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November 11, 2010

Week 11 preview in the Big East

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

Pittsburgh at Connecticut, 7:30 p.m.
USF at Louisville, noon
Cincinnati at West Virginia, noon
Syracuse at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m.

With a win over Florida State in Tallahassee under his belt from last season, USF quarterback B.J. Daniels at one point looked like he could do the same to Florida in Gainesville this season.

In the second week of the season, Daniels orchestrated a 17-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that consumed nearly 10 minutes. For 18 minutes, USF held a lead over Florida at Florida Field.

But Daniels ended up throwing four interceptions against the Gators in a 38-14 loss. Then, in his first two Big East games, USF failed to score an offensive touchdown and Daniels threw five interceptions.

"At the time, we weren't putting up awesome numbers," Daniels said. "When you're not putting up points and doing your job, it is frustrating. When things don't go your way or like you planned or what you prepared for, it's not a good feeling. We had big expectations going into the year."

But after a trying start to the season, Daniels has USF in contention for the Bulls' sixth consecutive bowl game. Along the way, Daniels is looking more like the player who was Rivals.com's preseason All-Big East quarterback. In the past two games, Daniels is 23-of-33 for 435 yards, with four touchdowns and an interception.

Despite USF's slow start, the Bulls remain in the Big East race, though it will take some work to catch up to Pittsburgh, the only team in the conference with fewer than two league losses.

And even if the Bulls don't reach their goal of winning the Big East, USF reversed a number of trends this season. USF defeated Rutgers for the first time since 2005, and the Bulls also ended a four-game losing streak to Cincinnati and won at Nippert Stadium for the first time in school history. This week, the Bulls will try to win at Louisville for the first time.

"I don't think there was anybody more frustrated than B.J. after the first couple of weeks, when obviously he wasn't playing as well," USF coach Skip Holtz said. "For B.J., it's not just learning the new system; you have to learn terminology and what everyone is doing. He's just a sophomore."

Although Holtz repeatedly has talked Daniels' lack of experience, Daniels actually has more than any other quarterback in the league.

Heading into the season, Rutgers sophomore Tom Savage had the most career starts of any quarterback in the conference. But with a month left in the season, the most experienced quarterback now is Daniels, with 18 starts over the past two seasons.

Big East teams have used 13 starting quarterbacks this season. Daniels, Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Syracuse's Ryan Nassib are the only conference quarterbacks to start every game this season. Of that quartet, only Daniels started a game last season.

Under Holtz, though, Daniels is playing in a new system and has new responsibilities. He hasn't been as active in the running game as he was under former coach Jim Leavitt. Last season, Daniels carried the ball at least 10 times in each of the last 10 games. He's topped that number only three times this season. After rushing for 100 yards in four games last season, he's done it once this season.

In addition, his development as a passer has been hindered by injuries at wide receiver. At one point, Holtz described his receiving corps -- which includes players who began their careers at quarterback, running back and cornerback -- as the land of misfit toys.

The receiving corps remains a problem, though Daniels has improved his ability to work with what USF has. In the past two games, he has completed passes to nine receivers, but Dontavia Bogan and Evan Landi are the only receivers to catch a pass from Daniels in each game.

"As far as the plays are concerned, nothing much is different," Daniels said. "We're still able to get under center, into shotgun and do zone read and things like that. The different thing was terminology, trying to remember what this means and that means and forget what you've already learned in the last two years."

For the first time this season, Daniels is looking like the quarterback who earned Freshman All-America honors and preseason All-Big East honors.

"For the first time, he underwent some criticism," Holtz said. "The way he's handled the adversity with it all is a tribute to B.J. He really responded to it in a positive manner."

Best matchup: Connecticut RB Jordan Todman vs. Pitt's run defense. Pitt held Syracuse's Delone Carter to 38 yards on 13 carries and Louisville's Bilal Powell to 64 yards on 11 carries. The Panthers' next test comes against Todman, who has rushed for 954 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games. Pitt's run defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

Player on the spot: Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros. He expects to return to the lineup against West Virginia after missing the Oct. 30 loss to Syracuse with a left knee bruise. Coach Butch Jones expected to have Collaros available for that game before determining in pre-game warmups he could not play. Despite back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut, West Virginia is fourth in the country in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense.

Numbers game: Though it's not an official statistic, Rutgers looks to have the worst sack differential in the country. The Scarlet Knights have allowed the most sacks in the country (4.4 per game, 35 total) while recording the third-fewest sacks (0.9 per game, seven total). Rutgers quarterbacks have been sacked 28 more times than the Rutgers defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks.

What they're saying

"This is the difficult time of year. This is the time when you're tempted to pull redshirts off young freshmen sitting over there looking like healthy ads for a dairy product." -- USF coach Skip Holtz

"I can't imagine a defensive end, under the circumstances, that's having a better year." -- Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, on senior Jabaal Sheard, who has nine sacks and four forced fumbles this season. Pitt has played most of the season with All-America DE Greg Romeus, who has been bothered by a bad back but could return Saturday

"I do what's best for the team; obviously, teams are playing us differently than they did with Jarrett [Brown] and Pat [White]. They understand that my first option is not to run, so they're taking away some of the things with Noel [Devine], and I need to relieve that pressure off of him and make the defense respect me as well." -- West Virginia QB Geno Smith, on his increased running opportunities. He rushed for 64 yards on 15 carries against Connecticut on Oct. 29.

"There was so much stuff we did wrong. You saw what you did wrong back then and now you're re-living it. It was really frustrating. It was like we couldn't do anything right." -- Rutgers C Howard Barbieri, to the Newark Star-Ledger, on watching film from last season's game against Syracuse, when the Scarlet Knights gave up nine sacks

Etc.: The Big East has no bowl-eligible teams. Syracuse has six wins but must reach seven wins to be eligible for the postseason because two of the Orange's wins have come over FCS programs. Three Big East teams were bowl eligible at this point last season: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. There will be two coaching "reunions" this week. Louisville coach Charlie Strong and USF's Skip Holtz were coordinators under Lou Holtz at South Carolina from 1999-2002. Cincinnati coach Butch Jones and West Virginia coach Bill Stewart were offensive assistants under Rich Rodriguez at WVU in 2005-06. With a career-high 135 yards against Rutgers, USF senior RB Mo Plancher had only his second 100-yard game of his career. His other 100-yard game was Sept. 12, 2009, against Western Kentucky. The 28-27 win over Rutgers was the 100th in school history for USF. Strong said he had "no update" on the status of starting QB Adam Froman (thigh bruise) and RB Bilal Powell (knee), who missed the 28-20 win over Syracuse with injuries. West Virginia's Stewart said RB Noel Devine hasn't been the same since suffering a bone bruise on his right big toe in the loss to LSU. Devine rushed for 354 yards in the first three games but just 339 yards in the past five games. His only two touchdowns in the past five games came against one-win UNLV. Rutgers expanded its "Wildcat" offense with freshman WR Jeremy Deering taking direct snaps in the past two games. WR Mohamed Sanu has taken the majority of "Wildcat" snaps and leads the Scarlet Knights in rushing. Starting TB Joe Martinek, who has been hobbled by an ankle injury, has rushed for 277 yards on 83 carries. Sanu (foot) also has been hurt.

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

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