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MIDSEASON META: THE BIG EAST AT THE TURN

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They're alive! They're alive! All the South Florida business has conveniently obscured the fact that, tucked among a four-way logjam for second place, West Virginia and Louisville remain very much alive for the conference championship despite high profile losses. The Cardinals may be in a better position, in fact, overlooking the fact they still have no defense: unlike West Virginia, which needs to win out and get two losses from South Florida, Louisville controls its own destiny - if the Cards find their rhythm, perhaps beginning with last week's largely ignored upset at Cincinnati, the three-game closing run against West Virginia, USF and Rutgers is at least as much an opportunity for redemption as it is a hellish three-week march of humiliation. Though it could still be that, too.


Go to sleep on Brohm, pay the consequences.
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Both the preseason favorites should be kept in mind, because they weren't frontrunners for nothing: Brian Brohm is still the most polished passer in the country (you want to try throwing for 395 a game with 23 touchdowns to four interceptions in comeback mode against maxed-out secondaries week after week?) and Pat White and Steve Slaton, to ignore WVU's myriad other weapons, are still as dangerous a twosome as currently exists anywhere. West Virginia is vastly more believable in this role than UL, of course, because its defense is not a 100th-ranked disaster in need of being bailed out on a near-weekly basis, but don't let the Cardinals' misadventures obscure the fact that, with Brohm in the lineup, they are in every game and a legitimate threat to win against anyone in this conference. Not a favorite, but a threat.

UConn: friend or fraud? In six tries, the Huskies have played two solid games to date, and two bad ones. In the former category falls a 30-point win over Pittsburgh and a 34-point drumming of Akron, treating both like the patsies they are. In the `bad' category is a sketchy, official-aided win over Temple and a one-point loss at Virginia last week in which UConn failed to win the turnover margin for the first time.

If there's any one factor that casts doubt on the Huskies' merit, aside from the limp schedule up to last week's game with UVA (which may later fall into the `limp' category, depending on what happens the rest of the season with the 6-1 Cavs), it's that turnover margin. They're playing good enough defense, per the usual for UConn, albeit against such atrocious offensive outfits as Duke, Maine, Temple and Pittsburgh, but the Huskies are also third nationally in turnover margin, having picked off 13 passes and recovered three fumbles in the 5-0 start. Once that dried up against Virginia, though, the offense wasn't able to produce enough on its own to extend the win streak.

I think the answer is what you suspected: until it beats someone of some consequence, which it has yet to do since joining this conference (2-11 against winning Big East teams entering conference play in its fourth season), UConn is still just UConn.

South Florida makes its move. Itn all likelihood the Bulls already have their two big wins of the season, over West Virginia and Auburn, but USF's mythical championship ambitions - that is, assuming it has any - now hinge on consistency through the string of Big East "trap" games it faces over the next month: four of the next five games are against Rutgers, UConn, Cincinnati and Louisville, combined record 19-7, beginning with the Scarlet Knights tonight on the same field that hosted Louisville's championship-killing second half meltdown on a Thursday last November. South Florida was 1-3 against that quartet last year, handling UConn but enduring sound beatings at Cincy and Louisville and a close home loss to Rutgers. The Huskies are the only one of the group that might be at a consequential disadvantage in terms of talent; Louisville and possibly Rutgers, based on Brian Brohm and Ray Rice alone, are certainly as equipped physically as the Bulls. Running the table in this case will be an exercise in preparation, execution and, as always, some luck - "bigger stronger faster," if it applies in the Bulls' favor at all, will not carry them through this thicket.


Jim Leavitt distracts the defense with his turn as that little thing from Jurassic Park. Good for a first down per game, actually.
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Tonight is the toughest game of that stretch on paper, if for no other reason than it's on the road, but mainly because I still think Rutgers is the most balanced team in the Big East, able to pound the ball with Rice, protect Mike Teel (only four sacks allowed in six games, continuing the precedent the line set by allowing the fewest sacks in the nation last year) and counter with big plays to Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood while getting after the quarterback itself defensively. Teel is no longer the within-the-offense caretaker he was asked to be last year - through the first half of the year, he's thrown for 300 yards four times, and Underwood and Britt are first and second in the conference by a mile in receiving yards per game and yards per catch. This is not limited to Buffalo and Norfolk State: as mentioned, Teel has lit up every secondary he's faced this year, and Underwood and Britt combined for 22 catches for 346 yards in the toughst games to date, Maryland and Cincinnati. With the attention any defense still has to pay to Rice up front, this is precisely the lethal downfield threat West Virginia lacked.when it fell short against the Bulls two weeks ago.

The problem: Rutgers lost both of those games, in part because Teel rediscovered his love of the interception (he threw one pick against Maryland and three killers against Cincinnati, to no touchdowns in the latter despite 334 yards) and in part because the defense had two of its worst games of the brief post-turnaround era. Neither Maryland nor Cincinnati has anyone as potentially dangerous as Grothe on its offense, but both rode balanced attacks to 400-yard games. The Knights had no answer for Maryland's running game, in particular, sparked by a career game from Keon Lattimore. Mike Ford  and Benjamin Williams aren't stars, but if Lattimore and Cincinnati's multi-pronged assault of mediocrity can outperform Rice in consecutive weeks, then certainly Ford and Williams - not to mention Grothe, USF's leading rusher, again - can do it tonight.

How likely is that? Less likely, I imagine, than a repeat of Louisville's visit to Piscataway last year, when Brohm visibly regressed from confident all-American to frustrated, confused guesser against the Knights' zone blitz in the second half, during which his team was completely shut out. Grothe is not Brohm: he can run, and has the last two weeks, going over 100 against both Florida Atlantic and UCF, but as a passer he's erratic, relying largely on his ability to break contain and buy time for his receivers to come open downfield. His line against West Virginia, minus the long second quarter touchdown that was explicitly the result of an inexcusably blown WVU coverage: 10-19, 80 yards, 1 INT. He was much better against Auburn and North Carolina, but it's still not clear which Grothe we'll get one game to the next. If Rutgers can keep him in the pocket and avoid the turnovers that have fuelled USF in its big wins so far, this seems like the Knights' game to lose.

Rutgers 29 South Florida 24

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Note: I've been consistently, laughably wrong about Thursday night games all season. If I'm wrong again, I'll pick USF to win every game the rest of the regular season as long as Grothe, George Selvie, Ben Moffitt and Ben Moffitt's homely wife are healthy. That's the best I can do.