In the preseason, we had a fun debate about who would have the better season: Pitt's Dion Lewis or West Virginia's Noel Devine. Just about everybody agreed that they were the two best Big East tailbacks and that one of them would run away with the league's rushing title.
Well, as the two prepare to go head to head in this Friday's Backyard Brawl, it's pretty stunning that neither Lewis nor Devine is among the top five rushers in the conference. It clearly hasn't been the kind of season anyone envisioned for Lewis, last year's Big East Offensive Player of the Year after a 1,799-yard campaign, or Devine, the nation's active career rushing leader who had 1,465 yards in 2009.
I predicted 1,500-yard seasons for both; with two regular-season games for both players, you could add up their rushing totals and not reach 1,500 yards yet.
Here are the stats for each player:
Devine: 184 rushes for 828 yards (4.5 yards per carry) with six touchdowns in 10 games.
Lewis: 144 rushes for 661 yards (4.6 yards per carry) with eight touchdowns in nine games.
There are reasons behind the decline in production for each player.
Devine hasn't been the same since he was hit out of bounds at LSU and suffered a bone bruise underneath his big toe. He has had only one 100-yard rushing day since then, a 122-yard effort against Syracuse. Before the LSU game, he had three straight 100-yard days, though his yards per carry were down from his career average.
The senior has looked much healthier of late, but he still seems to lack the ability to make his signature cuts and reverse-field runs. In four of his last five games, he hasn't had a run of more than 18 yards, and Devine has always been known for his big-play skills.
"He hasn’t had a break-away, but hopefully he’ll get back on track with that," head coach Bill Stewart said.
Lewis had a difficult time getting started this season, thanks in large part to a rebuilt offensive line and new starters at tight end not opening the same holes he enjoyed running through a year ago. He also didn't seem to be running with the same energy and explosion as he did during his freshman year early on; his rushing total through Pitt's first five games (206) was only 16 yards more than he earned in last year's season finale against Cincinnati alone.
Lewis also dealt with the emergence of classmate Ray Graham as a force in the backfield. As a result, his workload has gone way down. He has only two games with more than 20 carries this year, and his season high was 25 attempts in the opener at Utah. Last year, he averaged 25 carries per game.
But while both star tailbacks have had down years by their lofty standards, they are still capable of having a major impact on Friday's game and, by extension, the Big East title race.
Devine probably won't be fully healthy until after the season. But he had the biggest offensive play of the game last week against Louisville, catching a 48-yard pass out of the backfield to set up the game-winning touchdown.
Lewis has looked more like his old self of late, producing his only two 100-yard games of the season in the past four contests. He had 105 yards last week at South Florida, including a vintage 22-yard touchdown run to put Pitt ahead for good.
"He has been a little more consistent than he was earlier in the year for whatever reason," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The run he had against South Florida was just outstanding. He makes a guy miss, he bounces off one guy, the safety comes up and he breaks a tackle and gets in the end zone. It was Dion at his finest.
"I think any player has to make some plays like that to gain confidence and maintain his confidence. We're going to need him this week, because this is one of those games where every play counts and every yard counts."
Neither Dion Lewis nor Noel Devine has made as many plays or gained as many yards as expected this season. But the true Lewis vs. Devine debate will be settled Friday if one can lead his team to victory.