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October 20, 2011

Week 8 preview in the Big East

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Turnovers helped propel USF up the polls after Notre Dame coughed up the ball five times, three times inside the 10, in the Bulls' 23-20 win in South Bend.

Last week, USF was on the other side of a turnover-fueled upset when it lost the ball four times in a 16-10 loss to Connecticut.

THE SCHEDULE
FRIDAY
Rutgers at Louisville, 8 p.m.
West Virginia at Syracuse, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY
Cincinnati at USF, noon
WEDNESDAY
Connecticut at Pittsburgh, 8 p.m.
As fast as USF's reputation rose this season, it fell just as swiftly. Two games into the Big East season and the Bulls are wondering what's gone wrong. They were ranked as high as No. 14 in the coaches' poll and now are unranked.

Now, the Bulls face what could be an "elimination game" for their Big East hopes when they play host to Cincinnati on Saturday. Cincinnati is off to a surprising 5-1 start, and the Bearcats also have won four of their past five over USF.

"If you want to continue to compete for a championship, I think it's a quote-unquote 'must win,' " USF coach Skip Holtz said.

Since 2005, only two Big East teams have won the conference crown with two league losses (Connecticut last season, West Virginia in 2007).

The answer for what has gone wrong at USF is a little bit of everything. In the two Big East losses, to Pittsburgh and Connecticut, USF has struggled to put together a complete effort.

Against Pitt, USF rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns, but the Bulls had no answer for Ray Graham, who rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns on his own. USF also fumbled twice.

The defense rebounded against Connecticut, but quarterback B.J. Daniels accounted for three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble). Tailback Darrell Scott fumbled at USF's 10, which resulted in UConn's winning touchdown.

[What to watch? Week 8 viewer's guide]

USF can blame some of the turnovers on weather conditions. It was a cold, rainy evening at Rentschler Field, and the Huskies lost two fumbles themselves. Holtz also told reporters he planned to contact the Big East office regarding a handful of calls in the game. USF was penalized nine times for 89 yards, a single-game high since Holtz arrived.

Regardless, USF must dig itself out of a 0-2 league hole after losing to two teams that are 3-4. Pitt responded to its big win over USF by dropping back-to-back games to Rutgers and Utah in embarrassing fashion. Before beating USF, Connecticut's signature win was over Buffalo.

"I think there's an urgency, frustration," Holtz said. "We're improving in a lot of areas. We're making strides, but everyone's scratching their heads a little bit saying, 'What do we have to do to win?' "

Best matchup: Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead vs. USF's front seven. USF allowed Pittsburgh's Ray Graham to rush for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Last week against UConn, the Bulls finished with seven sacks and prevented UConn from scoring an offensive touchdown. DE Ryne Giddins, one of USF's top recruits in the 2009 class, has the best game of his career against Connecticut, with 11 tackles, two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Cincinnati quietly has become a more run-oriented team; Pead has rushed for 624 yards and at least one touchdowns in every game this season.

[Almost heaven? Q-and-A with West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen]

Players on the spot: Syracuse's defense. The Orange rank last in the Big East in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. That doesn't bode well for a team facing West Virginia in its next game. On the other hand, Syracuse could be more equipped to defend the pass as it has been all season. E Chandler Jones, the team's best defensive player, will play for the first time since the opener. He sacked Smith twice in Syracuse's 19-14 win in Morgantown last season. Olando Fisher, the Orange's nickel back, also will play for the first time since the opener. After missing two games with an injury, SS Shamarko Thomas returned in the most recent game. Syracuse has not been this healthy on defense since the opener.

Keep an eye on: The quarterbacks in the Louisville-Rutgers game. Both teams have changed starting quarterbacks and both have opted for freshmen. Rutgers has been more successful with Gary Nova, who is completing 55.7 percent of his passes for 567 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He has a better supporting cast that Louisville freshman Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 695 yards, with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Numbers game: Rutgers has intercepted nine passes in its past three games (three against Syracuse, four against Pittsburgh, two against Navy). The nine picks have come from seven players. The Scarlet Knights' defense has had multiple interceptions in all but one game this season. Rutgers did not have an interception against Ohio.

Quotes of the week

"Tino [Sunseri] by far and away has the best grasp on what we're doing offensively. We've got to get it out of him. That's the bottom line. Switching the quarterbacks in and out has created more distraction than positive [results]." - Pitt coach Todd Graham

[Expert picks: Week 8 predictions]

"We really needed to take a step back for a minute because we've been so inconsistent. There are times you watch us on film where you say you might say, 'This is a pretty good football team,' and other times when you say, 'What are they doing?' For us, it was a time to get back and re-evaluate everything we've done." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone

"Our young guys are playing pretty good and holding up well. We just need our older guys to play much better." - Louisville coach Charlie Strong

Poll watch: West Virginia started at No. 15 in the first BCS standings, ranked 14th in the coaches and Harris polls and 21st in the average of the computer rankings. West Virginia is ranked as high as No. 18 in the Massey Ratings and as low as No. 41 in the Sagarin ratings. The Mountaineers are the only Big East team in the first BCS standings. No Big East team was ranked higher than No. 20 in the BCS standings last season.

Etc.: The Big East announced intentions Tuesday to expand to a 12-team football league while increasing exit fees from $5 million to $10 million. The Big East also indicated Pittsburgh and Syracuse will be held to the agreement to give the league 27 months notice before leaving the conference. Under that agreement, Pitt and Syracuse cannot join the ACC until June 2014. Louisville and coach Charlie Strong agreed to a new seven-year contract Tuesday. The contract increases his salary from $1.6 million to $2.3 million and runs through 2018. Five Big East teams are among the bottom 30 in the nation in total offense: Pittsburgh (90th among 120 teams), Syracuse (96th), Rutgers (97th), Louisville (100th) and Connecticut (103rd). West Virginia and USF are the only Big East teams ranked in the top 20 in total offense. Mike Sanford no longer is part of the Louisville coaching staff. The former offensive coordinator was relieved of play-calling duties two weeks ago. Quarterback coach Shawn Watson has been calling plays since.. West Virginia WR Tavon Austin is third in the nation in all-purpose yardage (193.5 ypg). Five of Connecticut's 10 interceptions this season have come from freshmen: Byron Jones Ty-Meer Brown (two each) and Yawin Smallwood (one).

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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