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July 19, 2007

Big East soars to new heights on the ground

NEWPORT, R.I. The Big East soared to new heights last year by staying grounded.

During the conference's renaissance season of 2006, all of the league's eight teams ran the ball more often than they threw it. Every other BCS conference had at least two teams that threw the ball more than half the time.

The Big East went undefeated in bowl games and placed three representatives among the top 12 teams in the final Associated Press poll by establishing an identity as a run-oriented league.

"It's a tough conference," Rutgers tailback Ray Rice said this week at the Big East Media Day function. "I'm not going to lie. It's real tough. It's real physical. Week in and week out, Big East football is hard."

Rice set a Big East single-season rushing record last year with 1,794 yards to rank third in the nation. West Virginia running back Steve Slaton set a school rushing record with 1,744 yards to rank fourth in the nation, while Mountaineers quarterback Pat White ran for 1,210 yards and finished 16th in the nation.

All those talented backs provide at least one easy reason why some Big East teams like to run the ball so frequently.

"At West Virginia you've got two guys who are basically world-class running backs," South Florida center Nick Capogna said. "I'd tell those guys to run left and run right all day. You call what you recruit. If you've got a quarterback who can throw the ball, you throw the ball. Maybe with the recruits we've got (in the Big East), we've stumbled across a lot of great backs."

West Virginia and Rutgers capitalized on their standout running backs to grab early leads and prevent teams from coming back. Neither team blew a second-half lead all year until West Virginia rallied for a 41-39 triple-overtime victory over Rutgers in the regular-season finale for both teams.

"The run is usually what determines who's going to get tired first," Pittsburgh defensive end Joe Clermond said. "If you can run the ball, pound the ball and keep getting those first downs, you get the defense tired. And if you stop the run, they have to go to something else, and usually the pass doesn't work out too good for offenses."

Passing the ball certainly hasn't worked out very well for many Big East offenses.

Four of the eight Big East teams Rutgers (No. 96), West Virginia (No. 100), Syracuse (No. 103) and Connecticut (No. 110) had passing offenses that ranked 96th or lower out of 119 Division I-A programs. Four Big East schools ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in rushing offense: West Virginia (No. 2), Louisville (No. 12), Connecticut (No. 13) and Rutgers (No. 15).

The Big East's emphasis on the run was even more pronounced in 2005.

Louisville (No. 13) was the only Big East team to rank among the top 41 passing offenses that season. Half the conference finished 105th or worse in passing offense: No. 105 Syracuse, No. 106 Connecticut, No. 107 South Florida and No. 115 West Virginia.

The plethora of talented running backs and lack of outstanding passers beyond Louisville's Brian Brohm offer a couple of obvious explanations, but Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said the Big East's run-oriented nature results more from the tenets of its coaches than the talents of its players.

Keep on running
The Big East was the only BCS conference last year that had every member school run the ball more than half the time. Here's a breakdown of the number of running and passing plays by each school, along with the percentage of how often each team ran the ball.
School Rushes Passes Run Pct.
Cincinnati 513 345 59.8
Connecticut 486 313 60.8
Louisville 483 384 59.1
Pittsburgh 380 332 53.4
Rutgers 496 298 62.5
South Florida 485 356 57.7
Syracuse 420 311 57.5
West Virginia 590 233 71.7
"A lot of it is the head coaches in this league and their philosophy on football," Schiano said. "A lot of us believe that to win championships, you really need to run the ball. What comes first the chicken or the egg? Teams that are committed to running the football attract great running backs. I believe that's how it happens."

Indeed, a look at the backgrounds of Big East coaches reveals why they might prefer low-scoring games and low-risk offenses.

Pittsburgh's Dave Wannstedt worked his way up the coaching ladder as a defensive coordinator and became known for his conservative offenses during his head coaching tenure with the NFL's Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, Connecticut's Randy Edsall, South Florida's Jim Leavitt, Syracuse's Greg Robinson and Schiano also are former defensive coordinators.

Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe and West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez are the only Big East head coaches who spent the majority of their careers as assistants on the offensive side of the ball. Robinson served as UCLA's offensive coordinator for one season, but he spent 11 years as an NFL and college defensive coordinator before coming to Syracuse.

The trend toward hiring defensive-minded coaches finally may be changing.

Cincinnati hired Kelly last winter after he led Central Michigan to the Mid-American Conference championship behind dynamic freshman quarterback Dan LeFevour. Central Michigan threw the ball more than half time last year on its way to ranking 22nd in the nation in passing offense and leading the MAC in scoring offense and total offense.

Kragthorpe is a former Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach who spent the last five years as head coach at Tulsa, which ranked among the nation's top 40 teams in rushing offense and passing offense last season. His arrival shouldn't affect Louisville's status as one of the Big East's most pass-oriented teams.

"As I turned on the film when I got to Louisville and looked at the things we were doing offensively, it was like looking in a mirror in terms that it was a lot of the things we did down at Tulsa," Kragthorpe said.

Then again, a coach's background isn't necessarily an accurate barometer.

Rodriguez was an offensive coordinator at Tulane in 1998 when Shaun King threw for 3,232 yards and 36 touchdowns while leading the Green Wave to an undefeated season. As a head coach, however, Rodriguez has designed an explosive rushing attack that best utilizes the talent on his roster and West Virginia's cold-weather climate.

The Rodriguez example offers evidence that perhaps the Big East's run-oriented nature is a matter of geography more than philosophy. The northern teams in the Big East need to establish a rushing attack to survive when the temperatures drop in the final months of the season.

It's worth noting that two of the Big East's top three passing teams last year Louisville and South Florida were the league's two southernmost teams. Pittsburgh emphasized the pass more than any of the Big East's other northern teams and ended the season on a five-game losing streak.

Even as he expressed his doubts about the impact of cold weather on offensive philosophies, Schiano couldn't forget how Rutgers closed its regular season at West Virginia in freezing weather.

"The reality is you're coming down to the West Virginia game for a league championship and it's 30 degrees, so there's probably something to it," Schiano said, "but I think it's just (more) a philosophical thing as a coach.''

As long as this conference features so many defensive-minded coaches, don't expect the Big East's run-oriented approach to change anytime soon.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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