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September 23, 2010

Week 4 preview in the Big East

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

Miami at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m.
Buffalo at Connecticut, noon
Colgate at Syracuse, 3:30 p.m.
North Carolina at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m.
Oklahoma at Cincinnati
(at Paul Brown Stadium), 6 p.m.
Western Kentucky at USF, 7 p.m.
West Virginia at LSU, 9:15 p.m.

In a list of "little things" and "small details" contributing to Cincinnati's slow start this season, coach Butch Jones included overall tackling, too many penalties, dropping footballs, turnovers, lack of executions, finishing plays and mishandling the center-quarterback exchange.

When he puts it that way, Cincinnati might be lucky to be 1-2.

After winning back-to-back Big East championships, the Bearcats could fall to 1-3 when they face Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium. Throw in the 51-24 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl and Cincinnati has lost its past three games against FBS competition by a total of 52 points.

The Bearcats enjoyed the best three-year stretch in school history under Brian Kelly, but now they're searching for answers as they face their toughest opponent this season.

"[We] dissect everything that's going on in our football program, not searching for alibis or excuses but reasons," Jones said. "The players are going through emotions and things they haven't gone through in a couple of years."

The most glaring problem has been Cincinnati's inability to protect quarterback Zach Collaros, who went 4-0 as a starter last season. Cincinnati has allowed the most sacks in the country with 15.

A handful of issues have contributed to that number, Jones said. The Bearcats lost their two best linemen from a year ago, tackle Jeff Linkenbach and center Chris Jurek. Jason Kelce, a standout guard a year ago, has moved to center. The starting alignment has changed once already this season, with Randy Martinez taking over at left guard for Evan Davis.

"Some of it is inexperience. Sometimes when you're starting people in different games, you're not reaching that continuity and that chemistry with those five working together," Jones said. "Sometimes it may be our quarterback holding on to the ball too long. It may be our running back missing a protection or a block in the protection. Everything in the throwing game is about rhythm and spacing and timing. Sometimes maybe the receiver, when he's supposed to run a 12-yard route, he runs a 16-yard route.

"So I think when people look at sacks, people look at the offensive line; it doesn't fall squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line."

The offense also is dealing with injuries. Wide receiver Vidal Hazelton was lost for the season with a torn ACL during the opener, and tight end Ben Guidugli will miss the Oklahoma game with a sprained ankle.

Despite the setbacks, Jones remains confident in the direction of the program. Certainly, there's precedent for him to turn things around. Taking over for Kelly at Central Michigan, Jones started 1-2 with the Chippewas in 2007. But Central Michigan recovered to win the '07 and '09 MAC championships.

"I'm excited where the program is. I'm excited about where we're headed," Jones said. "There's absolutely zero panic in what we're doing here."

Best matchup: West Virginia WR Tavon Austin vs. LSU CB Patrick Peterson. Austin is a former running back still learning the wide receiver position. He showed glimpses the past two weeks of what could be in his future. He had nine catches for 85 yards against Marshall and topped that with seven catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland last week. He has work to do -- he's still learning how to block when he's not catching the ball -- and this week he'll have the toughest task of his career, going against LSU cornerback Peterson.

Player on the spot: Rutgers QB Tom Savage. Savage entered the season as the most experienced starting quarterback in the Big East, but it's been clear he's still a sophomore. He's 17-of-34 passing this season and is coming off a 72-yard, one-interception performance against Florida International. Savage has had an extra week to prepare for North Carolina, which continues to be limited on defense by NCAA-investigation issues.

Numbers game: The Big East is 12-9 (.571) in non-conference games this season. The league hasn't finished the season with a non-conference winning percentage of less than 70 percent since 2005, when the Big East went 20-16 (.556).

What they're saying

"We have an outstanding group of young men here. We've had a couple bad decisions in the last month and a half. That is not an indication of our football team. It's not what we were in the past, it's not what we are now and it won't be what we are all about in the future." -- Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt, on recent off-field problems

"We run the zone and run the belly a little bit and try to play fast. Offensively, we didn't have any tight ends to catch passes because we didn't have any tight ends before. We have bigger backs than we had before. We're probably more multiple, but that's in the eyes of the beholder." -- West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, on the evolution of the Mountaineers' offense

"When you look at this team, you can't look at this team without looking at the tailback or talking about the tailback. You look at the games they have played, playing against teams like Nebraska, Kentucky and Indiana, and yet they have the fifth-leading rusher in the entire country -- 148 yards a game. He rushed for 184 yards on a Kentucky defense that's a Southeastern Conference-caliber defense. He's strong, he's low to the ground, he's durable, he's a power runner. I think he is just an excellent back, and I think their offensive line has really done a nice job." -- USF coach Skip Holtz, on Western Kentucky RB Bobby Rainey

Etc.: West Virginia CB Brandon Hogan returned to practice this week following his suspension and is an "evaluation period," coach Bill Stewart said. Mountaineers LB Pat Lazear (knee) will try to play against LSU after missing the first three games of the season. And West Virginia G Josh Jenkins had arthroscopic knee surgery this week; a decision will be made on his status today. Competition for Connecticut's starting quarterback position could reopen with the return of Cody Endres from a 30-day suspension. Endres and redshirt freshman Michael Box were both listed as No. 2 quarterback behind Zach Frazer, who is 7-5 in his career as a starter. Endres is 4-4. Erik Kuraczea, who started five games last season, also returned from a 30-day suspension. He is listed as Mathieu Olivier's backup at left guard. Huskies linebacker Scott Lutrus remains listed as a starter despite missing the past two games with am "upper body" injury. Cincinnati is one of six Big Six conference teams that will play only one game in its home stadium in September. The Bearcats face Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals. Miami, Colorado, North Carolina, USC and Oregon State are the other Big Six teams that have played only one true home game this month. Rutgers RB Joe Martinek (leg) might not play against North Carolina. Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano said the decision will be "close." If Martinek does not start, freshman Jordan Thomas could start in his place. Syracuse is the only Big East team playing two FCS schools. The Orange defeated Maine last week and face Colgate on Saturday. Rutgers LB/FB Edmond Laryea (knee) is out for the season. Four of Oregon State's five touchdown drives against Louisville started in Cardinals territory, thanks to poor special-teams play. Louisville is allowing 30.8 yards on kickoff returns this season. USF WR Dontavia Bogan remains sidelined with an ankle injury sustained Sept. 11 at Florida. His status will be determined today. Syracuse WR Aaron Weaver was denied a sixth year of eligibility after sustaining a torn ACL. He played three seasons at Hofstra before transferring to Syracuse after Hofstra ceased playing football after the 2009 season.

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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