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October 25, 2007

Rice, Slaton meet in running back battle

MORE WEEK 9 BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

FOX'S BIG EAST PICKS
This week's games
Overview: The Big East's seven-game conference schedule means the league slate is backloaded over the next six weeks. At 2-0, Connecticut is the only undefeated team in league play, but the rest of the league is within striking distance of the Huskies. Connecticut could separate itself with a win over USF this week, and Rutgers (2-1) and West Virginia (1-1) will try to keep pace when they meet in Piscataway, N.J. Pittsburgh (3-4 overall) and Louisville (4-4) are a stretch for the Big East title, so their meeting could be critical for bowl hopes.

Best matchup: West Virginia TB Steve Slaton vs. Rutgers TB Ray Rice. Remember when these two were talked about as Heisman Trophy candidates? Early losses by each team and a couple of below-average games for each player dulled those hopes, but this is the premier running back matchup in the Big East this season. It's Slaton's speed vs. Rice's power. Both have shaken off previous struggles, with Rice topping 180 yards in each of his past two games. Slaton turned in his first 100-yard effort in nearly a month last week against Mississippi State. Adding to the drama is that West Virginia ended Rutgers' hopes of a Big East title last season with a 41-39 win in triple-overtime in Morgantown.

The pressure is on: West Virginia. The Mountaineers still need some help in the conference race because of their loss at USF on Sept. 28, but they could be in the best position to return to a BCS bowl. They play Saturday at Rutgers. Then, after an off week, the Mountaineers play three out of four at home: vs. Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. The other contest in that stretch is a game at Cincinnati.

Who's hot: Since true freshman Anthony Davis was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard, Rutgers' Rice has rushed for 377 yards in the past two games. Syracuse WR Mike Williams has caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive games. West Virginia has beaten Rutgers 12 times in a row. Four league teams WVU, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Connecticut are in the top 10 nationally in pass defense.

Who's not: Louisville has averaged just 87.7 rushing yards in three Big East games. That does not include a 26-yard effort in a loss to Utah. USF's offensive line gave up seven sacks in the loss at Rutgers. USF had allowed seven sacks in the previous six games. After having a plus-15 turnover margin during its 6-0 start, Cincinnati is minus-six in turnovers in its two losses.

Keep your eye on: With TB LaRod Stephens-Howling healthy, Pittsburgh came to life offensively in an upset of Cincinnati. Stephens-Howling and true freshman LeSean McCoy combined to rush for 237 yards in the upset of the Bearcats. They were the first duo to reach 100 yards each for Pittsburgh since 1988. The two could turn Pittsburgh's season around starting Saturday against Louisville's run defense, ranked second-to-last in the Big East.

Numbers game: Against USF, Rice passed West Virginia's Amos Zereoue (3,907 yards) for second place in the Big East in career rushing yards. With 3,913 yards, Rice trails West Virginia's Avon Cobourne by 1,126 yards. Rice is 1 yard away from his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. Syracuse freshman Doug Hogue ran for 83 yards against Buffalo, the second-highest rushing total by an Orange player this season.

Freshman to watch: Connecticut redshirt freshman OLBs Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson have been on a tear of late. Lutrus was the league's defensive player of the week with nine solo tackles, a tackle for a loss and an interception last week against Louisville. Wilson has 17 solo tackles and three tackles for a loss in his past two games. The Huskies' ability to pressure and contain USF QB Matt Grothe could determine if UConn is here to stay in the Big East race.

BIG EAST STANDINGS
TeamConf.All
Connecticut2-06-1
Rutgers2-15-2
West Virginia1-16-1
South Florida1-16-1
Pittsburgh1-13-4
Cincinnati1-26-2
Louisville1-24-4
Syracuse1-22-6
Injury update: Louisville G Mike Donoghue's career is over after he was diagnosed with congenital spinal stenosis. He risks a spinal cord injury if he continues to play. Rutgers QB Mike Teel expects to play against West Virginia despite a bruised right (throwing) hand. John Bachman will start at right guard for Pittsburgh if Joe Thomas (hamstring) cannot against Louisville. Syracuse starting TB Curtis Brinkley will miss the rest of the season with a broken right leg. USF WR Taurus Johnson (ankle) is expected to miss 2-3 weeks.

They said it (officiating edition):

"Most of the time when you do call a fair catch, the referee blows the whistle so he can protect you when you do call a fair catch. But I didn't call a fair catch or anything, so that's why the referee didn't blow the whistle."
UConn punt returner Larry Taylor, who returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter against Louisville to tie the score at 7. Taylor raised his arm and Louisville defenders slowed thinking he had called for a fair catch. But Taylor ran the punt back for the touchdown

"It certainly doesn't change anything that happened on Friday night. It was a factor in the game, but it wasn't the only factor in the game."
Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe after Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese acknowledged officials erred by not calling the fair catch

"As soon as I grasped the ball, a guy behind me knocked the ball out. The officials made the call, but it fell out of my hands, to be honest with you. I was real surprised at the call (the reversal). My arm moved forward because the defender came underneath me, and I was trying to keep the ball away from him. When my arm went forward, he knocked it out of my hands and the ball went flying."
USF LB Tyrone McKenzie on the Bulls' touchdown that was called back after review against Rutgers. Officials ruled McKenzie used an illegal forward toss after recovering a fumble (following a blocked field goal) and pitching the ball into the hands of Trae Williams, who scored the touchdown. The score would have given USF a 24-10 lead

Bowl implications: USF and Connecticut, the two youngest teams in the Big East, are in the hunt for the conference championship and the BCS berth that comes with it. A Huskies win Saturday would give UConn a 3-0 Big East record and could knock the Bulls out of Big East contention by handing them their second loss. ... Louisville needs two wins to become bowl-eligible. The Cardinals have Pitt this week, then finish the season with West Virginia, USF and Rutgers.

Etc.: USF coach Jim Leavitt contacted the Big East for a clarification on rules and an explanation of several calls in the loss to Rutgers. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said his team struggled with distractions "outside of football" in the 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh. He did not elaborate on the distractions. Connecticut sophomore Andre Dixon is pushing Donald Brown for the Huskies' starting tailback job. Dixon has rushed for 178 yards and a touchdown in the first two games he's started this season. Former TE Selvish Capers made his first career start at right tackle for West Virginia against Mississippi State, replacing Jake Figner. West Virginia will be playing its fifth road game of the season against Rutgers. The last time Pitt beat Louisville was 1983, behind three TD passes from QB John Congemi. Saturday, Congemi is serving as the color analyst on the telecast of the Pitt-Louisville game that can be seen on the GamePlan package.

MORE WEEK 9 BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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