8:00 PM ET, November 13, 2009
Nippert Stadium, CINCINNATI, OH
Cincinnati has endured plenty of uncertainty surrounding its quarterback situation this week, but coach Brian Kelly hopes the offense continues its smooth sailing on the field regardless of who is under center.
While Zach Collaros makes his fourth straight start as the fifth-ranked Bearcats chase the first 10-0 start in school history, injured starter Tony Pike is also expected to see action Friday night when their pursuit of a spot in the BCS title game continues against visiting West Virginia.
Each quarterback has proved he can effectively run the Bearcats' spread, no-huddle offense, which ranks third nationally with 482.6 yards per game.
After Pike led Cincinnati to the Big East title and the Orange Bowl last season, the 6-foot-6 senior threw 15 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in six starts this year to gain some early Heisman Trophy buzz and help the Bearcats (9-0, 5-0 Big East) to six relatively comfortable victories.
But after the strong-armed Pike reinjured his previously broken non-throwing forearm against then-No. 21 South Florida on Oct. 15, Collaros added a new dimension to Cincinnati's offense by running for 132 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries in the 34-17 win.
In three starts since then, Collaros has shown he can also pass effectively, going 66 for 82 for 1,028 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception.
The sophomore helped Cincinnati rack up a school-record 711 total yards in Saturday's 47-45 win over Connecticut, after which Kelly said he was no longer committed to Pike as a starter. Collaros threw for 480 yards and a touchdown and ran for 75 yards and two scores.
"He's made it hard," Kelly said Saturday. "OK, I've changed my mind based on the way he's played the last three games. I think I have to reconsider my decision."
The coach switched his stance Monday, however, saying Pike still had the job as soon as he's fully healthy. But on Tuesday, Kelly named Collaros the starter for Friday's game, also saying Pike will get some snaps as he continues to heal and that he'll likely start the following game Nov. 27 against Illinois.
Kelly acknowledged the difficulty of the situation but said he feels comfortable regardless of who is calling signals.
"That's new territory for me," Kelly said. "I can't say that in 19 years of being a head coach that I've had that kind of a dilemma, if you will. Again, the nice part about it is that our football team has absolutely no concerns over who's leading them, if it's Zach or Tony. That's a great thing to have.
"Where controversies come in is when your room is split. There is no split. They know they can win and win at a high level with both these guys. That's a very unique circumstance."
The prolific offense has been the primary reason why Cincinnati remains in the national championship conversation and has a chance for the best start in the program's history. The 1951 team also began 9-0 but lost its 10th game.
The Bearcats also need to keep winning in order to defend their conference title, as they remain tied with Pittsburgh atop the Big East, but they may need to tighten their defense after the unit's worst performance of the season.
UConn scored more points than Cincinnati's previous three opponents combined, including 21 in the fourth quarter to narrow the deficit. The Huskies ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns.
That could be a problem if West Virginia is able to use star running back Noel Devine, one of 16 players nationally who has topped 1,000 yards rushing.
Devine injured his ankle in a 17-9 win over Louisville on Saturday, forcing the Mountaineers (7-2, 3-1) to rely on defense to outlast the Cardinals. Quarterback Jarrett Brown suffered a similar injury in the game, but West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said he's optimistic both players will play this week.
"They both should be ready," Stewart said. "Jarrett should be ready quicker than Noel; I don't know if Noel will play or not. He should if treatments go well."
The bigger challenge for the Mountaineers, however, will likely be slowing down a Cincinnati offense which Stewart has called a "juggernaut." A pair of opponents have already totaled at least 300 yards through the air against West Virginia, which must win this game to maintain any shot at the conference title.
"There are probably a lot of people that aren't going to give us a chance," Stewart said. "We'll probably be 20-30 point underdogs."
Stewart said Sunday he expected to be facing Collaros, even commending Kelly on the decision after hearing his comments following the UConn game.
"I compliment Brian because that takes a lot of guts," Stewart said. "Right now, I don't know how you can take (Collaros) out. I just think the guy has such a hot hand, it would be difficult to take him out."
The Mountaineers will have some positive history on their side. They were the last team to win at Nippert Stadium, 28-23 over then-No. 21 Cincinnati on Nov. 17, 2007, when West Virginia was ranked fifth.
The Bearcats have won 11 in a row at home, and they won 26-23 at West Virginia last Nov. 8 even though their offense was held to 260 yards -- its lowest total in the last two seasons.
Top 25 Overview
Zach Collaros will make his fourth straight start under center, but Tony Pike is expected to make his return when Cincinnati hosts West Virginia. The Bearcats are seeking their first 10-0 start in school history. WVU is still in the Big East picture with games against Cincinnati and Pitt remaining.
Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros and the Bearcats' RBs will be too much for the Mountaineers.
|Avg Points Allowed||21.2||16.9|