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October 13, 2011

Week 7 preview in the Big East

MIDSEASON RECAP: League-by-league breakdown
MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-12 | SEC | Others

Cincinnati entered the season with every starter and every coach returning to a defense that was among the nation's worst last season. The running joke during the spring and summer: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Louisville at Cincinnati, noon
Utah at Pittsburgh, noon
Navy at Rutgers, 2 p.m.
USF at Connecticut, 3:30 p.m.
It looks as if it was a good thing because as Cincinnati opens its Big East schedule against Louisville, the same faces from last season are producing new results.

Most of the gains have come in forcing turnovers. The Bearcats are tied third in the nation in takeaways with 18 in five games; Cincinnati forced 13 turnovers all of last season. This group still struggles against the pass (ranked 91st in pass efficiency defense), but the turnovers have helped Cincinnati's defense hold opponents to 11 fewer points per game compared to last season.

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One of the keys has been consistency on the coaching staff. Co-coordinators Tim Banks and John Jancek and the rest of the defensive staff returned, meaning for the first time since 2008, Cincinnati returned the same coordinators coaching the same scheme.

"You win with continuity," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "We have a very talented defensive staff. They're good coaches, they're good teachers and good communicators.

"Now you're able to teach the fine details of the scheme and the fundamentals. A year in the system really helps."

Even as the Bearcats went undefeated in the regular season in 2009, Cincinnati started a streak of defensive futility - 14 consecutive games against major-conference competition allowing at least 21 points and an average of 35.9 per game.

The wake-up call came against Tennessee earlier this season, a 45-23 loss in which quarterback Tyler Bray passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns.

The Volunteers pushed around Cincinnati's defensive line, but the loss turned into a turning point. The Bearcats scored three defensive touchdowns in the first half of the next game against Akron, forced three more turnovers in the win over N.C. State, then got its first shutout since 2006 the following week against Miami (Ohio).

N.C. State and Miami aren't world-beaters, but it's tough to imagine last season's Cincinnati defense shutting out anyone or holding a Big Six team to 14 points.

"It's creating a mindset," Jones said. "In recent years, we really hadn't had much success on defense. There hasn't been a lot to really hang your hat on. It's really building the standard of what you expect day in and day out in the way you practice and the physicality."

The front seven, led by veteran linebacker J.K. Schaffer and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, has played well. Cincinnati held Miami to minus-3 rushing yards, with five sacks accounting for minus-47 yards on five sacks. The Bearcats held NC State to minus-26 rushing yards, with six sacks accounting for minus-33 yards.

"We're getting great leadership on that side of the ball and our guys are playing with great confidence," Jones said. "It stems from our front seven."

Best matchup: Connecticut DT Kendall Reyes vs. USF's offensive line. The best defensive player in the Big East runs into the Bulls' offensive line. Reyes leads the Big East with 10 tackles for a loss and has four sacks. He'll face Chaz Hine, who was moved from right guard to center this season, and LG Jeremiah Warren.

Player on the spot: Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri. He has an opportunity to fix what went wrong last week against Rutgers in a home game against Utah. The Utes have struggled so far as a Pac-12 member, partly because quarterbacks such as USC's Matt Barkley, Washington's Keith Price and Arizona State's Brock Osweiler have had success against the defense. After Utah, Sunseri faces Connecticut, a team that has struggled even more against the pass. This could be a key stretch for Sunseri to gain some confidence.

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Keep an eye on: Rutgers' defense. The unit has enjoyed a rebound season. The Scarlet Knights are tied for the national lead in takeaways with 22 and are in the top 10 in rush defense (101.2 yards per game). A major part of Rutgers' turnaround has been against the pass. The Scarlet Knights lead the Big East in sacks (four per game) and interceptions (12). Those two strengths will be negated to a degree against Navy's triple option. Rutgers is used to preparing for the triple-option, though, with six games against Army and Navy since 2007. Rutgers has gone 5-1 in those games, with the loss coming to Navy in 2008.

Numbers game: Connecticut has been held without an offensive touchdown twice this season, against Vanderbilt and West Virginia, both on the road. QB Johnny McEntee's two touchdown passes against Buffalo are the Huskies' only offensive touchdowns on the road this season.

What they're saying

"Early on he was a little nervous - I don't know if nervous is the word, but excited. As he calmed down, things slowed down." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano on freshman QB Gary Nova, who earned his first career start last week against Pittsburgh

"For the coaches, now is the time to take a deep breath and really take a good, hard look at ourselves, what our expectations were before the season with our scheme and players and where we're fulfilling those expectations and where we're not and why we're not." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, on the upcoming bye week.

"Although never having competed as a member of the Big East Conference, we are disappointed with the news that TCU is joining the Big 12. As noted earlier, our presidents met via teleconference this morning to focus on the future and have authorized us to engage in formal expansion discussions with additional institutions. We anticipate taking action in the near future." - Big East commissioner John Marinatto in a statement

Poll watch: West Virginia is ranked No. 16 in the coaches' poll and the Harris poll. This week marked the first Harris poll of the season. The first BCS standings will be released Sunday. USF is effectively the No. 27 team in the Harris poll, and Rutgers and Cincinnati also received votes in the Harris. USF and Rutgers were in the "others receiving votes" category in the coaches' poll.

Etc.: Cincinnati is playing its first of two games at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Bengals. The other is a Nov. 12 game against West Virginia. ... Louisville coach Charlie Strong formally elevated quarterback coach Shawn Watson to play-caller, a role he served in the loss to North Carolina last week. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford did not make the trip to Chapel Hill or participate in practice last week. His role with the team remains undecided. ... Pittsburgh is hopeful starting G Lucas Nix (leg) will return this week against Utah. If Nix cannot return this week, he likely will return next week, coach Todd Graham said. ... Rutgers K San San Te leads the nation in field goals at 2.4 per game. He converted both of his attempts last week against Pittsburgh to improve to 12-of-16 on the season. ... Rutgers started Antwan Lowery at right guard and Caleb Ruch at center against Pitt, marking the third different starting offensive line Rutgers has used this season. Schiano said the group is getting "closer," but more changes may be upcoming. ... West Virginia booster Milan Puskar, for whom the Mountaineers' stadium is named, died last Friday at age 77. His $20 million gift to the university, with $14.5 million earmarked for athletics, in 2003 was the single largest donation in school history. ... The Mountaineers replaced P Corey Smith (38.5 yards per punt) with freshman Michael Molinari, who averaged 43 yards per punt against Connecticut. ... Connecticut CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (knee) is out for at least another week. He has missed the past two games, losses to Western Michigan and West Virginia. ... Syracuse has had three games decided in overtime (2-1). Last week's win over Tulane was decided on a field goal as time expired. ... Perhaps Utah should have joined the Big East instead of the Pac-12. The Utes are 8-0 all-time against current Big East schools, including a win over Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2004 season. Utah is 0-3 in the Pac-12.

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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