This week, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis squared off against a common foe: Dave Wannstedt of Pittsburgh. For years they faced each other twice a season when they were with the Patriots and Dolphins, respectively. In 2005, these two began coaching at their respective universities with very different resumes. Oh, how the tables have turned.
The two took very different paths to reach their current positions. For Wannstedt, college football was his last chance to be a head coach. After failed stints as an NFL head coach with the Bears and Dolphins, he had nowhere else to go. In the middle of the 2004 NFL season, Wannstedt resigned from the Dolphins after a 1-8 start. During the offseason, he took the job at Pittsburgh. He probably didn’t have many other options.
Charlie Weis also began his Notre Dame coaching career about four and a half years ago, but the circumstances were a little bit better. Weis was coming off his third NFL championship with the Patriots and considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. The polar opposite of Wannstedt, Weis could have written his own ticket. He chose to coach at Notre Dame, which seemed like a perfect fit; the NFL offensive mastermind returning to coach his alma mater.
In the fall of 2005, Weis and Wannstedt actually began their college head-coaching careers against each other. Weis’ Fighting Irish won that game easily, but they were also much more talented.
But times have changed and these two coaches find themselves moving in opposite directions. Wannstedt has improved his team, slowly but steadily, over the past five seasons. Meanwhile, Notre Dame has performed below expectations and the program seems stuck in quicksand.
With that said, Saturday’s matchup had all the makings of an early 2000 Patriots-Dolphins game. Pittsburgh took a big lead into the fourth quarter, but after some Notre Dame heroics, it appeared like a classic Wannstedt choke-job was in the works. But then something strange happened: Pitt pulled it together and eked out a victory.
Watching this game, it sure seemed like a changing of the guard between two former AFC East coaches. Wannstedt and Weis are moving in different directions, like two ships passing in the night.
No. 5 Cincinnati (10-0, 6-0 Big East): 24, No. 25 West Virginia (7-3, 3-2): 21
It was neither the prettiest nor the most convincing win, but it was a win nonetheless for the still-unbeaten Bearcats. For Cincinnati, a team that must keep up its undefeated run to even have a chance of playing for a national title, they will take it.
Unfortunately for the Bearcats, West Virginia provided the rest of the Big East with a blueprint for beating Cincinnati. It goes something like this: On defense, play a soft zone with little pass rush to force Cincinnati to run the ball. Then on offense, run the ball straight at Cincinnati’s undersized front seven. This approach shortens the game and minimizes Cincy’s fast-paced offense.
West Virginia did everything right, but it did not convert enough third downs (5-for-12) to win the game. But with games remaining against Pitt and Rutgers, West Virginia still has a chance to finish second in the Big East.
No. 8 Pittsburgh (9-1, 5-0): 27, Notre Dame: 22
A big win for the Pitt Panthers. This game was won in the trenches. Pittsburgh’s offensive and defensive lines manhandled Notre Dame. Pitt rushed for 193 yards, 6.0 per attempt, while Notre Dame gained only 66 yards on the ground, 2.6 per attempt.
It was also a coming-out party for Pitt sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. He caught five passes for 142 yards, including an amazing diving touchdown reception in the first half.
It was also another big game for freshman running back Dion Lewis, who rushed for over 150 yards. The youngster runs with tremendous power.
Pitt still has Big East Championship aspirations with conference games remaining against both West Virginia and Cincinnati.
Rutgers (7-2, 2-2): 31, No. 23 South Florida (6-3, 2-3): 0
For the second consecutive year, Rutgers embarrassed South Florida.
Sometimes the final score is not indicative of how close the game really was — this was not one of those games. From the opening kickoff, Rutgers dominated every phase of this game, administering South Florida’s first regular-season shutout loss ever. Rutgers forced four turnovers and blocked a punt en route to their second consecutive blowout of the Bulls. Over the past two seasons, Rutgers has outscored South Florida 80-16.
Honestly, it looked like South Florida didn’t even want to be there. Maybe all of their Florida-born players were not used to the late-fall weather in New Jersey. Their offense played at an embarrassingly low level. Rutgers has an opportunistic defense that forces a lot of turnovers, but it is not a great defensive unit.
Yet South Florida gained only 159 yards of offense and managed a mere seven first downs. Freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels looked completely lost all game. This is the third straight season in which the Bulls have taken a second-half nosedive. That is not a coincidence, it’s a trend.
Louisville (4-6, 1-4): 10, Syracuse (3-7, 0-5): 9
It doesn’t matter that Louisville had only 151 yards of offense. It doesn’t matter that they converted only one third down (they were 1-for-12). And it certainly doesn’t matter that their sole touchdown came with less than two minutes to play.
All that matters is that Louisville won, proving it is not the worst team in the Big East.
All season I have been praising the improvement of the Orange. I was wrong. This is a terrible loss for Syracuse. Once again, they are the worst team in the conference.
What we learned
1. Dave Wannstedt’s teams are now capable of winning close games.
2. Rutgers has improved mightily since the beginning of the season.
3. Syracuse has not improved and is still the worst team in the Big East.
After 11 weeks, the Big East has arrived. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are the conference bell ringers, but Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia are also solid teams. The Big East can now stake their claim as a top conference.
The SEC, with national title contenders Alabama and Florida, is still the top league by a solid margin. Behind them, it’s an open race. The Big East has just as much right to that second spot as anyone else. One reason is that five of the Big East’s eight teams are good. Other larger conferences have several mediocre and bad teams, but the Big East only has two bad teams. This is a legitimate conference that is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves.