It wasn't the catastrophic failure that Pat Forde predicted, but it wasn't a rousing start either. Still, Big East football is officially under way as Louisville, Syracuse, and Rutgers all recorded wins on the opening night of college football for the 2011 season. It often wasn't pretty, but it was a start. Here's some gut level reactions to all three games.
The Scarlet Knight opened with North Carolina Central, a team in its first full year in FCS football after moving up from Division II. Rutgers went into the game hoping to get a good look at a number of its new players, or old players in new positions, and the strength of the opponent considered, it was a success. The Scarlet Knights rushed for over 200 yards en route to a 48-0 win, with North Carolina coming up in 10 days.
- Savon Huggins looks like the back of the future. He was limited to just 10 carries for 32 yards, but he did score two touchdowns. The entire Rutgers rushing attack, however, did not look improved, which is the primary reason Frank Cignetti was brought in to be the offensive coordinator. Rutgers ran the ball 41 times on the night and gained just 137 yards. If the Scarlet Knights can only average 3.3 yards per carry against North Carolina Central, it'll be tough to see them having success on the ground against the Big East schedulem, which will feature a number of good defensive lines, and North Carolina next week, which is loaded with NFL calibe defensive linemen.
- Chas Dodd looked comfortable in the pocket in year number two as the starter, but was still only 9 for 17 for the game. Schiano did the smart thing and let backup quarterback Gary Nova get some reps, which he capitalized on. Nova completed just 6 of 17 passes, but did throw a nice 44 yard touchdown to Brandon Coleman. Realizing this is the first game of the year in a new offense, and that Rutgers probably kept the game plan as vanilla as possible against an inferior opponent, there's some tightening up to do at quarterback before better competition comes calling.
- The defense looked steady for having moved so many players to new positions. It's never a bad thing to hold an opponent to eight yards rushing and force four turnovers.Since they're a bit undersized, the Scarlet Knights appear willing to be a lot more aggressive with the defense and so far that looks like it'll be a good thing.
- Receivers Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu looked comfortable in Cignetti's pro style attack and that's good. After last year, where they were constantly shuffling back to be wildcat formation quarterbacks, they should be a dynamic tandem now that they can focus on just being wide receivers again.
Syracuse rallied furiously from a 15 point fourth quarter deficit to tie the game, and after having a game winning FG attempt blocked, scored first and held Wake Forest to win 36-29 in overtime. While I admire the offense for gathering itself and making some big plays late, I can't help but be concerned with the defense, considering Wake's quarterback went down with an injury in the third quarter that completely changed the game. Still, here are some other thoughts.
- You have to feel good about Ryan Nassib and the game he played. 20 for 28, 178 yards, and three touchdowns. He was cool in the pocket and made an absolutely gorgeous throw across his body for the eventual game winning touchdown pass in overtime. Nassib didn't get a lot of help from his receivers, and boy does Syracuse miss Marcus Sales as a deep threat to stretch defenses, but he was the field general that Marrone wants his quarterback to be and that's a good sign for an offense that is going to need bigger plays out of the passing game.
- I'm not sure he can keep it up for an entire season, but, Antwon Bailey did a nice job being the featured back in his first game as a starter. Bailey started slow but was a reliable workhorse down the stretch and finished with 114 yards and two touchdowns and long run of 53 yards. I'm concerned he won't be able to hold up with a workload like that all year, so the Orange need to get to work on finding a change of pace back for him now.
- The injuries seemed to really take a toll on the Orange defense. Before he went out with an injury, Wake Forest quarterback had already thrown for 289 yards and three touchdowns. The secondary, the corners in particular, did not have a great game, and safety Phillip Thomas was forced out of the game due to injury. That secondary will have to tighten up a great deal before offenses from Pitt, West Virginia, and Cincinnati come calling.
- I thought they started slowly, but, the Orange defensive line turned it on the second half and did a much better job generating a pass rush and forcing stops when the offense needed it. Chandler Jones had a nice game it will take that kind of pressure from the defensive front four to take some heat off of that secondary.
- I really like the way the Orange used bootlegs and misdirection to get the quarterback on the edge and working things to the tight end. It's a really well designed offense that a quarterback with NFL aspirations should want to play in.
The Cardinals started hot, both metaphorically (21 points in a little over a quarter) and literally (100 degrees at kickoff), but cooled substantially and held on for a 21-9 win against in-state FCS team Murray State. The Cardinals looked capable of big plays at times, and then looked remarkably nervous at other times. While hoping to run a hurry up offense and to feature tailbacks Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright, the Cardinals were forced to throw more than they might have wished and the defense wore down over the course of the game. Here are some other reactions:
- Louisville fans will walk away from this game upset, and there are things to be worried about for sure, but, in the final analysis, the things that most thought would be weaknesses turned out to be, well, weaknesses. The offensive line really struggled to play well together and none of them looked like particularly good run blockers last night. The secondary is remarkably young, and blew some coverages that a better team would be able to take advantage of. And Will Stein looked like a quarterback making his first career start. While none of it was comforting, the team is what most thought they would be.
- While the final score didn't impress many, Louisville left at least two touchdowns on the board with fumbles at the end of big plays that would have extended the lead even more. Both Jeremy Wright and Victor Anderson must get better about protecting the football or else it will be a very long year for the Louisville offense.
- If you want to be a glass half full kind of person, consider that much of what hurt Louisville last night can be corrected with greater concentration and execution. Andrell Smith dropped a pair of passes, Will Stein was inaccurate on several throws that would've gone for big third down conversions, the left side of the offensive line repeatedly jumped early, and of course, the fumbles. If the Cardinals avoid those things, they'll look a lot more polished next week. They better, because a red hot FIU team comes to Papa Johns next.
- The things that can't be fixed, boy, they're a problem. The offensive line did not move anyone off of the ball all night long and that's not good. This was a Murray State team that was overmatched up front and if Louisville can't move them, what will they do with North Carolina and the Big East schedule? The freshman defensive backs looked like FRESHMAN defensive backs and Louisville was lucky that Murray State couldn't capitalize on many busted coverages.
- If you're a Louisville fan, you've got to like what the future looks like. Greater than 30 sophomore, redshirt freshmen, or true freshmen saw playing time last night, many of them in starting or first reserve off the bench roles, and while it's going to hurt some early on as they grow up, the team is going to be very good in the future.