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November 25, 2010

Week 13 preview in the Big East

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-10 | SEC | Others

Louisville at Rutgers, 11 a.m.
West Virginia at Pittsburgh, noon
Cincinnati at Connecticut, noon
USF at Miami, noon
Boston College at Syracuse, noon

If there's a way to find redemption twice in the span of a couple of years, Connecticut quarterback Zach Frazer is doing it.

Frazer, a senior, is in his fifth stint in a three-season span as the Huskies' starting quarterback. In the past, he has lost his starting job because of injury and because of ineffectiveness. In each of the past two seasons, he began the season as the starter, sat in the middle of the season, then led the Huskies on a hot streak at the end of the season.

This season, if UConn beats Cincinnati and USF in its final two games and Pittsburgh loses once, the Huskies go to the BCS.

It's a long way from where Frazer and Connecticut were at the start of this month.

UConn coach Randy Edsall pulled Frazer at halftime of a win over Buffalo on Sept. 25. Frazer had been the quarterback in a two-touchdown loss to Temple a week earlier, and Edsall was miffed at the offense's poor play.

Frazer eventually fell to third string, behind Cody Endres and Michael Box. But as he did last season, Frazer found his way back to the starting job. Endres was dismissed from the team and Box struggled in a shutout loss to Louisville on Oct. 23.

As long as UConn has tailbacks such as Jordan Todman, the rushing attack will be the key to the offense. Still, there needs to be some semblance of a passing attack, and Frazer's return to the starting job has sparked the offense. Frazer, a former four-start recruit who began his career at Notre Dame, returned as the starting quarterback for the Oct. 29 upset of West Virginia. Wins over Pitt and Syracuse followed.

"If you want an example of team guy, that's Zach," Edsall said. "He wasn't happy with his role. As a player, I wouldn't be happy with it. What you do is make sure you're ready to get in there."

Frazer opened last season as the starter before a knee injury knocked him out in the second game of the season. He retuned against Rutgers on Oct. 31, losing his first two starts after he got back. Edsall said Frazer then relaxed and led the Huskies to wins over Notre Dame, Syracuse, USF and South Carolina to close out the season.

"He's a perfectionist," Edsall said. "That may be one of the issues, that he puts too much pressure on himself. I don't know what it is. You take a look at the end of the year last year and the end of the year this year, and there's a lot of similarities."

Like Frazer's career, the Big East has taken a handful of twists and turns this year. The conference season, though, could end the way that many projected, at least at the top.

With the exception of Cincinnati, three of the top four teams in the preseason Big East poll are at the top of the conference race. Pittsburgh (6-4, 4-1 Big East) controls its own destiny; it plays Friday against West Virginia (7-3, 3-2). Connecticut has two conference losses, as well, but wins over West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse give the Huskies the tiebreaker with the league's other BCS contenders.

Yet the Backyard Brawl still holds the keys to the conference race. West Virginia's defense is having perhaps its best season under coordinator Jeff Casteel, ranking fourth nationally in rush defense, total defense and scoring defense and ninth in passing efficiency defense. The Mountaineers also rank fifth in sacks.

"Schematically, they know what they are responsible to do," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "You can tell they are well-coached within the system. The second thing is they've got players. They have a nice combination of strength of up front and speed on the edge."

West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense is unorthodox, and it has been dominant at times. Marshall is the only team to put up more than 300 yards against the Mountaineers, and the Thundering Herd did that in an overtime game in September. In the past two weeks, West Virginia held both Cincinnati and Louisville to fewer than 100 rushing yards.

Despite playing most of the season without starting end Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh also has a top-20 defense.

"If you look at statistics of both teams up to this point, both defenses have played better than what the offenses have," Wannstedt said. "When I look at West Virginia's offense, they've got a ton of playmakers. They've got a lot of guys that can score points in a hurry. We do, too. But up to this point, both teams have been more effective from the defensive side."

Best matchup: Pitt RBs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham vs. West Virginia's run defense. The Mountaineers have stifled the Big East's best running backs, holding Louisville's Bilal Powell to zero yards, Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead to 78 yards and Syracuse's Delone Carter to 75 yards. RB Jordan Todman led Connecticut past the Mountaineers, but he still ran for 32 yards fewer than his season average against West Virginia. Lewis looked like his old self last week against USF and has scored a touchdown in each of his past five games. He might not need to have a career day against West Virginia to win, but he and Graham must be productive.

Player on the spot: Syracuse RB Delone Carter. He has been fairly quiet compared to the Big East's other top running backs, but he has an opportunity to cap his career with a signature performance against Boston College. The Eagles, though, have the nation's No. 2 rush defense and stud LB Luke Kuechly, who leads the nation in tackles.

Numbers game: Louisville has held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 300 yards for the first time since 1980. If the season ended today, the Cardinals' 302.4 yards allowed per game would be the Cardinals' best defensive season since 1996 (235.8 yards per game).

What they're saying

"We went through it last year. They put 700 yards on us. We don't have to watch the Rutgers film. We know what it was like from a year ago." -- Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, on studying film on Cincinnati, which scored 69 points on Rutgers last week

"My great disappointment is that we've had some great road wins at South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati and at Louisville. Our fans have not been able to enjoy those. That's why it is so important that we go out this week and get our eighth win here at home." -- Syracuse coach Doug Marrone. Syracuse is 2-3 at home this season and winless at home in league play

"Playing these games and winning these games are big, but last year we beat Florida State and went 3-4 in the league. It's hard to look back and say it was a good year." -- USF coach Skip Holtz, on facing Miami this weekend

Etc.: Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Connecticut, Syracuse, USF and Cincinnati are mathematically alive for at least a share of the Big East title. Pitt, West Virginia, Connecticut and Syracuse remain alive for the league's BCS bid, likely to be to the Fiesta Bowl. Rutgers DT Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed Oct. 16 against Army, was taken off a ventilator this week and is breathing on his own. His injury was reclassified as an incomplete spinal cord injury rather than a complete spinal cord injury. Connecticut named the late Jasper Howard an honorary captain for the final home game of the season this week. Howard, a cornerback who was shot and killed last October, would have been a senior this season. Louisville QB Justin Burke will make his third consecutive start. Adam Froman, who was the starter for most of the season, was dressed last week but still not recovered enough from a deep thigh bruise to play. Burke is 28-of-54 for 291 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in his two starts. Cincinnati WR Vidal Hazelton, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the opener, returned to practice in an increased capacity this week. He hopes to return for the final two games if he does not receive a sixth year of eligibility. Syracuse fired tight ends/special teams coach Bob Casullo on Monday for undisclosed reasons. In his place, secondary coach John Anselmo will coach special teams and quarterback coach Nathaniel Hackett will coach tight ends for the final game of the season. Louisville is investigating LB Jordan Campbell, who transferred from USC, amid reports of his association with a registered agent, the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal reported. Campbell was listed as a partner on the website of a registered NFL agent until Saturday. Campbell was not cleared to play for Louisville this season. Boston College's game against Syracuse will be the Eagles' first against a Big East team since leaving the conference after the 2004 season. Cincinnati inflated its new practice bubble this week. The facility could be ready to use next week.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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