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November 3, 2011

Week 10 preview in the Big East

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Louisville had waited five seasons to win back-to-back Big East games. Winning three in a row, though, may be the biggest challenge yet.

After defeating Rutgers and Syracuse at home the past two weeks, the Cardinals travel to West Virginia on Saturday seeking their third consecutive conference victory and first over the Mountaineers since 2006.

THE SCHEDULE
Syracuse at Connecticut, noon
Louisville at West Virginia, noon
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.
USF at Rutgers, 7 p.m.
The matchup brings together two units seemingly on divergent courses. While Louisville's offense is improving incrementally, West Virginia's defense has been inconsistent. The Mountaineers allowed 80 points over the span of six quarters against Syracuse and Rutgers before rebounding to shut out the Scarlet Knights in the second half last week.

West Virginia didn't allow more than 23 points in a game last season and never allowed more than 19 in a Big East game. But that was with an experienced group, and WVU began this season with only four returning starters on defense.

Louisville's offense is similarly inexperienced, but the Cardinals have slowly started to put together a competent offense, helping a squad that lost at home to Florida International and Marshall become a 2-1 Big East team.

The most obvious change has been in touted freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who took over for an injured Will Stein against Kentucky. After a couple of shaky performances, Bridgewater is 44-of-70 for 515 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in Big East play.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has noticed a learning curve for Bridgewater similar to that of his own quarterback, Geno Smith.

"He's like Geno was two years ago, growing into himself and learning," Holgorsen said. "He's talented and has a good arm. He has the ability to get out of it and run down the field. He's developing a pretty good rapport with the guys around him. He's throwing it to about eight different guys."

[Dr. Saturday: RichRod on WVU's latest lawsuit]

Beyond Bridgewater, Louisville also is starting to find some consistency on the offensive line, thanks to the return of veteran center Mario Benavides. After failing to crack 100 rushing yards in three of the first six games of the season, Louisville rushed for 187 against Rutgers and 145 against Syracuse.

Last season, Louisville made its first bowl appearance since the end of Bobby Petrino era. This season, with veterans such as tailback Bilal Powell and four starting offensive linemen gone, the Cardinals have one of the youngest rosters in the Big East. Louisville lists seven freshmen in the starting lineup, including two on the offensive line and three on defense.

"We've said, 'You've tried it your way; now you try it our way' as a coaching staff," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said of his players. "We know how to coach. 'You tried doing it your way and it didn't work, so now try it our way.' The players are beginning to develop some trust in one another and confidence."

Best matchup: West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen vs. Louisville coach Charlie Strong. Holgorsen was hired to revive WVU's offense after running prolific passing attacks at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. Strong won two national championships as defensive coordinator at Florida. Neither team is where it was when they faced each other as top-five program in 2006, but each coach's imprint has been felt. This is perhaps the top chess match between offensive and defensive minds in the Big East.

[Video: Pat Forde and Eddie George on the nation's best offenses]

Player on the spot: Rutgers QB Gary Nova. He struggled in the second half of last week's loss to West Virginia last week, but coach Greg Schiano is not willing to switch back to former starter Chas Dodd. Two of Nova's three second-half turnovers are easily explained - one interception was on a Hail Mary at the end of the game and a fumble might have been because of the snowy conditions. WVU QB Geno Smith also had an unforced fumble in the game. Still, Nova will be under the microscope this week against a USF defense that has allowed three Big East opponents to complete 62.6 percent of their passes and average 246.7 passing yards per game.

Keep an eye on: Pittsburgh's offense. Pitt can move into a tie for the Big East lead at 3-1 if the Panthers defeat league leader Cincinnati on Saturday, but the offense is in dire straits. TB Ray Graham is out for the season with a torn ACL, making Zach Brown's transfer from Wisconsin all that more impactful. Brown likely becomes the top tailback; he has rushed for 129 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries this season. Freshman Isaac Bishop is the backup. Pitt's offensive line also has been dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness, and coaches have had to use five different starting combinations this season. The line would get a boost if Lucas Nix can return. QB Tino Sunseri passed for 419 yards and two touchdowns against Connecticut last week in his best game of the season.

[Viewer's guide: Best games of Week 10]

Numbers game: The so-called "River City Rivalry" could feature feast and famine when it comes to turnovers. Cincinnati leads the Big East in turnover margin (plus-13); Pitt is last in turnover margin (minus-7). Cincinnati has forced a league-best 23 turnovers (12 fumbles, 11 interceptions); Pitt has forced a league-low seven turnovers (four fumbles, three interceptions).

Quotes of the week

"Seven years is a long time in the football business. It's been a lot of games since my last one there and this one. Really, honest to God, no other feelings other than playing another Big East Conference game." - Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni on facing Syracuse, where he went 107-59-1 as coach from 1991-2004

"There's a difference between a runner and a running back. You can recruit yourself a runner who is one-dimensional. Being a running back encompasses a lot of things, from being solid in pass protection to ball fakes to getting the tough yardage to being a threat out of the backfield. We've really challenged him that way in film study in his knowledge of the game." - Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, on RB Isaiah Pead

"He's played better at center than he has at guard the previous two seasons. He's playing as well and grading out as well as anyone on offense." - USF coach Skip Holtz, on Chaz Hine who has moved to center this season after starting for two seasons at guard

Poll watch: West Virginia remains the only Big East team in the BCS top 25, at No. 24. The Mountaineers are ranked 21st in the coaches' poll, 22nd in the Harris poll and an average of 29th in the computers. Cincinnati is ranked in both human polls, at No. 22 by the coaches and No. 23 by the Harris voters. The Bearcats are not in the BCS top 25 because of an average computer ranking of 32.5. In The Associated Press poll, which is not a component of the BCS standings, Cincinnati is 23rd, one spot ahead of West Virginia.

[Video: Pat Forde and Eddie George on the nation's best defenses]

Etc.: The Big East voted Tuesday to extend invitations for expansion. While the Big East did not acknowledge specific schools, UCF, Houston and SMU are expected to be invited as full members, and Boise State, Air Force and Navy are expected to be invited as football-only members. Cincinnati (allowing 72.7 rushing yards per game) and Connecticut (89.9 yards per game) are in the national top 10 in rush defense. Louisville (97.4 yards) is ranked 12th. Cincinnati is the league's highest-ranked team in rush offense nationally at No. 25 (200.0 yards per game). West Virginia DL Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller combined for 24 sacks last season. The duo has a combined four this season and WVU has the fewest sacks in the Big East. Rutgers was plus-14 in turnover margin in the first six games of the season; the Scarlet Knights are minus-six in the past three games. WVU QB Geno Smith passed athletic director Oliver Luck on the Mountaineers' career passing chart last week. Smith has passed for 5,787 yards, behind only Marc Bulger (8,153 yards), Pat White (6,049) and Chad Johnson (5,954). USF leads the nation in punt coverage, allowing minus-2 yards on four returns. The record for fewest yards allowed on punt returns is 2 yards by Miami in 1989.

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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