Over the next ten days, Big East Coast Bias will take a look at the ten games that we think will be the most vital in crowing the Big East football champion in 2011. It's difficult to narrow the list down to ten, so take the list with a grain of salt, but in looking over the conference's contenders and the schedule for 2011, these are the games we think we will look back upon and see were the most critical in determining the Big East's champion. Up next, our number two game, West Virginia at South Florida.
The 2010 mid-season meeting between South Florida and West Virginia in Morgantown was an extremely difficult to watch slugfest between two teams with athletic and aggressive defenses, but inconsistent offenses. The Mountaineers got yet another stellar game from Jeff Casteel's defense, holding South Florida to six points and just 202 yards of total offense. South Florida quarterback BJ Daniels was harassed into three interceptions. He was also sacked five times. But, as was typical of the Mountaineers in 2010, the defensive effort was met with just barely enough offense to get the job done, and it took a trick play hook and ladder touchdown pass just before the first half ended to give the Mountaineers some momentum and ultimately hold on for the 20-6 win.
This year's matchup should look drastically different for the Bulls. Whereas Daniels was trying to get comfortable in the Bulls' new offense last year, he seemed very comfortable by year's end and was spectacular in their bowl win over Clemson. The Bulls only rushed for 65 yards against West Virginia in 2010, but, that stat reflects a loss of rushing yards on BJ Daniels' sacks. This year the Bulls should be able to run the ball more effectively with a deep trio of talented backs in Demetris Murray, Darrell Scott, and Dontae Aycock. The challenge will be to replace three of the five starters from last year's offensive line. Whereas the game was mid-season last year, this year's game come on the final Thursday night of the season and by that time any personnel issues should be well sorted out and the game should be much more about attrition than new or inexperienced players. Last year's game was not Holtz's first run in with Jeff Casteel and the West Virginia defense. When Holtz was at East Carolina, his Pirates upset the Mountaineers 24-3 in 2008, and were defeated 35-20 in 2009. His offense was stymied in a similar fashion in the 2009 loss. Perhaps by year's end and with a comfortable, healthy BJ Daniels at quarterback, the Bulls and Skip Holtz will have an answer for the West Virginia defense.
West Virginia didn't exactly set the scoreboard on fire against South Florida. It was that kind of offensive stagnation that precipitated the hiring of offensive whiz Dana Holgorsen to become the head coach. It will take some time to get used to the fact that the Mountaineers may wind up the inverse of the 2010 team. With Geno Smith at quarterback, a bevy of extremely talented receivers, and solid running backs, the Mountaineers should be as explosive an offense as there is in country. If they somehow manage to upset LSU in September, Smith may be in the Heisman conversation all year. Conversely, there are a lot of pieces that must be replaced from last year's top 10 defense. Just four starters return from Casteel's unit that excelled at his unique 3-3-5 stack defense. Much like USF and the offensive line, the good news is this game comes at the end of the season and should allow them plenty of time to find the right combination of players to once again field one of the Big East's best defenses. Early on, however, we might have to get used to seeing the West Virginia offense carry the defense.
The Big East purposefully designs its schedule every year to make the one first weekend in December a de facto playoff game. This year they chose West Virginia at South Florida for that purpose and there's no reason to think it will be anything less than expected. The only oddity of the game is that both teams will be playing on a Thursday night after playing on a Friday night the week before. South Florida hosts an improved Louisville team, while West Virginia hosts rival Pittsburgh. Both teams may enter the game rather beat up from the previous week's games and the short, odd week. Our thinking is that in the end, the reason so many games were either closer than they ought to have been, or were outright losses for West Virginia, is that the offense simply didn't produce. This year, with the change in philosophy and the returning personnel, there are no games where the West Virginia defense will need to carry the moribund offense. South Florida always fields a talented defense, but it won't be enough to slow down West Virginia and we're not convinced South Florida, or anyone really, can win a shootout with the Mountaineers.