Rutgers, WVU grab early momentum in Big East

The gaudy passing numbers by West Virginia show that athletic

director Oliver Luck’s hiring of Dana Holgorsen is paying off.

With the rise of Geno Smith as one of the nation’s most prolific

quarterbacks, No. 13 West Virginia is well ahead of Luck’s early

hunch that Holgorsen’s offense would need a year or so to take

root.

It’s rooted, all right.

The Mountaineers, along with surprising Rutgers, are setting the

early pace in an unpredictable Big East that’s already seen some

head-turning results. They’ll soon be joined by the winner of this

week’s matchup between host Cincinnati and Louisville as the only

remaining teams without a loss in conference play.

”I couldn’t be happier with where we’re at right now,”

Holgorsen said. ”We’re getting better every week. I’ve said it for

a while, the only way we’re going to win the championship is if all

three sides of the ball are improving every week. Coaches, players,

everybody’s bought in.”

In 2010, 523 yards of offense was a season high under former

coach Bill Stewart.

With Holgorsen, it’s a normal day’s work.

West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) is scoring in bunches, just as

Holgorsen’s teams did before he was lured away from Oklahoma State.

A lack of offensive production was one reason Holgorsen was hired

as offensive coordinator last December. He was elevated to head

coach after Stewart was forced out in June.

West Virginia has surpassed 43 points or more three times this

season. It scored 40 only twice in Stewart’s three seasons.

Smith is third nationally with 2,159 passing yards and tied for

sixth with 16 touchdown passes. Stedman Bailey has four straight

100-yard receiving games and teammates Ivan McCartney and Tavon

Austin also are getting plenty of catches.

Holgorsen will be pressed to keep up the pace in a challenging

second-half schedule in West Virginia’s quest to return to its

first BCS bowl since 2007. West Virginia returns to play four of

its final six conference games on the road against teams with a

combined 21-11 record.

One overriding issue has been the offense’s inability to start

fast. The Mountaineers have fallen behind early in all but one game

and they even trailed FCS Norfolk State at halftime.

They’ve always responded with a spark, usually from Smith. On

Saturday, West Virginia led Connecticut 10-9 at halftime before

scoring 33 unanswered points. Smith finished with 450 passing yards

and four touchdowns.

”The fact that we’re good in spurts is better than the

alternative, I guess,” Holgorsen said. ”There’s going to be

adversity, which we’ve faced … and we’ve overcame it and we’ve

moved on.”

The Mountaineers have a week off before traveling to Syracuse on

Oct. 21. Holgorsen doesn’t believe his team’s challenges will be

any different. West Virginia built a 24-point lead in its only road

game at Maryland before holding on for a 37-31 win.

”Not only do we have to play good at home,” he said, ”we’ve

got to learn how to travel and go into somebody else’s place and do

OK.”

If that happens, the Big East, which could use some good news

with recent defections of football members, won’t be the only BCS

conference without a Top 10 team.

Just as Holgorsen is making the right moves, so too is Rutgers

coach Greg Schiano, whose offseason reshuffling of the defense and

recent decision to start freshman quarterback Gary Nova are reaping

rewards.

The Scarlet Knights (4-1) are 2-0 in conference play for the

first time since 2006 with a nonconference game looming Saturday

against Navy.

Rutgers wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the season started, not

after losing its last six games a year ago following the paralyzing

injury to Eric LeGrand.

At the end of 2010, Schiano was fed up with his sluggish

defense, so he moved several returning starters to other positions

in the offseason to infuse more speed.

Justin Francis, who shifted from defensive end to defensive

tackle, had a career-high eight stops, including two of the team’s

six sacks, in a 34-10 dismantling of Pittsburgh last week.

Safety-turned-linebacker Khaseem Greene posted 11 tackles to boost

his team-high total to 45.

Redshirt freshman cornerback Logan Ryan had two of Rutgers’ four

interceptions against Pittsburgh. He returned one of them for a

touchdown.

Who’s sluggish now? The Scarlet Knights are giving up 15 points

per game, 11th best in the FBS, and are tied with South Carolina

with 22 takeaways, the most in the nation.

Nova snared his first start against Pittsburgh after rallying

Rutgers in relief of Chas Dodd to a double-overtime win over

Syracuse. Against the Panthers he threw for 174 yards and two

touchdowns.

And don’t forget about Mohamed Sanu, the conference leader with

45 receptions.

”What I’m excited about is the way our guys have come together,

the chemistry on our team,” Schiano said. ”We had as tough a year

last year as we’ve ever had around here. And for a lot of reasons.

We’re not there yet, but I like the direction we’re heading.”

Circle Oct. 29 on the calendar, when West Virginia plays at

Rutgers in a key game in the league title chase.