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September 30, 2010

Week 5 preview in the Big East

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

Vanderbilt at Connecticut, noon
Tulane at Rutgers, 2 p.m.
Fla. International at Pittsburgh, 3:30 p.m.
Louisville at Arkansas State, 7 p.m.
Florida Atlantic at USF, 7:05 p.m.

Here's a sign of the struggles in the Big East this season: The conference leader in total offense this week needed to yank its starting quarterback at halftime last week to beat Buffalo.

After a rough September, probably the worst month since the league reorganized in 2005, the Big East needs more adjustments like that one to improve its showing as a conference.

Connecticut's quarterback change was good fortune, but it was hardly planned. Because of a suspension, backup Cody Endres hadn't even been part of the team until last week, and he didn't move up to second string until midweek.

"It wasn't premeditated to do something" UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "But if the situation did arise, I wasn't going to hesitate to put him in."

Connecticut jumped to a 14-0 lead against Buffalo, but the offense stalled and the Bulls tied the score by halftime. Huskies starter Zach Frazer was 7-of-14 passing with an interception and two sacks.

Endres, who has eight career starts, boosted the offense with back-to-back scoring drives, ending one with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Michael Smith. Connecticut won 45-21, and Endres went 7-of-11 for 139 yards and two touchdown passes. "You're sitting there and you're getting a feel for what's happening, and it's time to make that change," Edsall said. "It's not all on Zach. There were other circumstances out there, too, and I feel like we just needed to make a change. Cody came in and played well and he'll start this week."

UConn isn't alone in making major adjustments on the fly.

The Big East is absent from the AP Top 25 for the first time since Oct. 15, 1995. The league is 15-13 against non-conference competition this season, including 1-11 against the other five major conferences. If the 53.6 percent winning percentage in non-league games continues to the end of the season, the Big East would have its worst non-conference showing since 1999.

That's a long drop from the conference's past performance. From 2006-09, the Big East won at least 75 percent of its non-conference games in each season.

The Big East will battle a perception problem at least until the bowl games, but the non-conference mark should improve. The out-of-conference opponents remaining on Big East schedules have a combined record of 16-26.

And the league has a chance to pad its non-conference resume this week. None of the Big East's opponents this week have more than one win this season. The slate of opponents includes three Sun Belt teams, C-USA bottom-feeder Tulane and SEC doormat Vanderbilt.

Few will sing the Big East's praises, though, even if it sweeps this week. The next major statement won't come until the bowl games.

"It's early in the season," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Let's wait and see where things are two months from now, come December. It's a slow start, no doubt about that. Everyone has their reasons."

Injuries have been major problems for a handful of teams. Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers and Cincinnati were banged up in the first week of the season, and five members of Rivals.com's preseason All-Big East team have missed time with injuries this season.

Pitt DE Greg Romeus started the season with a back injury, which eventually led to surgery two weeks ago. LB Dan Mason, whom Wannstedt believes is in the mold of former all-conference selections Scott McKillop and H.B. Blades, was lost for the season with a dislocated knee against Miami. SS Dom DeCicco intercepted Miami quarterback Jacory Harris -- and immediately went to the sideline with a hamstring injury.

West Virginia played much of its game at LSU last week, a six-point loss, without star RB Noel Devine, who was limited with a toe injury. Connecticut was without RB Jordan Todman last week and hasn't had LB Scott Lutrus all season. Cincinnati lost WR Vidal Hazelton and CB Dominique Battle for the season and TE Ben Guidugli and RB Isaiah Pead for one game each. At Rutgers, the starting backfield of Tom Savage and Joe Martinek has played through pain.

After a rough first month, Big East coaches have faith the rest of the season and the postseason won't be quite as trying.

"In the end of the year, everything will pan out," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said.

Best matchup: Arkansas State QB Ryan Aplin vs. Louisville's pass defense. The Cardinals allowed Kentucky and Oregon State to go a combined 33-of-54 passing (61 percent). They have only one interception this season, and that came against FCS member Eastern Kentucky. Given the state of the Big East, Louisville has legitimate bowl aspirations, but the Cardinals must defeat their easier non-conference opponents. Against Arkansas State, that means slowing down Aplin, who has passed for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns in four games.

Players on the spot: Pittsburgh's offensive line. The Panthers have struggled to give RB Dion Lewis much running room this season. After using the same starting alignment in the first three games, the Panthers are re-tooling the right side of the line. RT Lucas Nix is moving to right guard, and 6-7, 305-pound junior Jordan Gibbs is taking over at right tackle. Pitt plays Florida International this week, and FIU's defense has had its moments this season, holding Rutgers to 76 rushing yards and sacking Texas A&M QB Jarrod Johnson six times.

Numbers game: Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham has rushed for 215 yards this season to lead the team. Dion Lewis was third in the nation in rushing last season, but he's second on the Panthers with 143 yards. Graham's rushing yards come with one major caveat: He has rushed for 127 yards in the fourth quarters of the games against New Hampshire and Miami, games that were in hand one way or another by the final quarter.

What they're saying

"I don't like what happened, but at least there was no one else involved. It was just those two guys. No one got hurt. No one's got black eyes, none of that stuff. So it was like a cat fight." -- UConn coach Randy Edsall, on a fight between LB Jerome Wilson and K Dave Teggart that led to their arrests Tuesday on misdemeanor charges of beach of peace

"Personally, I need to stand up. This is my fourth year. Honestly, the word I would say is that I'm disgusted with how everything has been going." -- Pitt LB Max Gruder, to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

"TCU is a proud member of the Mountain West Conference. During this period of an ever-changing landscape in collegiate athletics, there has been speculation on future conference affiliation for TCU. Our policy has always been and will remain to not respond to rumors." -- TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte, in a statement responding to a report in the New York Post that the Big East is considering TCU as a future member

"There were some positives. We played hard. We played physical. We hit them. We had a chance to win the game. ... I was very proud of the way the defense hung in there. They were 3-of-13 on third downs. We had three penalties, they had 12. We got beat. I'm not happy about it, the seniors aren't happy about it, the staff's not happy about it. And we're going to try to do better the next time we play. What I'm saying is there were some positive things that came out of that. Now if no one saw that, then that's their opinion. I have an opinion also. Mine seems to count more than most." -- West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, on last week's loss at LSU

Etc.: Connecticut's new backup quarterback will be redshirt freshman Michael Box. That leaves former starter Zach Frazer as the No. 3 quarterback. ... UConn LB Sio Moore had 16 tackles and an interception in his first start against Buffalo. He replaced middle linebacker Greg Lloyd. ... Louisville WR Doug Beaumont, the team's leading receiver, is out indefinitely after knee surgery. ... With Pitt's Dan Mason out for the rest of the season, Max Gruder will move to middle linebacker and Tristan Roberts takes over as the starting weakside linebacker. ... West Virginia hopes the off week will give some players a chance to heal. G Josh Jenkins (knee) missed the game against LSU, and DEs Julian Miller (back) and Will Clarke (ankle), TE Tyler Urban (knee) and LB Pat Lazear (leg) also are on the mend. ... Connecticut backup RB Kelmetrus Wylie will miss the rest of the season after knee surgery. ... Cincinnati SS Drew Frey (head) and WR D.J. Woods (shoulder) are expected to return for the game against Miami (Ohio) in two weeks. ... USF K Maikon Bonani, who handles kickoffs, kicked a 33-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against Western Kentucky, replacing ineffective senior Eric Schwartz. It was Bonani's first field goal since 2008. He missed the 2009 season after injuring his back in a 30-foot fall while working at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla. ... Syracuse has played the third-most true freshmen in the nation with 15. Only Air Force (17) and Florida (16) have played more.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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