Big East Bowl Preview, Part I: USF, WVU, RU

While USF and West Virginia entered the season as Big East favorites and staggered their way through forgettable campaigns, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights struggled early on after losing tailback Ray Rice to the NFL. Despite the different paths they took, all three teams find themselves in a similar position: in a winnable, lower-tier bowl game that could serve as a springboard into next season.

magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl:  South Florida (7-5, 2-5 BE) vs. Memphis (6-6, 4-4 C-USA)

Saturday, December 20th, 4:30PM, ESPN2

Overview:  This game takes place in the Bulls' backyard.  Well, maybe not quite in their backyard, as they'll have to travel 32 miles to Tropicana Field for the game.  South Florida lost five of its last seven games this season, after starting off 5-0 and peaking with the #10 ranking in the country.  Both teams should find conditions conducive to their high-paced offensive attacks.  The Bulls and Tigers will be playing on indoor turf, which should magnify the game's key matchup between the Memphis offense and the South Florida defense.  USF's defense ranks 13th in the country, surrendering 291 total yards per game.  The Bulls had the rug pulled out from under them in the second half of the season, falling all the way into a game on the first day of bowl season.  QB Matt Grothe will look to rescue his disappointing season.  After being considered a front runner for Big East POY honors at the beginning of the season, Grothe finished with just one more touchdown pass than interception (15 to 14).  What separates Grothe from most other signal-callers Memphis has season, however, is his ability to be a dual-threat QB.  Memphis, which has struggled against quality opponents so far this season, will either find a fired-up Bulls squad or a completely flat one.  Expect coach Jim Leavitt to get the troops motivated and the USF defense to be able to slow Memphis' multiple-receiver sets.  Expect Memphis to feature C-USA Newcomer of the Year Curtis Steele prominently.  He ran for 1,175 yards, the most by a Memphis back since DeAngelo Williams in 2005.  The Bulls and Tigers have one opponent in common this year:  Louisville.  The Cardinals topped Memphis 35-28 and USF 24-20. 

3 Things USF Must Do To Win:

-Have a fast start.  USF's offense has struggled as of late.  If they're able to march down and score a touchdown on their first possession, expect it to be a long day for Memphis. 

-Pressure from the defensive front four.  George Selvie & Co. anchor one of the nation's most underappreciated defenses.  This speedy, athletic squad should put pressure on the quarterback all day and be able to disrupt running lanes.  If they can't, Memphis' high-octane offense might run roughshod.

-Establish the passing game.  The Bulls have a cadre of backs to chew up the yards on the ground, but Memphis will likely stack the box and force Grothe to use his arm and not his legs to beat them.  South Florida has athletes at wide receiver; they just haven't quite developed like expected (a microcosm of the entire team this year). 

Prediction:  South Florida 27, Memphis 19


Meineke Car Care Bowl:  West Virginia (8-4, 5-2 BE) vs. North Carolina (8-4, 4-4 ACC)

Saturday, December 27th, 1:00PM, ESPN

Overview:  The location of this game is the Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, giving North Carolina a decided home-field edge.  While North Carolina might have an edge on the stats sheet, intangibles and athleticism favor the Mountaineers, making this a very interesting matchup.  While North Carolina has put up 330 points this year, some six touchdowns more than WVU, they have been plagued by injury at the QB position and do not feature many playmakers besides junior wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.  And after a white-hot start, Nicks cooled as the season progressed.  He has not topped four receptions or 75 yards receiving in a game since October.  This coming from a receiver who finished the year with sixty receptions and over one thousand yards.  Despite the fact that UNC is 2-0 against Big East foes this season, winning by an average of 29 points per game, expect Pat White and Noel Devine to provide the stiffest test the Heels defense will face all season.  While these teams were on a collision course to meet in the Orange Bowl for much of the year, they should still have plenty of motivation.  This matchup screams of an untapped rivalry:  two teams that are very close geographically, but rarely play each other. 

3 Things West Virginia Must Do To Win:

-The defense doesn't need to try to do too much.  This unit has been underappreciated for the last few years and showcased itself on the national level last year, in a 48-28 shellacking of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.  The linebacking corps possesses enough speed to slow down any Tar Heels rushing attack and could force this game to be won through the air.

-Pat White needs 250 all-purpose yards.  To be safe, I'll say 250, though WVU could easily exploit some takeaways to get ahead early.  In that case, White could end up with something around 125 passing and 75 rushing.  But the fact of the matter is, Pat White is the lifeblood of this team.  As he goes, so do they. 

-Take the crowd out of it early.  While UNC is more well-known for its basketball prowess, its fans will likely pounce on this chance to cheer on Butch Davis' resurgent squad.  While the ‘Eers usually employ quick scoring strikes, a prolonged drive to begin the game would not only wear the UNC defense out, it would also mitigate the crowd factor.

Prediction:  West Virginia 31, North Carolina 20 Bowl:  Rutgers (7-5, 5-2 BE) vs. North Carolina State (6-6, 4-4 ACC)

Monday, December 29th, 3:00 PM, ESPN

Overview:  Rutgers rides a six-game winning streak into this game, which will be played in Birmingham, Alabama.  After starting 1-5, the Scarlet Knights finished just one game away from a Big East title.  The main reason?  Quarterback Mike Teel, who got into a much-publicized spat with teammates and coaches earlier this year.  He's back to his former touchdown-tossing self, throwing twenty of his 23 over the season's final five games (including 6 against Pitt and 7 against Louisville).  Teel will look to guide Rutgers to its third straight bowl victory and track down a school record in the process.  He's just 56 yards away from breaking Ryan Hart's single-season record of 3,154 passing yards (set in 2004).  While breaking the record might be a mere formality for Teel, winning a third straight bowl game won't be nearly as easy.  The Scarlet Knights face a charging Wolfpack squad that, like Rutgers, was left for dead by most experts this season.  NC State had to win its final four games, including two over ranked opponents, to become bowl-eligible.  To do this, they rode the arm of Russell Wilson.  The freshman quarterback doubled as a marksman in the second half of the season.  After taking over the starting job, he finished the regular season with sixteen touchdown tosses versus just one interception, a record-shattering accomplishment.  The Knights and Wolfpack share just one common opponent this year:  South Florida.  Rutgers waxed USF 41-10, while USF laid the wood to North Carolina State 41-10 in an early-season encounter.

3 Things Rutgers Must Do To Win:

-Establish a rushing attack.  The Wolfpack will key on the aerial attack which, besides Teel, also features Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, perhaps the best 1-2 WR tandem in the conference.  Therefore, it'll be important to establish halfback Kordell Young.  He tallied not much over 500 rushing yards this season, but that's a deceiving stat.  He didn't play in five of his team's twelve games and finished with just eleven carries total in his last two games, due to the fact that the games were blowouts.

-Pick off Russell Wilson.  This one might be obvious, seeing as Wilson has keyed the NC State renaissance, but it could be a tough task for the Scarlet Knights, who have had more than their share of defensive struggles this season.

-Hope that the game doesn't come down to a last-second field goal over forty yards from the foot of kicker San San Te.  The freshman has done a decent job with his duties, but is just 1 of 4 on kicks past forty yards.

Prediction:  Rutgers 34, North Carolina State 30

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