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Big East : Four emerge in conference title picture

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on November 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm Contact Ryne: [email protected] Todd Graham’s first season at Pittsburgh is filled with highs and lows.At times, like after beating South Florida 44-17 in September, the Panthers looked like a legitimate threat to win the Big East. And at other times, like the game following the USF win against Rutgers, Pittsburgh was just another mediocre team in the conference.But even after the embarrassing 34-10 letdown against the Scarlet Knights, Graham didn’t lose sight of his goal for this season.‘I think we took two giant steps forward against South Florida, and then we took three back last week (against Rutgers),’ Graham said in the Big East coaches’ teleconference Oct. 10. ‘So it’s a process, but we don’t have time to go through a process because we want to compete to win a championship.’That goal remains the same for Graham three weeks later despite more highs and lows that followed for Pittsburgh. The Panthers, first-place Cincinnati and West Virginia all control their own destiny heading into the final stretch of the season. If one of those three teams wins out, it wins the Big East championship and earns the automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series. Louisville is also lurking — tied in second place with Pitt and WVU after consecutive conference victories — but Cincinnati holds the head-to-head edge over the Cardinals.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textIn a wide-open Big East, the title race picture became clearer after Louisville defeated Syracuse, and West Virginia took care of Rutgers on Saturday. And it will become more apparent after No. 23 Cincinnati takes on Pittsburgh and No. 24 West Virginia battles Louisville in a pair of conference showdowns on Saturday. Though nothing has been certain in the Big East this year, these four teams have emerged as the frontrunners to take the conference crown.The race starts with Cincinnati.The Bearcats sit alone atop the conference standings as the only team undefeated in Big East play. Even though UC’s fast start has the team on top now, head coach Butch Jones said the journey toward winning the Big East starts this weekend against Pitt.‘We worked ourselves extremely hard to put ourselves in this position,’ Jones said in the teleconference Monday. ‘That’s what it’s all about is playing meaningful games in November. And championships are won in November, so our players understand what’s at stake.’Cincinnati is in control for now, but preseason favorite West Virginia is arguably the most talented team in the Big East. The Mountaineers appeared to be the class of the conference as it rolled through its early-season competition, but that notion was destroyed in an embarrassing 49-23 loss to Syracuse on Oct. 21.WVU bounced back with a 41-31 win over Rutgers last Saturday, but its defensive flaws were exposed again. The Mountaineers were torched for 31 first-half points before shutting the Scarlet Knights’ offensive attack completely in the second half.Head coach Dana Holgorsen said the team needs more consistent play from the defense as it makes a push for the Big East title. Holgorsen has preached to his players that when a play doesn’t go their way, they need to move on to the next one.Building that mentality in his players goes back to preparation and routine throughout the week.‘Our job as coaches is to keep them accountable for what they do on the field and what they do off the field,’ Holgorsen said in the teleconference Monday. ‘So throughout the course of the week, it’s all about knowing your opponent, who you’re gonna play and what you need to expect.’Charlie Strong felt his Louisville players weren’t getting that message after a 25-16 loss to Cincinnati pushed their record to 2-4. The Cardinals had already suffered losses to inferior opponents Florida International and Marshall earlier in the season, and Strong had seen enough.The head coach simply told his players things were going to change in individual meetings following the loss to the Bearcats.‘I told our players in those meetings, ‘You’ve tried it your way, now let’s try it our way as a coaching staff,” Strong said in the teleconference Monday. ‘‘We know how to coach, but you try to do it your way and it isn’t working, so do it our way.”His players got the message. Louisville went on to beat Rutgers and Syracuse, and now it finds itself in the middle of the Big East championship race with freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a disruptive defense leading the way.And then there’s Pittsburgh.The Panthers have struggled to find their rhythm in Graham’s ‘high-octane’ spread offense this season. Now, they have lost running back Ray Graham, the Big East’s leading rusher, for the season after he injured his right knee in the first quarter against Connecticut last Saturday.Still, Todd Graham believes Zach Brown and the rest of the running backs will provide a reliable running game for Pitt.Even without its star tailback, Pittsburgh’s goal is within reach. And that’s exactly where the head coach wants to be with four games left on the schedule.‘A win for us would put us at the top of the league, so that’s what our goal is, what our focus is to be Big East champions,’ Graham said in the teleconference Monday. ‘So we’re excited about the opportunity this week.’[email protected]center_img Commentslast_img

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