggest question marks still exist in the offensive backfield, where a true starting quarterback has yet to be named and USC-transfer D.J. Shoemate is still settling in to a Todman-less rotation. Connecticut finished dead last in passing offense last season, and it will be difficult to improve that aspect of their game without a starter. Michael Box, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, and Johnny McEntee(of YouTube trick-shot fame), are all competing for a premiere spot in the quarterback rotation. The hope is that behind a talented offensive line Shoemate will be able to get the running game going against a weak early season schedule, allowing whoever wins the job some time to get comfortable.

Defensively, Connecticut should be fine heading into the fall. They are under the direction of new defensive coordinator Don Brown, who's defensive unit at Maryland forced 29 turnovers last season -- good for third in the ACC. The Huskies return their entire defensive line and secondary, and that experience could anchor a unit that could end up being one of the better defenses in the conference.

LOUISVILLE: It was very difficult to learn anything about Louisville this spring due to a roster that was decimated by injury. By the end of spring practice, head coach Charlie Strong was left with only 38 healthy scholarship players on the roster. Fourteen of the injured players took no part in spring drills, the rest were injured during workouts. For a team that is looking to replace 13 departed starters on the offensive and defensive units, it was a frustrating spring of indecision.

Most of the starting jobs are wide open in the Louisville depth chart, but junior Will Stein was able to use the spring to create some separation in the quarterback competition. Stein has already gotten a vote of confidence from Strong, and the high school state champion has waited patiently behind Justin Burke and Adam Froman for his opportunity to start under center. Cardinals fans entered spring salivating over early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater, but practice showed that the top-rated dual threat quarterback in the nation still has some learning to do before getting the keys to the offense. Stein completed 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the spring "game," but Strong was most pleased that there were zero interceptions. The starting quarterback's primary responsibility is to manage the game, as the Cardinals offense will once again rely on their running game in 2011.

But with Bilal Powell gone, the responsibility will fall on Jeremy Wright and Victor Anderson to replicate the best rushing offense in the Big East last year. Wright demonstrated his explosive potential in his freshman season, and Anderson was a 1,000 yard rusher in 2008 before shoulder injuries kept him limited in 2009 and 2010. Wright missed spring workouts with a knee injury, but Anderson enjoyed one of his best springs of his career. If the duo can be healthy at the same time, they could form one of the most dangerous rushing tandems in the conference.

PITTSBURGH: Another team entering the 2011 season with a new coach, the Panthers are not afraid to promote their new brand of "high-octane" football under head coach Todd Graham. Just a quick click over to the newly redesigned GoPittFootball.com should give just a taste of the kind of what Pittsburgh fans are hoping for out of the program's newest era. Graham comes to the Panthers fresh off a productive year at Tulsa, where his offense ranked 5th nationally in total offense with 505.6 yards per game. Dave Wannstedt had an awkward exit with his firing/forced resignation, particularly when he obviously still had the support of the team. But the squad seems to have embraced the new staff, and Graham believes that Pitt can be back in Big East title contention in 2011.

Learning the new offense has been the most important task for returning quarterback Tino Suneri. The junior signal-caller was inconsistent throughout 2010, finishing the season with 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The son of Sal Sunseri, currently a linebackers coach at Alabama, Sunseri quickly acclimated himself with the new scheme and has finished the spring as the undisputed starting quarterback. In Pittsburgh's Blue-Gold game, Sunseri lit the rainy skies on fire tossing the ball 55 times (37 completions) for 416 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While the Sunseri will likely put up big numbers this fall in the new spread scheme, the offense has no plans of abandoning the run. Ray Graham returns from a strong sophomore campaign, picking up 922 yards and 8 touchdowns while sharing snaps with Dion Lewis. This year he'll be joined by Desmond Brown in the backfield, who was the leading rusher in the spring game with 64 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. Defensively, Pittsburgh has also been adapting to changes with defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. Patterson has been a longtime Graham assistant, and knows that the offense will dominate the headlines. But with spring practice in the bag, Patterson seems pleased with what he has seen out of the unit - particularly the defensive line.

"That front group has a chance to do some special things," Patterson said. "I feel really good about all those guys and what they are capable of. I think in our shceme they are going to be able to make a lot of plays against both the run and the pass."

Pittsburgh's defense will feature three down lineman, with a fourth "Panther linebacker" on the line of scrimmage upright on most downs. The Panthers have several athletic defenders who could fill this position, one early guess is Brandon Lindsey - who led the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2010. If the defense can force some turnovers to give the offense good field position, one of the Panthers' strengths could be putting teams away early. In the Big East, which is short on big-name, gun-slinging quarterbacks, that could be a huge advantage.

RUTGERS: Of all the teams looking to bounce back in 2011, Rutgers probably has the farthest climb to return to the prominence that led to five straight postseason appearances from 2005-2009. The Scarlet Knights return 17 starters from last year's 4-8 squad, and they are still one of the youngest teams in the league. Head coach Greg Schiano has some of the exact same concerns heading into the new season, though he has stressed that he feels like this squad has grown this spring.

"Fundamentally we made significant improvement, and I think we grew a little with our confidence," Schiano explained following the Scarlet-White spring game. "This summer is going to be critical as it is every summer, but probably more so than any summer we've had here.

"The youngsters have to get tougher, they have to get more disciplined, they have to get more consistent. And again, this summer will be huge."

One of the biggest concerns is on the offensive line. Last season the Scarlet Knights were dead last in Division I in sacks allowed, letting the quarterback drop a whopping 61 times. Sophomore quarterback Chas Dodd has grown more comfortable in the pro-style scheme of new coordinator Frank Cignetti. But Dodd's supposed comfort and improvement in spring could all change when the non-contact jersey comes off in September. If the offensive line shows an about-face in 2011, the Scarlet Knights have talented (but young) skill position players who could help take Rutgers back to the postseason.

All spring the reports from Piscataway have been praising the work of redshirt freshman Brandon Coleman. The 6-6 wide receiver entered Rutgers with high expectations, but any doubters have been silenced since he took the field this spring. Coleman put on a show for the 21,120 in attendance for the spring game with a 78 yard, two touchdown performance. Maybe he was setting the standard for another touted underclassmen who was watching from the sidelines, incoming freshman running back Savon Huggins. The No. 1 recruit in the state of New Jersey, Huggins was a signing day steal that invigorated the Rutgers fan base. He has not even received his high school diploma, but he already carries expectations from a fan base that pines for the next Ray Rice. But again, Huggins will have virtually no chance to showcase his talents without some help from the offensive line. If the Scarlet Knights are going to get back to the postseason, they still have some growing to do before September.

SOUTH FLORIDA: South Florida was the first team in the Big East to wrap up spring practice, holding their final scrimmage almost a month ago. It was an awkward spring schedule, getting started early and having to dance around conflicts for Raymond-James Stadium, but at the conclusion the Bulls appear to be about in the same position as they were a year ago. The Bulls averaged a 7-point margin of defeat and 4-point margin of victory in league play last season, making their season this close to magical and that close to disastrous. Still, head coach Skip Holtz was able to get USF back to the postseason and pull down a bowl victory - the Bulls' third in a row.

South Florida's time in the Big East could be categorized as "good-but-not-great." They have made a bowl every year (4-2 record), but never finished higher than tied for third in the league standings. At the end of spring practice the Bulls look good, but still have some work to do to reach greatness. Starting quarterback B.J. Daniels returns for junior season behind an inexperienced offensive line with a set of receivers that have been less than impressive. But similar to 2010, the playmaking ability of the offensive backfield will make South Florida a threat against most defenses in the league. Demetris Murray returns at running back after picking up 533 yards and four touchdowns as a backup to Moise Plancher a year ago. He will be joined by a pair of transfers, Darrell Scott (Colorado) and Dontae Aycock (Auburn). Both backs are larger than the 5-10, 206 pound Murray, and should compliment his style well. Scott finished the spring listed as the No. 2 running back, despite being setback by a nagging hamstring injury. Defensively the Bulls return six starters from a unit that, in typical Bulls fashion, stacks up right in the middle of the conference. They lose some run-stoppers on the defensive line, but the coaching staff has been pleased with the unit as a whole - particularly the linebackers. If the Bulls are going to go from good to great in 2011, they will need to focus on developing their wide receivers more this summer. Otherwise it might be another vanilla bowl game season for South Florida.

SYRACUSE: Coming into the spring, my one question for Syracuse was how head coach Doug Marrone planned to repeat the success of 2010 with so many playmakers missing from that Pinstripe Bowl-winning squad. But with spring practice in the books, it seems like the Orange are prepared to prove that last season was not a fluke - but the beginning of a new chapter in Syracuse football. The Orange jumped out to strong start last season with solid defense and running the ball. With all-Big East linebackers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith gone, the responsibility has fallen on sophomore Marquis Spruill to anchor that corps as he makes the move to middle linebacker. Marrone believes that the strengths in the defense this season will be with the defensive ends and safeties. Seniors Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich will begin as starters, but expect to see a good amount of junior Brandon Sharpe as well after a strong spring. In the defensive backfield Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas return as starting safeties while corners Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson both earned high praise for their efforts during the spring.

Offensively the number one question is how to replace Delone Carter. The 1,233 yard rusher from 2010 carried the Orange on his back when Ryan Nassib and the passing game sputtered, carrying the ball at least 18 times in eight different games. Antwon Bailey was exceptional as Carter's backup, but some people wonder whether the 5-7 running back can be an "every-down back." Bailey will be backed up by another speedster, the 5-9 Prince-Tyson Gulley. Orange fans are hoping that an improved passing game will help alleviate that pressure, and that responsibility falls on Nassib. Luckily, the offensive line returns 4 of 5 starters from last year and redshirt senior tight end Nick Provo showed his ability as a big, reliable target for when Nassib gets in trouble. The players claim that last year's success has changed the attitude this spring, and now they have a new belief in themselves. Talk is great in March and April, but we'll check back in on these guys in August.

WEST VIRGINIA:
The Mountaineers fell one game short of returning to a BCS bowl game in 2010, after an inability to score led to two early season conference losses. The Mountaineers offense eventually got going, finishing the regular season with at least 35 points in 3 of 4 straight victories. So in the interest of preparing for the future, and ensuring offensive stability, athletic director Oliver Luck arranged for the arrival of Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. His impact has been obvious and immediate on the West Virginia offense, with quarterback Geno Smith falling comfortably into Holgorsen's spread system from day one. Smith finished the spring by throwing for 388 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Even against a talented Mountaineer defense, Smith was able to connect with his wide receivers for 44, 67, and a 38 yard touchdown pass. Holgorsen plans on supplying Smith with a deep rotation of running backs and receivers, pushing the ball horizontally and vertically. If Smith continues to improve on his already hot start in the new system, the Mountaineers should have no problem scoring the ball against the Big East defenses.

Defensively it is hard to make judgements based on performance against their own offense, but West Virginia does still have some work to do in the secondary. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has admitted he is already anxious to get back to camp, particularly after seeing how the unit performed in the spring game. The unit only returns four starters from last year, with defensive line likely being the Mountaineers strength. In Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme, the pressure is on the secondary to be everywhere on the field at once. Despite a wealth of athleticism at that position, there is still plenty of gelling left for the unit. But if the offense is putting up 30+ points per game (which they may), it should give the defense some time to come together before conference play begins.

Posted on: April 14, 2011 3:42 pm
Edited on: April 14, 2011 3:47 pm
 

Big East Spring Game Watch (April 15-16)

Posted by Chip Patterson

This weekend, five of the eight Big East teams will wrap up their spring practice with an annual spring game. Some teams will engage in game-like scenarios in front of thousands of onlookers, while other teams will engage in a more “drill-centric” display for their eager fans. Regardless of the setup, there are always pertinent questions to be answered whenever a team takes the field competitively. Here are your things to watch in the Big East spring games April 15-16.

Cincinnati - 5:30 p.m. Nippert Stadium
The Cincinnati Bearcats have claimed to be “all in” with head coach Butch Jones heading into his second season, and Saturday will be a chance to prove it to the public in “Bearcat Bowl V.” There won't be many new faces on the field for the Bearcats, with 18 starters returning from 2010's squad. One aspect worth keeping an eye on will be the performance of Cincinnati's secondary against the first-team offense. Quarterback Zach Collaros , a unanimous All-Big East first-team selection, not only gets D.J. Woods back at receiver but also junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins . Thompkins was a high-profile recruit committed to Tennessee before Lane Kiffin's departure. The Bearcats were burned through the air often last season, and some of the best competition around will be wearing the same jersey.

Connecticut - 5:00 p.m. Rentschler Field
Veteran coach Paul Pasqualoni has taken a more laid back approach to spring practice than some of his colleagues, but he believes it will pay off. As opposed to keeping things out of the spotlight, Pasqualoni has made the Huskies spring workouts as open as possible. The result has been a host of high school coaches at nearly every practice. The new coaching staff seems comfortable with the personnel, and the players have responded positively as well. Pasqualoni plans to showcase all aspects of the team, so more than anything it will be a glimpse of the Connecticut future. Even in the Fiesta Bowl the Huskies’ roster was filled with names unknown to the average college football fan, let’s see if any stand out on Saturday.

Louisville - 7 p.m. Friday, Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
A little bit of everything. Head coach Charlie Strong has kept spring practice closed to media and the public, making Friday night’s scrimmage both a first and last look at the Cardinals until fall practice. Unfortunately, even Friday’s look won’t be anywhere close to the lineup that Strong hopes to have on the field in September. As of Thursday morning, 22 different Cardinals were sitting out of workouts because of injury or rehabilitation. The situation has gotten so bad that they were forced to hold practice at 5:30 a.m. in order to accommodate the class schedules of the few healthy offensive linemen. The injuries also will restrict the activity in Friday night’s Spring Game, which will be exclusively be an offense/defense scrimmage-type format.

Pittsburgh - 2 p.m. Heinz Field
New coach Todd Graham has elected to run more of a “true football game” than the offense-defense structure of past spring games. Graham plans to kickoff at least twice, and run at least 60 offensive plays for the Blue and Gold teams. The thought is that the competitive environment will be the best test for players who are still getting used to a new systems and schemes. Not to mention, the 11-man scrimmage should provide for much more entertainment than some of the slow-paced situational scrimmages elsewhere. Even running back Ray Graham said that the Panthers have been treating this like a “game week” and look forward to showing their stuff to the coaches and fans on Saturday.

Syracuse - 11 a.m. Carrier Dome
Similar to Pittsburgh, Syracuse will be mixing up their spring game format this year. For the first time in 20 years the Orange will divide into two teams and conduct a game-like scrimmage, only with limited special teams. The scrimmage will be made of up four, 12-minute quarters with regular officials. The format should give fans a good opportunity to see who the next crop of defensive playmakers will be, as the Orange look to replace Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Spring practice has had some extra enthusiasm coming off the 8-5 season, we’ll see how much of that energy is present in a mostly-empty Carrier Dome at 11 in the morning.


Posted on: January 8, 2011 6:46 pm
Edited on: January 8, 2011 7:01 pm
 

Bowl Grades: BBVA Compass Bowl

Posted by Chip Patterson

Pittsburgh dedicates their 27-10 win to ex-coach Dave Wannstedt as the Panthers rolled over Kentucky.


PITTSBURGH

Offense: Pittsburgh used special teams play in order to build their lead, but it was a relentless rushing attack that protected it; keeping the Kentucky offense off the field and burning up clock. Running back Dion Lewis, likely playing his last game as a Panther, led the way with 22 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown. Ray Graham pitched in as well with 17 carries for 90 yards. Credit Pittsburgh's offensive line for winning the battle up front against Seattle's defensive line. GRADE: A-

Defense: Whoever does inherit Pittsburgh's defense is awfully lucky, because they showed great promise for the future against a usually potent Kentucky offense. The Wildcats usually average 33 points per game, but without suspended quarterback Mike Hartline, and against the Panther defense they could not turn production into points. The Panthers defense swarmed to the ball and kept close tabs on all-purpose threat Randall Cobb as Kentucky tried to move him around the field. Cobb was held to just 23 yards rushing and 62 yards receiving, and basically was a non-factor in the game. GRADE: B

Coaching: Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett deserves a lot of credit for preparing Pittsburgh for this game even with all the off-field distractions. The Panthers players dedicated the win to former coach Dave Wannstedt, and Wannstedt also is due some credit for this team's success. Hopefully the Panthers will be able to take this win and use it to jump-start the preparation for next season. GRADE: B+

KENTUCKY

Offense: The Wildcats offense desperately missed suspended quarterback Mike Hartline against the Panthers, falling well short of their average 33.0 points per game. Backup Morgan Newton made the most of his opportunity, complete 21 of 36 passes for 211 yards and did not throw an interception. Unfortunately, the offense was not able to turn their production into points, and the inability to convert on 4th and short ended up costing Kentucky one of their best opportunities to win the game. GRADE: D+

Defense: Kentucky's defense has been known to give up some big days on the ground, but the inability to stop the run ended up being the Wildcats demise on Saturday. When Kentucky really needed to shut down Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, they had no answer. The Wildcats also failed to create a turnover down the stretch, which allowed PIttsburgh to continue burning clock as Kentucky watched their chances at two straight bowl wins slip away. GRADE: F

Coaching: Kentucky's special teams woes ended up creating a deficit that was too large to overcome against the Panthers. With one blocked punt and one failed fake punt, the Wildcats' mistakes left a sour taste with Joker Phillips and the rest of the coaching staff. The loss drops Kentucky to 6-7, the first losing season for Kentucky since 2005. GRADE: C-

FINAL GRADE: The only thing that made this game seem mildly watchable was seeing an inspired Pittsburgh squad win one for Dave Wannstedt. For the most part, the game was pretty uninteresting as Kentucky looked outmatched and unprepared in most aspects of the game. With the storylines off the field overshadowing the action on the field, this wasn't the ideal game to kick off a big day of football for most of the nation. GRADE: D+
Posted on: October 30, 2010 9:32 pm
 

What I learned from the Big East (Oct. 30)

Posted by Chip Patterson

1. West Virginia has been giving away their season, one turnover at a time - Just three weeks ago, West Virginia was "leading" the Big East. They toted a 5-1 record and a national ranking, as well as a top ranked defensive unit that was holding opponents to less than two touchdowns per game. But while the season was at a midpoint, the conference schedule was just getting started. But in the last two games, turnovers have almost cost the Mountaineers their shot at a BCS bowl berth. The eye test said that the Mountaineers were cruising on easy street down to Miami, until they decided they were tired of taking care of the ball. Against Syracuse West Virginia turned the ball over three times, all of which were turned into points for the Orange. Saturday's matchup with Connecticut was more of the same from the Mountaineer offense. West Virginia racked up 414 yards of total offense, but four lost fumbles prevented them from scoring more than 13 points on the Huskies defense.  If the Mountaineers avoid coughing the ball up, they could be 3-0 in conference play and looking down the road to a potential BCS bowl game.  But instead of the Mountaineers, it is the Pittsburgh Panthers.  Speaking of...

2. Lewis has reclaimed the favor of the Pittsburgh coaching staff - Earlier in the season, Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis was struggling to get his season going.  His yards per carry were down from his 2009 Rookie of the Year campaign, and he was sharing many of his carries with backup Ray Graham.  Now that conference play has begun, Lewis has emerged as the clear-cut but first stringer in the Panther backfield.  After a phenomenal performance last week against Rutgers that included 17 rushes for 130 yards and a touchdown, Lewis appeared to have regained the starting job despite Graham continuing to lead the team in rushing by a convincing margin.  In the win over Louisville, Lewis carried the ball 18 times compared to Graham's nine attempts.  Earlier in the season, that was much more of a 50-50 divide between the two backs.  Now Lewis must make the most of his increased opportunities in order to hold that spot. 

3. Syracuse's tenacious second half defense is a key to their success - In five of the Orange's six victories, the defense has shut out the opponent in the second half.  Syracuse's offense has relied on a dominant running game led by Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey.  The smash mouth brand of football under second year head coach Doug Marrone has turned last season's 1-6 conference record around to 3-1 at the midpoint of the conference schedule.  Syracuse has only been to a bowl game twice since since 2000 and not at all since 2004, but the 2010 Orange are already bowl eligible at 6-2.  A conference championship may be out of reach after the loss to Pittsburgh, but anything is an upgrade from the way things have been at Syracuse.
 
 
 
 
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