Take a quick look at Pittsburgh’s stats and you will notice that running back Ray Graham leads the nation in rushing with a 161.0-yard average. That, however, is one of the few bright spots.
Yes, the Panthers are 2–0, but it is a very soft 2–0, with a 35–16 win over Buffalo and a 35–29 win over FCS opponent Maine. Todd Graham’s teams at Tulsa were among the most explosive in college football, but that has yet to translate at Pittsburgh — despite the inferior competition. The Panthers rank 62nd in the nation in total offense (395.5 ypg) and are tied for 45th in scoring (35.0 ppg). Those numbers aren’t bad, but we expected to see much more production from Pitt after home games against a team that went 1–7 in the MAC last year (Buffalo) and team that went 4–6 against FCS opponents in 2010 (Maine).
Graham is remaining upbeat, but he admits the offense has been a disappointment.
“Offensively it’s just decision-making,” he says. “We’re really close. We sit there and watch the film but we’re not executing the system. Somebody asked me, ‘Are you where you thought you would be?’ No, I thought we would be doing better than how we are executing what we’re doing. In this offense you can’t ad-lib. You’ve got to be extremely disciplined every play to read your key and distribute the ball and this offense is a timing offense.”
Graham has placed some of the blame on the offensive line — “We’ve got two new guys playing up front on the offensive line that have made some errors which are not surprising,” he says — but Pittsburgh must get better play from quarterback Tino Sunseri. The junior has completed 58 percent of his attempts but only has one touchdown pass in 63 attempts. This offense simply needs gaudier numbers from the quarterback position. And Graham believes Sunseri can deliver — even though he temporarily pulled his quarterback in favor of Trey Anderson against Maine.
“Tino Sunseri is our quarterback,” he said earlier this week. “We’ve got confidence that he’s going to get it done. Has he played well? No, he hasn’t played well. He’s made some good plays, but he’s got to play better and execute our system, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. I’ve seen him do it in practice, I’ve seen him do it in games, and in this system there’s no question I think he can be successful and he’s a guy that has come a long way in his work ethic and all those things.”
Sunseri and the Panthers now dive into a very difficult part of the schedule. This weekend, they head to Iowa and then return home for dates with Notre Dame and South Florida. Despite the early season struggles, this is still a quality football team, one that should be in the hunt for the Big East title.
AROUND THE BIG EAST
• Connecticut has struggled offensively, but the Huskies appear to have found their next big-time running back. With expected starter D.J. Shoemate out with an injury, redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs, a lightly recruited 2-star prospect, has rushed for 259 yards on 51 carries through two games. Against Vanderbilt, McCombs accounted for 123 of the Huskies’ 193 total yards of offense.
• Louisville has scored a total of seven points in the second half of its games against Murray State (a win) and FIU (a loss).
• Rutgers’ four running backs netted 18 yards on 20 carries in a 24–22 loss to North Carolina. Through two games, prized freshman Savon Huggins has 32 yards on 17 carries.
• Cincinnati has given up at least 27 points in 13 straight games against BCS conference opponents.
• The West Virginia defense has yet to allow a touchdown this season.
• South Florida’s B.J. Daniels threw for a career-high 359 yards in the Bulls’ 37–7 win over Ball State. Daniels’ previous best was 286 yards in a win over Cincinnati last season.
We break down and predict week 2's standout games.
By Mitch Light
Notre Dame (-3.5) at Michigan
Brian Kelly’s second season at Notre Dame didn’t exactly begin as planned, with a 23–20 loss at home to South Florida. But please be advised: Don’t jump off the Irish bandwagon just yet. Notre Dame outgained USF 508 to 254 and was the victim of some bad luck (Jonas Gray was stripped at the 1-yard line and USF brought it back 96 yards for a touchdown) and some questionable officiating (borderline pass interference call in the end zone on third down early in the fourth quarter). The Irish were far from perfect — they did lose the turnover battle 5-to-0 — but this is still a very good team that will win a lot of games. Michigan took care of business in the first game of the Brady Hoke era, rolling past Western Michigan, 34–10, in a weather-shortened game in Ann Arbor. Notre Dame 31, Michigan 24
Arizona (+14.5) at Oklahoma State (Thu)
It was only one game — and the opponent was not very good (Louisiana-Lafayette) — but the high-powered Oklahoma State offense was as good as advertised in Week 1. The Cowboys rolled up 666 yards of total offense under first-year coordinator Todd Monken en route to a 61–34 win in Stillwater. The test will be more difficult this Thursday night when Arizona comes calling. The Wildcats struggled a bit in the first half against FCS Northern Arizona before flexing their muscles in the second half of a 41–10 victory. Their brand new offensive line paved the way for 487 total yards. We’ll find out this week if this group can get it done against Bill Young’s O-State defense. A player to watch for Arizona is Ka’Deem Carey. The gem of the Cats’ recruiting class rushed for 59 yards on nine carries in the opener. Oklahoma State 37, Arizona 24
Missouri (+7.5) at Arizona State (Fri)
Arizona State, a popular pick to play in the first-ever Pac-12 title game, has a huge non-conference test on a national stage Friday night. The Sun Devils are 15–21 overall in the last three seasons and need to make a statement that the ’11 club is, as many expect, good enough to be relevant on the national scene. Missouri was a bit lethargic in its 17–6 win over Miami (Ohio) last weekend. James Franklin, making his first career start, completed 17-of-26 for 129 yards and added 67 yards on the ground. He is a dynamic playmaker who can put pressure on the Arizona State defense with both his arm and his legs. It’s dangerous to put too much emphasis on one game, but we will find out a lot about both teams Friday night in Tempe. Arizona State 21, Missouri 17
Alabama (-10) at Penn State
This was one of the great intersectional rivalries of the 1980s, with the Tide and the Lions meeting every year in the regular season from 1981-90. Last year, Alabama handled Penn State with relative ease, cruising to a 24–3 in Tuscaloosa. The venue will be different this time around — Beaver Stadium in State College — but the result should be similar. Alabama, our pick at Athlon Sports to win the 2011 national title, boasts a dominant defense and a devastating running attack. We still aren’t sure about the quarterback position — it looks like AJ McCarron will get the start over Phillip Sims — but Alabama has proven it doesn’t need outstanding quarterback play to be an elite team. Penn State is solid, but not good enough to beat Alabama. Alabama 27, Penn State 10
South Carolina (-3) at Georgia
It’s the biggest game in the history of Georgia football. Well, that’s what many Bulldogs fans will tell you after their team was outclassed at the Georgia Dome by Boise State last Saturday night. It’s imperative that the Dawgs show marked improved in Week 2. Against Boise, the offensive line was suspect and none of the veteran wide receivers stepped up and made big plays. South Carolina fell behind East Carolina 17–0 in Charlotte before rallying for a 56–37 win in a game that was marred by nine turnovers. Stephen Garcia came off the bench for an ineffective Connor Shaw and led the comeback with his arm (one touchdown) and legs (two TDs). It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game for both teams. Georgia didn’t do much in Week 1 to give us reason to believe they can beat a good team, but it’s a bit too early to give up on Mark Richt and his Bulldogs. Georgia 24, South Carolina 21
BYU (+7) at Texas
Right now, one of these teams is an Independent and the other is in the Big 12. Next year? Who knows? Both teams could be in the Big 12 or the Pac-16, or possibly both could be in the Independent ranks. BYU has to be feeling pretty good after stealing a win in Oxford, rallying from a 13–0 deficit to beat Ole Miss 14–13. But the Cougars have to be a bit concerned after totaling only 316 yards and scoring just one offensive touchdown against a Rebel defense that was among the worst in the nation last season. Texas struggled in the first half with Rice before putting the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter. The best news for the Longhorns was the play of true freshman tailback Malcom Brown, who rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries in his debut. UT will need consistent production from Brown this season. Texas 24, BYU 16
Mississippi State (-6.5) at Auburn
Auburn deserves credit for keeping its focus and rallying for 14 points in the final three minutes of its 42–38 win over Utah State, but there were far more negatives than positives. Led by a true freshman at quarterback, Utah State rolled up 448 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over once. And on the other side of the ball, Auburn managed only 364 yards against an Aggie defense that allowed 428.8 yards per game in 2010. It’s not necessarily time to panic, but it’s clear — as we all knew heading into the season — that the ’11 Tigers are a work in progress. Mississippi State, on the other hand, looks like a pretty complete football team. Yes, Memphis is one of the worst teams in the nation, but MSU was dominant in its 59–14 Week 1 win. Go with the Dogs over the Tigers, even at Jordan-Hare. Mississippi State 37, Auburn 24
Iowa (-6.5) at Iowa State
The Hawkeyes have won six of the past eight in this series, including the past three by an average score of 29–5. Iowa is a solid favorite to win its fourth straight over the Cyclones, but Kirk Ferentz’s club will need a better effort from tailback Marcus Coker. The hero of Iowa’s Insight Bowl win over Missouri last year with 219 yards on 33 carries, Coker was benched in the opener against Tennessee Tech after fumbling twice in the first half. He is back atop the depth chart this week, and he is a guy that will have to produce for this Iowa team to be successful. Iowa State, which edged Northern Iowa 20–19, will need new quarterback Steele Jantz to be more efficient in the passing game. The junior college transfer rushed for 75 yards and two scores but completed only 18-of-40 for 187 yards with three interceptions. Iowa 24, Iowa State 10
Cincinnati (+6) at Tennessee
Cincinnati rolled up 72 points in its Week 1 win over Austin Peay. Eight different Bearcats scored a touchdown and 10 different UC players rushed for at least 10 yards. Now, Butch Jones’ club must see what it can do against another, far more talented, team from the state of Tennessee. The Vols are also fresh off of a win over an FCS school, but a 42–16 win over Montana is a bit more impressive than a 72–0 victory over Austin Peay. The key for Cincinnati will be taking care of the ball. Two years ago, when the Bearcats won the Big East, they ranked 13th in the nation in turnover margin (+0.69). Last year, when they slumped to 4–8 overall and 2–5 in the Big East (and also lost coach Brian Kelly), they were 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25). This team still has a ton of firepower on offense, led by quarterback Zach Collaros and tailback Isaiah Pead. Tennessee is in for a stiff test Tennessee 30, Cincinnati 27
Nevada (+27) at Oregon
The Ducks return home after a humbling 40–27 loss to LSU in Dallas. Oregon’s rushing attack, which churned out 286.2 yards per game in 2010, was held to 95 yards on 28 carries. Quarterback Darron Thomas did throw for 240 yards but was held to 4.4 yards per attempt — a number that Chip Kelly can’t be happy with. Nevada was one of only two FBS teams that didn’t play in Week 1 (UAB was the other). The Wolf Pack will be without Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, but Chris Ault still has some solid talent on both sides of the ball. The boys in Vegas don’t seem to think Nevada can keep this game close. I disagree. Oregon 40, Nevada 27
Off-the-record quotes from Big East coaches about their rivals.
Each year we ask college football coaches to tell us what they really think about the other teams in their conference. But we don't want the cliche'd press conference platitudes, so we ask them to give us their quotes off-the-record and anonymously. Here are this year's quotes in alphabetical order for each team in the Big East.
B.J. Daniels looks to lead South Florida to a Big East title.
Big East Predictions
Get ready for another unpredictable year in the Big East. West Virginia is the favorite, despite changing head coaches in early June. Bill Stewart resigned, elevating offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to the top spot. Holgorsen has produced instant results in his career as an offensive coordinator, but this will be his first head coaching gig.
With Holgorsen at the controls, the Mountaineers should be able to solve some of the offensive issues that have plagued them since Pat White departed. Quarterback Geno Smith should be the conference’s top quarterback and the junior will have plenty of talented options to choose from at receiver. Improving the offense will be critical to West Virginia’s success, especially with seven new starters taking over on defense.
Although the Mountaineers seem to be the clear favorite, South Florida, Pittsburgh and Syracuse aren’t far behind. The Bulls have a loaded backfield with returning quarterback B.J. Daniels, team rushing leader Demetris Murray and transfers Darrell Scott (Colorado) and Dontae Aycock (Auburn). New Pitt coach Todd Graham should help jumpstart a Panther attack that ranked 72nd in the nation in total offense. The Orange return seven offensive starters and five on defense. Quarterback Ryan Nassib, running back Antwon Bailey and receiver Van Chew will benefit from a veteran offensive line.
Cincinnati struggled with the transition from Brian Kelly to Butch Jones and a rash of turnovers, which resulted in the program’s first losing season since 2005. The Bearcats have a few concerns on offense, but should be near the top in scoring with quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead returning. If the turnover problems from last year are gone, Cincinnati should return to the postseason.
Connecticut is the Big East’s defending champ, but will take a step back in 2011. The Huskies have to replace one of the nation’s top backs in Jordan Todman and has to find a quarterback. Although the defense should be stout, the offense could be the worst in the conference.
Rutgers has plenty of weapons to work with on offense – receivers Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison – but has a shaky offensive line and the jury is still out on quarterback Chas Dodd. The Scarlet Knights regressed last season, but the talent is in place to make another run at a bowl.
Charlie Strong was one of the nation’s top first-year coaches last season, getting Louisville back into a bowl and posting a winning record. The Cardinals suffered heavy losses and a new starting quarterback must be found. Strong has recruited well, so Louisville has some young talent waiting in the wings. Although the Cardinals have a lot of turnover, getting back to a bowl isn’t out of the question.
From any perspective, the Big East had a down football season last year. There was the below-par performance against non-conference opponents. And even though the league finished 4–2 in its bowl games, the two losses were of the embarrassing variety. Oklahoma steamrolled UConn 48–20 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and NC State stiff-armed West Virginia 23–7 in the Champs Sports Bowl.
There was, however, a lightning strike of good news in late November when TCU accepted an invitation to become a league member beginning July 1, 2012. The better news: The Horned Frogs’ 2010 season will count toward the Big East’s résumé if the league is subjected to BCS scrutiny when the next TV contract ends. TCU went undefeated, beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished No. 2 in the major polls and No. 3 in the final BCS standings. That almost certainly means the Big East will retain its AQ status. And when the Big East adds a 10th football team, the addition of TCU also serves as insurance if the conference loses, say, Rutgers and Pitt to another league.
Label this the year of the quarterback in the Big East. While six of the league’s top eight rushers have departed (only Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead and Pitt’s Ray Graham return), the top six quarterbacks are back if you go by passing average per game. The six are Cincy’s Zach Collaros, WVU’s Geno Smith, Pitt’s Tino Sunseri, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, Rutgers’ Chas Dodd and South Florida’s B.J. Daniels. Smith will now be operating within Dana Holgorsen’s “Air Raid” offense, while Sunseri will be moved from under center to the shotgun for Todd Graham.
It seems to be an annual event. Almost inevitably, the Big East loses at least one of its more successful and higher-profile head coaches. Last offseason, UConn’s Randy Edsall bolted for Maryland. Two other Big East schools, however, jettisoned coaches. Pitt’s Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure before landing an assistant head coaching position with the Buffalo Bills. WVU’s Bill Stewart was expected to spend one more year on the sidelines, but resigned in early June. Stewart will be replaced by new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen.
Wannstedt was replaced by ex-Tulsa coach Todd Graham, who also was once an assistant at Backyard Brawl rival West Virginia. Graham then hired four other former Mountaineer assistants — Tony Dews, Tony Gibson, Calvin Magee and Paul Randolph. The Big East now has two head coaches who once worked for ex-WVU coach Rich Rodriguez — Graham and Cincinnati’s Butch Jones.
TRICK SHOT ARTIST
While there are six returning quarterback starters, none are probably as famous as Connecticut walk-on Johnny McEntee, who has played in two games in two seasons with no pass attempts. The reason? McEntee became a YouTube sensation via the video “Johnny Mac Trick Shot Quarterback.” The video received millions of hits when McEntee performed throwing tricks like knocking the sign off a moving Domino’s delivery truck as well as a water bottle off the head of a teammate.
After Louisville assistant coach Clint Hurtt was named by a major website as the nation’s Recruiter of the Year, Cardinals coach Charlie Strong had to expect tough sledding keeping the assistant on board. He didn’t know how tough. Less than two weeks after Hurtt was honored, national champion Auburn came calling. The U of L assistant even visited the Tigers. But on Feb. 24, Strong sent the following message to his fans via Twitter: “Big news!! The big hurtt is staying with the cardinals.” Hurtt earned accolades by persuading several big-time players from south Florida to join a program that has but one bowl appearance in the last four years and 15 total. The U of L also earned mention on some Top-25 team recruiting lists.
Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Army last October, was released from the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., in late March. He will reside at his aunt’s home in Jackson, N.J., for the near future.