Big East Bowl Watch

The Sports Xchange reviews Cincinnati and the rest of the Big East teams as they prepare to take on their respective bowl opponents.

========== CINCINNATI ==========

INSIDE SLANT

Tim Tebow and the defending national champion Florida Gators might not be the biggest challenge facing interim head coach Jeff Quinn as he prepares the fifth-ranked Bearcats for the Sugar Bowl.

Quinn must first repair the damaged psyche of players who are dealing with the abrupt departure of head coach Brian Kelly for Notre Dame just days after completing the first 12-0 regular season in school history and a second consecutive Big East Conference championship.

"There's disappointment," Quinn said. "This time will pass. Our kids will be ready to go. It's hard for all of us. But, in this business you've got to overcome and adapt. Nobody wanted to see Brian Kelly leave."

The news of Kelly's departure broke moments before Cincinnati's annual team banquet. By the time he met with his team, word was out that Kelly had agreed to become the Irish head coach. Although speculation about Kelly's interest in Notre Dame had surfaced long before, it didn't soften the team's stance when the official word was delivered.

"We don't really care what he has to say anymore," said tight end Ben Guidugli. "He can go talk to his Notre Dame team. He's not on the boat anymore."

Many players made it clear they'd shed no tears in losing Kelly to Notre Dame.

"I feel like there was some lying in this thing," said standout wide receiver Mardy Gilyard. "Hopefully he'll pack his bags and get to South Bend in a hurry."

Kelly, a three-time Big East coach of the year, elevated Cincinnati's program from relative obscurity to national prominence. The Bearcats went 34-6 in Kelly's three seasons including back-to-back Big East titles and BCS bowl appearances.

Under Quinn, UC's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, the Bearcats lead the nation in passing efficiency and rank sixth nationally in passing offense, scoring offense and total offense.

This is Quinn's second stint as an interim head coach. He led Central Michigan to a victory in the 2006 Motor City Bowl after Kelly left for Cincinnati and then joined him at UC.

Quinn must heal some emotional wounds for the Bearcats who are decided underdogs to Florida.

"The most important thing right now is our players," Quinn said. "This has been a tremendous season, but we still have another game to finish off. We will handle our preparations for the Sugar Bowl with class and distinction."

NOTES, QUOTES

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cincinnati's spread offense has been close to unstoppable. The Bearcats rank sixth in the nation in total offense, passing offense, and scoring offense with just under 40 points per game. Senior quarterback Tony Pike, who was mentioned among Heisman candidates prior to missing three games due to an injured forearm, has passed for 2,350 yards and 26 TDs. Mardy Gilyard is Pike's top target with more than 1,100 yards and 11 TDs. When defenses choose to double Gilyard, Armon Binns and tight end Ben Guidugli are capable of big games. When the Bearcats choose to run, sophomore Isaiah Pead, who has rushed for 795 yards and nine TDs, gets the bulk of the carries.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Despite returning just one starter, the Bearcats' defense played better than anticipated through the first eight weeks under first-year coordinator Bob Diaco. But, UC stumbled down the stretch allowing an average of 36 points per game in the final four regular season contests. The Bearcats allowed opponents to rush for 200-plus yards in consecutive games. In the regular season finale, a showdown for the Big East title at Pittsburgh, the Bearcats allowed 193 yards rushing and 369 total yards but rallied for a 45-44 victory. UC ranks third nationally in tackles for loss and is tied for eighth in sacks.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Mardy Gilyard is a big-play receiver. Joe Haden is a shut-down corner. Can Gilyard shake free from Haden, a projected first-round NFL draft choice? If Haden succeeds in shutting down Gilyard, Tony Pike will need to seek out other alternatives in the passing game, namely Armon Binns or tight end Ben Guidugli. And, Gilyard can look to do his damage as a kick-returner.

OTHER KEY MATCHUPS:
--Cincinnati's vaunted spread offense vs. Florida's stingy defense.

The Gators gave up 14 points or less in nine games this season. The Bearcats average almost 40 points per game. Florida ranks third nationally in scoring defense (11.5), fourth in total defense (253.1), and fifth in passing efficiency (160.90). UC leads the nation in passing efficiency (166.19), and is sixth in scoring offense (39.8), passing offense (320.3), and total offense (464.3).

--Florida's rushing attack vs. Cincinnati's defense.

The Gators don't have a big, bruising featured back. But they have a cadre of swift-footed scat backs, including Jeffrey Demps -- he's arguably the fastest player in college football -- who compare in some way to West Virginia's Noel Devine.

In recent weeks the Bearcats' defense has been susceptible against the run, and it hasn't faced anything comparable to the Gators who rank 10th nationally in rushing offense. UC allowed consecutive opponents to rush for 200-plus yards, then allowed 193 yards rushing at Pittsburgh but rallied for a 45-44 victory in the regular-season finale. The Bearcats' defense has allowed 141 yards rushing per game.

--Cincinnati's running game vs. Florida's defense.

The Bearcats chose to forgo the running game on a few occasions this season and still put up gaudy offensive numbers. But, can the Bearcats score on the Gators without running the ball? Explosive sophomore Isaiah Pead, who had 175 yards in a win over West Virginia, likely will get the bulk of the carries. Pead has 795 yards and nine TDs this season. Florida's defense ranks 13th against the run, but it allowed Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram to rush for 113 yards and three TDs in the SEC title game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Just as we did in 2006, it is my plan to work with the president, board of trustees, and others on campus to move swiftly and surely to select our new head football coach who will move to continue our success and continue to play in front of sellout crowds and compete for a national championship year in and year out." -- Athletic director Mike Thomas on Cincinnati's search for a new head football coach.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: Cincinnati vs. Florida, Jan. 1, New Orleans, La. -- Cincinnati is making its first appearance in the Sugar Bowl, Florida its eighth. It's the second meeting between the two schools. The Bearcats lost 48-17 to Florida on Oct. 20, 1984 in Gainesville. UC is the first Big East Conference team to play in the Sugar Bowl since West Virginia defeated Georgia in 2006. Big East teams are 3-3 all time in the Sugar Bowl. It's the Bearcats second consecutive New Years Day appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game. UC lost to Virginia Tech in last year's Orange Bowl.

The Sugar Bowl isn't where Florida wanted to end its season. But while a loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game cost them a chance at a national title, the Gators should be fired up for Tim Tebow's last hurrah. Cincinnati, on the other hand, is dealing with the disappointment of losing head coach Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. Interim head coach Jeff Quinn will lead the Bearcats who are decided underdogs.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tony Pike -- The senior was mentioned among Heisman Trophy candidates before he missed three games with an injured forearm. Pike has passed for 2,350 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has thrown six interceptions in nine games but three of those came in a victory at Pittsburgh in the season finale.

WR Mardy Gilyard -- The senior is among the nation's most explosive playmakers. Gilyard has 80 catches for 1,150 yards and 11 TDs. He has two kickoff returns for touchdowns including a 99-yarder against Pitt that ignited the Bearcats' rally from a 21-point deficit. Gilyard also has a punt return score.

RB Isaiah Pead -- The sophomore is Cincinnati's leading rusher with 795 yards and nine touchdowns. He had a career-high 175 yards rushing on Nov. 13 against West Virginia.

LB JK Schaffer -- The sophomore has emerged as a leader for the Bearcats' young defense. Shaffer ranks second on the team with 90 tackles and three interceptions.

ROSTER REPORT:
--WR Armon Binns, playing with a separated shoulder against Pitt, had five catches for 104 yards and the winning TD with 33 seconds left.

--Senior RB Jacob Ramsey, who missed two straight games with a sprained foot, returned against Pitt and scored the Bearcats' first touchdown in the victory.

--Sophomore QB Zach Collaros has passed for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and rushed for 344 yards and four TDs in 12 games, including four starts in place of the injured Tony Pike.

======== LOUISVILLE ========

INSIDE SLANT

A third consecutive season without a bowl game was enough to cost coach Steve Kragthorpe his job less than 24 hours after the 4-8 campaign ended with a loss at home to Rutgers in front of a small and unenthusiastic crowd.

Athletic director Tom Jurich has some success in hiring football coaches. Since taking the job in 1997, he brought in John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino, both of whom left the school for greener pastures. Most expected no less when Kragthorpe was brought in after a successful run at Tulsa, especially since the Cardinal team he inherited was coming off a trip to the Orange Bowl.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The Orange Bowl year was followed by a 6-6 finish, which turned out to be the high-water mark of the Kragthorpe era. His 2008 squad went 5-7, and this marked his second losing season in a row.

Jurich has a lot of confidence in his hires, and in general they have been very good. In addition to Smith and Petrino, some guy named Rick Pitino has done a solid job with the men's basketball team, and Jeff Walz took the women's basketball team to the Final Four.

It was apparent, even late in the season, that Jurich was hoping that Kragthrope could ride out the storm. But by that point, he had alienated a substantial portion of the fanbase, whether by virtue of his losing record, his feud with the Brohm family, or the constant staff changes. Many argued with his recruiting strategy, which focused on junior college players and didn't spend much focus on Florida and Alabama, whose recruits formed the base of the successful Cardinals teams early in the decade.

The average attendance in 2009 was down more than 7,000 fans per game from 228, at a time when the stadium is expanding from 42,000 to 55,000 seats. As much as the won-loss record, it was the apathy that did in Kragthorpe.

Jurich began December embarking on his coaching search, hoping for better luck in finding someone who could bring back the glory days that made this basketball factory into a football school just a few years ago.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Kentucky 31, Louisville 27 -- This was the game that turned out to be the symbol of the lost Louisville season. The Cardinals took the lead twice in the fourth quarter, only to make enough mistakes to give the game away late. It evened the team's record at 1-1, and was the last best chance to rally the fan base around the squad.

PLAYERS OF THE YEAR:
LBs Jon Dempsey and Chris Campa -- Dempsey led the team in tackles in his senior season, finishing with 107, including 2.5 sacks. Campa was second with 90 tackles, but added six sacks and 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Together, they formed the core of a strong group of linebackers that kept the team in most games this season.

CB Johnny Patrick -- The big attribute of Patrick this year was his health. Every week, it seemed like there was a new combination of players alongside him in the secondary, but Patrick was the rock of stability. He picked off a couple of passes, broke up five more, and along with Chaz Thompson helped keep the Cardinals defense from becoming the football equivalent of Swiss cheese.

FAST FORWARD: For a 4-8 team, Louisville has a lot of players who will be sorely missed. On offense, playmaking wideouts Trent Guy and Scott Long are gone, as is offensive line mainstay Abdul Kutayeh and fullback Joe Tronzo. Defensively, the Cardinals say goodbye to linebackers Jon Dempsey and Chris Campa and safeties Chaz Thompson and Richard Raglin, which leave big holes on a unit without a lot of depth in 2009.

RECRUITING TRAIL: A lot will depend on the new coach. Steve Kragthorpe went heavily into the junior college ranks, which gave him players more ready to contribute right away but also left him constantly scrambling to replace players. So far, it looks like many of the existing commits, like highly-touted quarterback Luke Woodley, say they are still on board if the coaching staff wants them.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I want somebody that's got a lot of Steve (Kragthorpe)'s characteristics, because I think if you talk to the team, to a man ... they believe in this guy." -- Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich told the Louisville Courier-Journal, on his coaching search.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
RB Victor Anderson -- Anderson led the team in rushing again as sophomore, which says a lot about the Cardinals given the time he missed due to injuries. He showed as a freshman that he can be a dominating runner when healthy, and is looking for better luck on the injury front in 2010.

QBs Adam Froman and Justin Burke -- With all apologies to Will Stein, the two rising seniors will battle for the starting job again in 2010. Burke initially won the battle in 2009, then lost it due to his injuries. Froman played well under center before getting hurt himself, and by the end of the year Froman had the clear upper hand. But it wasn't a big enough edge to take Burke out of the running, so the new coaching staff will likely repeat the offseason battle that took the summer of 2009 to settle.

LB Antwon Canady -- Canady came to Louisville after one year of junior college in 2008, and had a solid junior season in 2009. With Jon Dempsey and Chris Campa gone, more will be expected of him in 2010.

PRO PROSPECTS:
WR Trent Guy -- Guy is undersized at 5-9, 166, but he's a force on kick returns as well as a deep threat in the passing game. He's the type of player who could attract attention at the next level because of his game-changing potential on special teams.

LB Jon Dempsey -- Dempsey is barely six-feet tall, so pro teams may look to see if he can play safety or bulk up, but he's a strong fundamental tackler who has plenty of game film to impress with.

FB Joe Tronzo -- Tronzo is one of the best fullbacks on the board, but he still might have to go the rookie free agent route because that's not usually a position that many teams look to fill via the draft.

ROSTER REPORT:
--RB Victor Anderson was hampered all season by injuries, and missed the season finale after undergoing shoulder surgery. He'll be hoping for better luck as a junior in 2010.

--LB Jon Dempsey's college career ended a little earlier than he had hoped, as the senior went down with an MCL injury in the first quarter of the season finale against Rutgers. He started every game of his junior and senior seasons.

--S Terrence Simien suffered a serious injury to his kidney in the second game of the season. He left school to recuperate in California, but was expected to return to campus in January.

======== PITTSBURGH ========

INSIDE SLANT

Don't tell Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt winning isn't everything.

A little more than a week ago he was thinking of a Big East championship -- that title brings a trophy and a trip to the Sugar or Orange Bowl -- payback for the long, hard stretch of trail it took to reach that fork in the road.

It all went swirling down the drain by the slimmest of margins. West Virginia beat the Panthers in the Backyard Brawl on a last-second field goal and then Cincinnati roared by from a 21-point deficit, took advantage of a botched extra point and beat Pitt, 45-44, for the conference crown.

Instead of the Sugar or Orange Bowl, his team was heading for the Meineke Car Care Bowl to play an 8-4 North Carolina team and he was looking at a major job of trying to build back his deflated team.

"To be honest, I hadn't thought about it. I was convinced we were going to win this game. I was and our whole football team was," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the moments after the game.

But it was obvious that the way the team absorbs the scouting report on the Tar Heels matters far less than the way it absorbs the defeats, especially the one to Cincinnati that was so crushing.

"This was a tough, heartbreaking loss, to say the least," Wannstedt said.

"It is tough," senior defensive lineman Gus Mustakas told the Post-Gazette. "It almost feels like throwing a season away. You go so far and your goal is to win the Big East championship and you come so close -- it really hurts, bad. You hope the younger guys will learn from this and next year they won't let this happen to them."

Pitt lost only three games in the season and all were torturous, losing by 11 points and blowing a large lead to both N.C. State and Cincinnati.

"Our program is excited to play another football game and have the opportunity to potentially earn a 10th victory," Wannstedt said when the matchup was announced. "The Meineke Car Care Bowl organizers are outstanding people and professionals, and I know our team will have a first-class experience when we visit Charlotte later this month. Playing a national ESPN television game against a quality ACC opponent is a great opportunity and we are looking forward to the challenge."

North Carolina comes into the game off, in its own way having dropped a 28-27 decision to rival North Carolina State to end a four-game winning streak during which the Tar Heels knocked off Miami (Fla.) and won at Virginia Tech and Boston College.

NOTES, QUOTES

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Coach Dave Wannstedt likes to stick to the basics in which he believes such as running a pro-set offense, usually with a fullback, using the running game to set up the pass. He will work his tailback hard and true freshman Dion Lewis has proven to be a dependable workhorse, ranking among the nation's leaders in yards gained and carries. Lewis is more of an elusive runner than power runner, as was LeSean McCoy before him, and has been extremely mature for one so young. QB Bill Stull had to battle for his job after a tough year last season that ended with a 3-0 loss in the Sun Bowl, but came on to be one of the most efficient passers in the season. He has a stable full of good receivers, headed by deep threat Jonathan Baldwin and tight end Dorin Dickerson, who has 10 TD receptions and is a Mackey Award finalist.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Pitt defense is basic in its approach. It doesn't blitz a lot, yet led the nation in sacks. A big piece of the Panthers' pressure puzzle is DE Greg Romeus, a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award. He is joined up front by an experienced, powerful front four that includes DE Jabaal Sheard and DTs Gus Mustakos and Mick Williams. MLB Adam Gunn, given a sixth year of eligibility after a neck injury wrecked last season, has been the leading tackler while the secondary is a solid group headed by CB Aaron Berry, who missed some time with injury.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Pitt's super freshman RB Dion Lewis against the North Carolina front seven. Lewis carries the mail for Pitt and they go as he goes. Not many have gone very far on the ground against North Carolina, however. The Tar Heels allow only 92.8 yards rushing a game, but have not really seen anything like Lewis, who is a tireless runner with a spectacular spin move who is looking to break Tony Dorsett's freshman record for yardage during the game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "After the end of the game, I told my teammates that we had a terrific ride this year. There's no reason to be ashamed of anything. This year was the greatest group of kids I've ever played with." -- Pitt DE Mick Williams on the regular season Pitt put together before the bowl game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: Meineke Car Care Bowl, Pitt vs. North Carolina, Dec. 27, Charlotte, N.C. -- This will be like a home game for the Tar Heels. Pitt does not travel well and after consecutive disappointing losses to end the season -- to West Virginia and Cincinnati -- probably will not have a large contingent in the game. The coaches -- Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis -- worked together on the staff of the early 1990s Dallas Cowboys. Both are defense-first guys rooted in the basics -- run the ball, stop the run.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Bill Stull -- He normally holds the key to Pitt's offensive success. Even though they rely heavily on the run, Stull's ability complete play action passes is what loosens up the running lanes and when he's sharp, the running game also works. Stull wants to make up for dreadful performance last year in the Sun Bowl when the Panthers were shut out, 3-0, and he had to be relieved.

RB Dion Lewis -- Carries the ball most of the time and is the Big East's leading rusher. He is a breakaway threat who also has proven himself to be a workhorse, leading the conference in rushing attempts. He is the engine that drives the offense. With 1,640 yards, 46 shy of Tony Dorsett's freshman record. His 47 carries against Cincinnati broke Craig "Ironhead" Heyward's school record of 42 carries.

WR Jonathan Baldwin -- He is the deep threat who often draws double coverage in the passing game, which helps open things up for Lewis's running. At 6-5, he is a big target with great athleticism. He and Stull worked better and better together as the season went on.

DE Greg Romeus -- The top pass rusher on one of the best pass rushing teams in the nation. The Panther front four is asked to do a lot and one of the reasons they are able to do it is that opponents have to pay so much attention to Romeus, often assigning a tight end or running back to help contrain him.

ROSTER REPORT:
--Former Pitt coach Foge Fozio, one of the most respected people ever to coach the Panthers, died at 71 on Dec. 2 after a long fight with leukemia.

--TE Dorin Dickerson was named a finalist for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's top tight end but Dickerson did not help himself any by not catching a pass in the Cincinnati game.

--With 17 touchdowns and 102 points RB Dion Lewis broke LeSean McCoy's school records in both categories.

--With 113 receiving yards against Cincinnati WR Jonathan Baldwin surpassed 1,000 for the season with 1,080. No Pitt receiver had reached 1,000 yards receiving since Greg Lee in 2004.

============ RUTGERS ============

INSIDE SLANT

Rutgers is not yet at a stage where it gets blase over second-tier bowl games. It might be getting close.

The St. Petersburg Bowl wouldn't have been the Scarlet Knights' first pick of destinations a month ago, but most fans would have taken that and been grateful following the season-opening loss to Cincinnati. It's a good result from a young team that starts a true freshman at quarterback, and a poor result from a team that, at its best, looked capable of doing more.

In short, 12 games into the 2009 season, this is a Rutgers team that is probably in an appropriate spot. It did well against the lesser teams on his schedule, save for a surprising loss to Syracuse, but fell to the Big East's big three: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and -- for the 15th time in a row -- West Virginia.

Rutgers enters the St. Petersburg Bowl with an 8-4 record, but only three of those wins came against bowl-bound teams -- Connecticut, South Florida, and Army. So it's not a team that can take an opponent like Central Florida lightly.

In that respect, the short turnaround time could be a blessing. Coach Greg Schiano noted that it's similar to a bye week, with just a week off between the team's regular-season finale against West Virginia and the kickoff of the bowl game.

That would be good news for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers had two bye weeks in the regular season, and won the following games by a combined 73-0, knocking off Texas Southern 42-0 and South Florida 31-0. So George O'Leary and his offensive coaching staff should prepare for a Scarlet Knights defense that is prepared for whatever they've shown on film.

NOTES, QUOTES

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Rutgers can score points, but a bunch of them come from the defense and special teams. The offense has been inconsistent in 2009, and comes down to two big factors. Can the running game, led by Joe Martinek, gain tough yardage against good defenses? And can the offensive line hold off the pressure long enough, and quarterback Tom Savage throw it accurately enough, to get speedy Tim Brown and dangerous Mohamed Sanu the ball with room to move? If either of those happens, the offense looks smooth and sharp. If not ... there's a lot of three-and-outs.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Rutgers defense has been dominant but only against the bad teams on the schedule. The dirty little secret of the Scarlet Knights is that they wound up 0-3 against the elite Big East teams, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia. Running quarterbacks have traditionally hurt the Scarlet Knights, but any team that turns the ball over is going to have a hard time overcoming it because the Rutgers defense has a knack for turning those into defensive scores.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rutgers' offensive line vs. Central Florida DEs Bruce Miller and Jarvis Geathers -- Miller and Geathers led Conference USA in sacks during the regular season. The duo has a knack for getting to the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage. Preventing that from happening has been a problem for the Scarlet Knights offensive line, and Anthony Davis in particular will be under the microscope as he looks to impress scouts at the next level.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Look, it's going to be what it's going to be. If we won more games then it wouldn't be a situation where you have to worry. We didn't. Right now we are who we are. I'm not ashamed of who we are. I think we're growing. We're going to become great. Right now we're not great. So you know what? We've got to deal with it." -- Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told the Newark Star-Ledger, on playing in an early bowl game in the middle of the school's exam period.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: Rutgers vs. Central Florida, St. Petersburg Bowl, Dec. 19, St. Petersburg, Fla. -- The Big East -Conference USA matchup may not be a sexy as one that would have pit the Scarlet Knights against a major conference foe, but Greg Schiano's crew can't underestimate the Knights. UCF finished the regular season on a three-game winning streak, including a five-point win over what was a surging Houston squad.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Tom Savage -- How does he handle the blitz? That's been the question surrounding the freshman quarterback most of the season, and certainly since a disappointing performance in a November loss to Syracuse that saw the Orange succeed by blitzing the freshman early and often. He can definitely expect the same treatment in the bowl game.

CB Devin McCourty -- McCourty is on the field more than any other Rutgers player, considering he's an every-down cornerback and on all the special teams units. Wherever he is, the opposing team has to keep track of him, because the fifth-year senior can turn an opposition mistake into a touchdown.

WR Mohamed Sanu -- Everyone knows to gameplan against Tim Brown by now, assuming the senior is healthy. But Sanu may be an even trickier matchup, because the Scarlet Knights get him the ball through the air, on the ground on end-arounds, and in the pocket in the Wildcat formation.

DE Jonathan Freeny -- Freeny leads the Scarlet Knights with 8.5 sacks on the season. He'll be relied upon to put pressure on the quarterback and allow the opportunistic Scarlet Knights linebackers and secondary the chance to make plays in the back.

ROSTER REPORT:
--Senior WR Tim Brown missed all but a token portion of his final home game on Dec. 5, thanks to a sprained ankle that he tweaked in warm-ups and re-aggrevated on a second-quarter run. He'll probably play in the bowl game, but the fact that it's one of the earliest on the slate won't make it any easier.

--LB Antonio Lowery missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury, but hopes to be back for the bowl game.

============= SOUTH FLORIDA =============

INSIDE SLANT

The second half of the season clearly did not go the way South Florida would have preferred.

The late struggles that marked the Bulls' finishes in recent years continued this season when they won only two of their final seven regular-season games after starting out 5-0.

But with the 7-5 record, the Bulls qualified for their fifth consecutive postseason appearance, and they are headed to the International Bowl in Toronto with the intent of finishing on a high note.

Don't try to tell coach Jim Leavitt that the matchup with Northern Illinois isn't a big deal.

"Playing in a bowl game is always special," Leavitt told the Tampa Tribune.

The extra practice time and game experience should pay dividends for all the Bulls returning in 2010, but especially for quarterback B.J. Daniels, who played like a typical redshirt freshman in taking over for injured senior Matt Grothe in third game of the season. Daniels was up some games, down for others, and that led to some frustrating moments.

In 12 games, Daniels ran for a team-high 798 yards but completed only 53 percent of his passes for 1,766 more. He had 12 touchdown passes against nine interceptions.

The game in the Rogers Centre, the 46,374-seat facility formerly known as the SkyDome, could be an entertaining one.

If Daniels is on his game, the Bulls can score. In the last two wins over West Virginia and Louisville, he produced 781 yards total offense and the Bulls put up 64 points.

The Huskies, on the other hand, averaged 31 points a game in going 7-5, beating Purdue on the road and losing to Wisconsin by only eight points and at Toledo by one.

NOTES, QUOTES

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: How the offense goes depends pretty much on how QB B.J. Daniels performs. The redshirt freshman leads the Bulls in rushing but can be erratic in the passing game. The Bulls were middle-of-the-pack in the Big East in total offense, producing 362 yards a game with only 193 of that coming in passing (seventh in the league).

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Bulls were third in the league in total defense, giving up 329 yards a game. They led in pass defense, holding opponents to only 191 yards a game, but despite the presence of DE George Selvie, they produced only 25 sacks (ahead of only Louisville).

MATCHUP TO WATCH: South Florida LT Jamar Bass vs. Northern Illinois DE Jake Coffman -- Bass moved into the starting lineup for the last three games. In the bowl, he'll likely be up against Coffman, who was NIU's leader and third in the MAC with 7.5 sacks.

OTHER KEY MATCHUPS: South Florida QB B.J. Daniels vs. Northern Illinois' defensive front seven -- Daniels is most effective when he can get free to scramble if his receivers are covered. If he can get outside the pocket, he can make it a long day for the Huskies. The fact the game is played on a fast track indoors also should play in his favor.

South Florida DEs George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Northern Illinois OTs Trevor Olson and Panan Tense -- NIU has two first-team all Mid-American Conferences selections up front, but they are C Eddie Adamski and LG Jason Onyebuagu. Olson is a sophomore, Tense a junior, and they will have to take on the bulk of responsibility for handling USF's two outstanding rushers. Selvie has had a rather quiet season (3.5 sacks) but will want to make a big impression in his final game. Pierre-Paul (5.5 sacks) also will be looking to impress scouts enough to warrant an early entry into the NFL Draft.

South Florida FS Nate Allen vs. Northern Illinois QB Chandler Harnish -- Allen led the Bulls with four interceptions and could be the difference-maker in the secondary for his team. Chandler came off a knee injury and threw only five interceptions in the nine games he played in, but he leaned heavily on WR Landon Cox (45 catches) as his No. 1 receiver, which could give Allen the opportunity to cheat a bit toward Cox's side of the field.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm excited about Toronto. We've never been there. I'm excited for the kids. This is big stuff. We get to go and play indoors. I think it's exciting and pretty neat. Once we play this bowl, we will have experienced every bowl game the Big East offers except the BCS bowl. Hopefully that one is next." -- Coach Jim Leavitt, after learning of his team's invitation to the International Bowl.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: South Florida vs. Northern Illinois, International Bowl, Jan. 2, Toronto -- USF will be making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and is 2-2 in the previous four appearances. The Bulls will be going for consecutive postseason wins for the first time after beating Memphis in last season's St. Petersburg Bowl.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Carlton Mitchell -- Mitchell is USF's all-time leader in receiving after finishing the regular season with four catches for 49 yards against UConn to raise his total to 1,554 yards in three seasons. Hugh Smith had the old mark of 1,523. Mitchell has 612 receiving yards for the year, second to Smith's single-season mark of 661.

QB B.J. Daniels -- Daniels makes the offense go -- or stops it. The redshirt freshman usually is at the extreme end of the spectrum. After taking over as the starter when senior Matt Grothe went down with a knee injury in the third game of the season, Daniels finished as the team leader in rushing (798 yards) and threw for 1,766 in completing 53 percent of his passes.

DE Jason Pierre-Paul -- With offenses concentrating their early efforts on DE George Selvie, Pierre-Paul had a breakout season in his first year after transferring from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. He leads the Bulls with 14.5 tackles for loss (5.5 sacks).

FS Nate Allen -- Allen leads the Bulls in interceptions with four. He also was second on team in tackles with 79 to LB Kion Wilson's 98.

ROSTER REPORT:
--RB Mike Ford was arrested after being stopped while driving a moped on campus on Dec. 10 and charged with driving without a valid license, a misdemeanor. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Ford was cited in September for not having a license with him, and the Tampa Tribune recounted similar incidents in March 2006 and February 2007. Coach Jim Leavitt told the Times that the incident would "probably not" keep Ford out of the bowl.

--LB Kion Wilson (ankle), SS Jerrell Young (ankle), LB Sabbath Joseph (illness) and C Sampson Genus (ankle) sat out the game at UConn but likely will be back for the bowl game.

--Sophomore C Kevin MacCaskill, freshman LB Sam Barrington, redshirt freshman SS Jon Lejiste and junior LB Jacquian Williams all made their first career starts in the regular-season finale.

--USF is looking into applying for a sixth year of eligibility for RB Moise Plancher, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times. Plancher sustained a season-ending knee injury in the 2006 opener.

======== SYRACUSE ========

INSIDE SLANT

Syracuse went 4-8 in Doug Marrone's first season as coach, a slight improvement over the depressing 3-9 record Greg Robinson produced in his fourth and final season with the Orange.

In the process, the Orange made huge strides in such areas as total defense, rushing defense, sacks and third-down defense. They also gained 60 more yards per game on offense, finishing at more than 300 yards per game for the first time since 2004.

On the flip side, they committed 10 more turnovers, took a small step backward in rushing offense and made only modest gains in scoring offense and defense. Considering the roughly 30 scholarship players Marrone lost to defections and injuries, his honeymoon season was certainly more encouraging than Robinson's 1-10 first season in 2005, and not just because of the numbers.

Despite the depleted roster, the 2009 Orange fought hard from start to finish. The games were generally more competitive and entertaining than the torment that was the preceding four years.

Still, 4-8 is, well, 4-8, and it represents only a slight ascent from the deep hole in which Syracuse currently resides. The seniors who departed following the team's season-ending 56-31 loss at Connecticut believe they helped establish a foundation that will turn around the record soon.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Syracuse 31, Rutgers 13 -- The result is still shocking. The Orange were coming off a tough loss to lowly Louisville, and Rutgers just popped into the top 25. The Scarlet Knights admitted they were looking past the Orange, but it certainly helped that the win came during a heavy recruiting weekend at Syracuse. Some of the recruits, who also had Rutgers on their list, made verbals to the Orange.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: QB Greg Paulus -- The team bids farewell to Paulus, who set single-season school records for completions (193) and completion percentage (.667). There were periods of up-and-down play, but overall, the experiment of starting the former Duke point guard seemed to work.

FAST FORWARD: The offense returns redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib, who played in nine games and saw his role increase as the season progressed. The team is in great shape at tailback with 1,000-yard rusher Delone Carter, dual-purpose back Antwon Bailey (4.7 yards per carry) and Averin Collier back. The loss of nose tackle Arthur Jones, who will likely be a high NFL draft pick in April, is huge. Depth will remain a big issue at linebacker, but all three starters from the most improved unit on the team are back, and all should be much more comfortable after a season of playing a new position. Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue blossomed into stars as the season progressed, and E.J. Carter showed signs of joining them toward the end. Overall, this is the best trio of linebackers Syracuse has fielded in a long time. Safety should be in great shape next season with the return of Mike Holmes, Max Suter and Shamarko Thomas, who started at three different positions (strong safety, cornerback and outside linebacker) as a true freshman.

RECRUITING TRAIL: Syracuse is up to 21 commitments with the announcement that TE Beckett Wales of Venice, Fla., has decided to play for the Orange. ESPN.com's evaluation of Wales calls him "a solid receiver" in need of a college weight program in order to "add serious bulk." The site indicates Iowa, Duke, UAB, Toledo and Florida International were all recruiting Wales. Rutgers, Troy and Indiana were also involved.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The one thing great about our school is the university really sells itself and does a great job. The community is also involved in this. Our team and the players we have here. That's what gets us recruits and the direction of our football program. So we're excited about getting on the road and talking to recruits about that.'' -- Syracuse coach Doug Marrone.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
QB Ryan Nassib -- Nassib completed 36-of-68 passes (.529) for 422 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

RB Delone Carter -- The Orange have tremendous depth at tailback, but Carter is the best of the bunch.

SS Shamarko Thomas -- Played nearly everywhere as a true freshman, but his future is at strong safety. He has playmaker written all over him.

PRO PROSPECTS:
WR Mike Williams -- There's no doubting the talent, but Williams enters the draft as a talented enigma. He was booted out of school after his promising sophomore season, but he worked his way back and was having another solid season as a junior when he left the game with a month remaining. Scouts are going to ask him some tough questions about his dependability.

DT Arthur Jones -- Should be a high-round pick because he's a dominant run stuffer.

ROSTER REPORT:
--Marrone fired offensive coordinator Rob Spence, defensive line coach Derrick Jackson and wide receivers coach Jaime Elizondo. The move came one day after the Orange concluded the 2010 season with a 56-31 loss to Connecticut.

--Sophomore DB Grant Mayes has requested and received a release from his scholarship with the Orange football team. Mayes, who is from Roselle, N.J., played in nine games this season, mostly, if not all, on special teams. He recorded five tackles. Mayes found himself listed last among cornerbacks on the final depth chart prior to the Connecticut game last Saturday. He had been bypassed by true freshmen Phillip Thomas, Shamarko Thomas and Rishard Anderson this season. Mayes is the 22nd player to leave the program since the arrival of head coach Doug Marrone last December. He is looking into North Carolina, Arizona and Illinois as possible schools to transfer.

--The football career of OT Jonathan Meldrum at Syracuse University is over. Team physician Dr. Irving Raphael has disqualified Meldrum from further participation in football because of arthritis in the player's right knee.

============ WEST VIRGINIA ============

INSIDE SLANT

West Virginia understands one thing about this Gator Bowl matchup with Florida State: It is definitely second banana.

With Bobby Bowden, 80, coaching his final game for FSU and doing it in the state of Florida, the Mountaineers will be viewed as nothing but the Washington Generals to Bowden's Globetrotters.

That shouldn't affect WVU, though. It's nothing new.

The Mountaineers played Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, only to have Hurricane Katrina wipe out New Orleans and have the game moved to the Georgia Dome in partisan Atlanta.

Then last year, West Virginia was matched up with North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Anyone want to guess where that game is played? Charlotte, North Carolina.

It sort of figures that if you are Mountaineer, you spend your life trying to climb mountains.

"Wait 'til we walk in there and there's 75,000 people and 15,000 of them are for us," WVU Coach Bill Stewart said.

"We'll be the villain. That's just the way we like it."

Stewart understands the situation.

After attending a press gathering in Jacksonville in mid-December, Stewart said: "It was like Bobby Bowden Day in Jacksonville. It's like I told our team, the only people there on our side are those who love the old Gold and Blue, just our faithful."

NOTES, QUOTES

--West Virginia is heading into the Gator Bowl to play Florida State, aware it will be favored to win but hardly the center attraction.

That honor will belong to Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who will retire after the game as the second winningest coach of all time.

"I'm just a drop in the bucket compared to him," said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart. "He was my coach and I love the man. I'll be there clapping as much as anyone when he's there on the podium."

Stewart actually played for Bowden, or at least was on the freshman team during Bowen's first year at WVU, 1970.

While he understands Bowden will be the center of attention, he offers a warning.

"They can't forget our team. That would be a mistake," Stewart said.

Certainly, West Virginia belongs in the game. The Mountaineers have nine victories that include a narrow triumph over Pitt and a narrow loss to undefeated Cincinnati.

Gator Bowl officials were thrilled with the matchup, especially from a box office standpoint.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: West Virginia's offense has evolved over the season. The Mountaineers went in thinking it would pass more than it ran, spreading the field from sideline to sideline, throwing deep, and opening up wide gaps for Noel Devine to run through. But after QB Jarrett Brown suffered a concussion, his performance slipped for a couple of weeks and the Mountaineers went more to a running game that included Devine and fullback Ryan Clarke as both a runner and blocker. They head for the bowl emphasizing the run a bit more than throwing, but the passing game remains a staple. WB Jock Sanders is the key possession receiver and WR Alric Arnett is the chief deep threat. But the offense needs to be retuned, having managed just a grand total of 16 yards combined in the second and third quarters of a regular-season ending 24-21 victory over Rutgers.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: It took nine games to get the expected starting defense on the field as a unit, but when it got there it really played well. The first game was against Cincinnati and it held the Bearcats two touchdowns beneath their scoring average, but WVU still lost, 24-21. The Mountaineers use a unorthodox 3-3-5 odd stack, which allows them to do blitzing from many different places. The linebackers and safeties are designed to make most of the tackles, and senior MLB Reed Williams is the leader. The secondary became special after 6-5 safety Robert Sands, a sophomore, got the hang of it, leading the Big East in interceptions and being a sure tackler. CB Brandon Hogan is one of the conference's best. The defensive line -- pass-rushing DE Julian Miller, NG Chris Neild and DT Scooter Berry, who is outstanding against the run -- may be the best in the conference.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: CBs Brandon Hogan and Keith Tandy vs. Florida State receivers -- Hogan and Tandy have improved greatly over the course of the season but will face a big challenge from the Seminole receivers. Rod Owens and Bert Reed each caught 58 passes.

OTHER KEY MATCHUPS:
--WVU's running game vs. FSU's run defense.

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has wanted to run a pass-first offense since he took over. But he has come to realize that, against Florida State, it is best to run the ball and drain the clock.

"That is a Mickey Andrews defense over there so we are going to have to establish the run and make hay on first down," Stewart said.

That WVU has the manpower to run the ball regardless of opponent is indisputable. The team led the Big East in rushing, averaging 183.7 yards a game, and has one of college football's most dangerous breakaway threats in Noel Devine, who scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. What's more, the Mountaineers present a danger on reverses with either slotback Jock Sanders or Tavon Austin carrying while FB Ryan Clarke is a load inside and came into his own as the year wore on, both running and blocking. QB Jarrett Brown is big and mobile and will run both on broken pass plays, quarterback keepers and designed bootlegs. Florida State had a rough time handling the run, giving up 203 yards a game and 5.3 yards a carry.

--WVU's pass defense vs. Florida State's passing game.

QB Christian Ponder would be the ideal option to be the starting quarterback for the Seminoles in the Gator Bowl. But a separated throwing shoulder after making a hit following an interception against Clemson ended his season prematurely. FSU will instead go with redshirt freshman E.J. Manuel, who started the season's final three games, two of them victories over Wake Forest and Maryland. Manuel played well, completing 63.4 percent of his passes, but he threw just two TDs to six interceptions, showing his inexperience.

"We must disguise our coverages," Stewart said, "and try to confuse Manuel."

The Mountaineers' pass defense came on well as the season progressed and safety Robert Sands proved himself to be quite opportunistic with five interceptions to lead the team.

--WVU punter Scott Kozlowski against FSU PR Greg Reid.

Bobby Bowden-coached teams have always had great returners and Reid has the ability to join that fraternity. A freshman, he saved FSU from a terrible upset against Maryland with a 48-yard return and averaged 18.4 yards on 19 returns. Kozlowski, however, was the nation's sixth-ranked punter, averaging 44.8 yards a punt with a nifty net of 39.1 yards.

"He has to do what he has done all year," Stewart said. "We have to win the battle of field position and he's been doing that for us all season."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm going to slow this down for you. Listen to me: We are 9-3. Do you understand how many teams in America would like to be 9-3?" -- Coach Bill Stewart, reacting to criticism of his team.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BOWL BREAKDOWN: WVU vs. Florida State, Gator Bowl, Jan. 1, Jacksonville, Fla. -- This is sure to get plenty of national attention as Florida State's Bobby Bowden will coach his final game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Jarrett Brown -- He was on the spot entering the season, replacing Patrick White. Brown is elusive and strong-armed and would have had a much better season were it not for a mid-year concussion that took him out of his game for about a month. Brown's passing opens up the running game for WVU.

RB Noel Devine -- One of the best runners in the nation. His 88-yard touchdown was the only score against Pitt this year, and his 92-yard touchdown run last season clinched a hard-fought home win over Syracuse. Devine can go wide or run between the tackles. He finished the regular season with 1,297 yards, an average of 5.8 per carry while scoring 12 touchdowns.

MLB Reed Williams -- He is a second-team Academic All-American who played through pain in his shoulders this year after missing most of last year due to a shoulder surgery that was still bothering him. Williams felt better toward the end of the season and played full time against Cincinnati and Pitt. He is the glue in the WVU defense.

S Robert Sands -- He emerged as a potential high NFL draft pick down the road. Only a sophomore, he is unique in that he stands 6-5 and hits like a linebacker, but he covers passes so well that he led the Big East in interceptions and breakups. Sands' play allows some gambling out of the other defensive backs.

ROSTER REPORT:
--MLB Reed Williams, whose shoulders forced him to miss most of last year and limited his play through much of this season, is back at full strength. He was a force against Pitt and Rutgers, playing nearly complete games. He will be eager for his final game as a Mountaineer in the bowl.

--DT Josh Taylor missed a lot of time with a leg injury but he returned and played against Rutgers as the backup to Scooter Berry. He should be full speed by the bowl.

--WR Bradley Starks was held out of the Rutgers game due to post-concussion symptoms. He is expected to return for the Gator Bowl.

--DT Richard Ash, a 6-4, 270-pound player out of Pahokee's great program in Florida, became that school's eighth commitment. He is the fifth player from Palm Beach County landed by WVU this year.


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