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September 29, 2011

Week 5 preview in the Big East

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The way USF coach Skip Holtz describes it, B.J. Daniels became a better quarterback by not playing quarterback.

Daniels injured his right leg before halftime of last season's Miami game Nov. 27 and missed the season finale against Connecticut. After an up-and-down season with his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, Daniels' absence and the ensuing bowl practices turned out to be a good time to regroup.

USF at Pittsburgh, 8 p.m.
Rutgers at Syracuse, noon
Cincinnati at Miami (Ohio), 1 p.m.
Marshall at Louisville, 3:30 p.m.
Bowling Green at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Western Michigan at Connecticut, 3:30 p.m.
"It started to turn toward the end of the season, especially when he got hurt and sat out and we had that whole month to prepare for the bowl game," Holtz said. "It started with the bowl game and how he played there."

[Related: Week 5 expert picks]

Daniels was 20-of-27 for 189 yards and two touchdowns and he also ran for a score in the 31-26 win over Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. That was a long way from the quarterback who threw four interceptions against Florida and five in a two-game span against Syracuse and West Virginia.

In his past five games, including the bowl win, Daniels has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,260 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

The transformation could make USF a serious contender for the Big East crown. The key has been Daniels' work away from the field.

"Even in camp, I had opportunity to sit back with Coach Holtz and watch camp and pick his brain and see what he thought," Daniels said.

At the start of last season, Holtz recalled Daniels returning to the sideline having difficulty relaying what he saw in on the field during the turnover-filled day against Florida. By this season's opener against Notre Dame, Daniels had no such difficulty. Daniels was turnover-free and didn't even risk an interception, Holtz said.

Daniels was pushed into a starting role unexpectedly in 2009 when he took over for senior Matt Grothe, who was lost for the season to injury in the third game. At the time, Daniels looked like a dual-threat quarterback in the mold of his predecessor, rushing for 772 yards and nine touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.

[Video: Could a 28-year-old win the Heisman?]

He was curtailed in the rushing attack last season, but that may be changing. Daniels rushed for 130 yards last week against UTEP and has run for 215 this season. He ran for 245 last season.

"We want B.J. to play in the system," Holtz said. "But when the system breaks down, we want B.J. to use his feet and playmaking ability to make something happen. That's a fine line. You don't want him to be so robotic that he loses his ability to freelance when things do break down, and you don't want him out there running around with his eyes all over the field."

Most of Daniels' running opportunities have come from reads. If the defense pinches down to stop USF tailbacks Darrell Scott and Demetris Murray, Daniels can have an opportunity to take off.

"I'm a lot more comfortable," Daniels said. "Not only that, I have more freedom, just to play and be me and use the athletic ability that I've been blessed with."

Best matchup: Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham vs. USF's linebackers. Graham is eighth in the nation in rushing at 508 yards. USF will offer a difficult test because of its linebackers. In Pitt's 17-10 victory over the Bulls last season, Graham split carries with Dion Lewis. Graham rushed for 44 yards and caught a touchdown pass. USF MLB Mike Lanaris has a team-leading 27 tackles, and he is ably flanked by Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore.

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Player on the spot: Connecticut QB Johnny McEntee. After going 12-of-21 for 213 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win over Buffalo, McEntee is separating himself from the others in UConn's three-quarterback rotation. As many as nine or 10 Buffalo defenders crept up near the line of scrimmage to stop Huskies RB Lyle McCombs. The Huskies rushed for only 80 yards on 42 carries against Buffalo. If McEntee can give opponents a reason to respect the pass, the pressure on the run game should let up.

Keep an eye on: West Virginia. How did the Mountaineers amass 533 yards against LSU and only come away with 21 points? Let's start with West Virginia's field position. The average West Virginia possession started at its 15, thanks to LSU P Brad Wing averaging 48.7 yards per punt. The Mountaineers are allowing opponents to average 45.4 yards per punt, according to cfbstats.com. Only seven teams in the country rank worse. This week's opponent, Bowling Green, leads the nation in net punting at 43.8 yards per kick.

Numbers game: Through four games, Cincinnati already has exceeded its takeaway numbers from last season. The Bearcats have forced 16 turnovers (eight interceptions, eight fumble recoveries); they forced 14 (eight interceptions, six fumbles) in 2010.

Quotes of the week
"That's the big question with all the recruits - they want to know where you stand with the conference, what conference are you going to be in. If someone wants to attack you in recruiting, that's how they attack you - with the conference." - Louisville coach Charlie Strong, to CardinalSports.com

"We have to make some tough decisions. We have some kids that are bandaged pretty heavily. We have some casts. We have to make some decisions on if we're going to play someone who hasn't practiced in two days or someone who has practiced once." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone

"It's what you make of it. We need to build off it. Games like this can either help you or hurt you." - Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, on last week's 44-14 victory over N.C. State

"I've been told that I maybe resemble a Marshall Faulk or even back in the day - I didn't know him at the time, I had to go look him up - but Gale Sayers. I didn't know who it was. My high school athletic director told me that. Was he on the Bears, in a movie or something like that? But I do know Marshall Faulk, when they were the greatest show on turf, the Rams. I really would like to go in and make my own name and have people say I play like Isaiah Pead." - Cincinnati TB Isaiah Pead, to The Cincinnati Enquirer

[Dr. Saturday: USC star QB reprimanded for comments]

Poll watch: West Virginia's loss to LSU dropped the Mountaineers from 16th to 23rd in the coaches' poll. That's still better than where West Virginia started (unranked in the preseason poll). That leaves USF as the top-ranked team in the Big East at No. 14 in the coaches' poll. No other team received votes this week.

Etc.: USF WR Terrence Mitchell was carted off the field and hospitalized after a helmet-to-helmet collision with a UTEP player on Saturday. He was released from the hospital later that night with a concussion. ... Dealing with injuries on defense, including E Chandler Jones, S Shamarko Thomas and LB Marquis Spruill, Syracuse closed practice this week. Syracuse normally opens practice to the media for the first 30 minutes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. ... Louisville QB Will Stein (shoulder) is day-to-day. If Stein plays, Strong expects freshman Teddy Bridgewater will play as well as multi-threat sophomore Dominique Brown. ... C Mario Benavides (ankle), the Cardinals' top lineman, could return as early as this week. ... Connecticut CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (knee sprain) will not play this week and could be out "a couple of weeks," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. ... After the first five weeks of the season, Syracuse will have faced three of the top six pass-catchers in the country: Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu, USC's Robert Woods and Toledo's Eric Page. Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens, whom Syracuse faced in the opener, is 26th in the nation in catches per game. ... Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said he embraces the tradition of the series with Miami (Ohio) of the MAC. His predecessor, Brian Kelly, said Cincinnati should re-evaluate the series with Miami, which has been played since 1888. ... The Big East's non-conference win percentage of 70 percent (21-9) is 10 points higher than a year ago (60 percent, 28-18).

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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