CINCINNATI -- Far from perfect, No. 5 Cincinnati was good enough to stay unbeaten. Now the Bearcats can try to run the table with their senior quarterback throwing the ball.
Tony Pike threw two touchdown passes in a cameo appearance Friday night, and the Bearcats overcame a self-destructive first half to beat West Virginia 24-21 for the best start in school history.
Cincinnati (10-0, 6-0 Big East) struggled offensively because of uncharacteristic mistakes -- a fumble, a dropped touchdown pass, a missed field goal and an interception -- all in the first half. In the clutch, the Bearcats were good enough in front of the biggest crowd in Nippert Stadium's history.
"It's unbelievable how much winning can change a city and how much a city can rally behind you," said Pike, who was 2-of-4 for 16 yards and the two touchdowns.
A pair of sophomores who opened the season as backups led them through.
"We definitely shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times in the first half," said Collaros, who was 17-of-24. "We came back to the sideline and said, 'They're not stopping us. As long as we keep doing what we do and take care of business the way we have the last nine games, we'll be all right.'"
West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) took advantage of the mistakes to keep it close, but couldn't break through.
The Mountaineers wasted a chance with 5:23 left, going for it on fourth-and-8 from the Cincinnati 24-yard line. Jarrett Brown's pass into the end zone while under pressure fell incomplete.
"I was going for the win," coach Bill Stewart said. "It was going to be tough to stop them. We really hadn't stopped them all night. I couldn't go for the field goal. I figured the game would go to the end."
Pead cut across the field on a 43-yard run on the next play that put Cincinnati in position to take control. Jake Rogers' 38-yard field goal made it 24-14 with 2:08 left. Brown's touchdown pass against a soft defense cut it to 24-21 with 39 seconds left and West Virginia out of timeouts.
Cincinnati's Armon Binns recovered the onside kick to finish it off.
"Every loss hurts, but this is a very tough loss," fullback Ryan Clarke said. "This kind of loss really hits you."
Pike's return got the Bearcats going.
The senior quarterback damaged the plate in his left forearm a month ago, forcing the inexperienced Collaros to run the offense for the last four games. With a protective brace on his left arm, Pike got back on the field Friday and made an instant impact.
He completed Cincinnati's opening drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Binns on his first snap. He also came off the bench and finished the Bearcats' opening drive of the second half with a 6-yard scoring pass to D.J. Woods, a throw zipped between defenders that made it 21-14.
"You couldn't ask for anything better," Pike said. "I got a great ovation. You couldn't write a better script, coming in on the first play and throwing a touchdown."
Coach Brian Kelly figured it was a good spot for Pike because the Mountaineers wouldn't blitz Pike.
To throw a touchdown on the first pass?
"I don't know if anybody's ever done that before," Kelly said. "It was kind of crazy."
Brown played with a sprained foot and came up limping at times, but made enough important plays to keep it close. Noel Devine, the Big East's second-leading rusher, played with a sore ankle and ran for 88 yards. He was on the sideline getting his left ankle retaped during the Mountaineers' decisive drive that came up empty.
Cincinnati had been the only team in the Bowl Subdivision that hadn't lost a fumble this season. The streak ended when tight end Adrien Robinson coughed it up at midfield after a catch, setting up West Virginia's first score.
The Bearcats had another self-destructive drive in the second quarter, when Robinson dropped a pass in the end zone and Rogers then missed a field goal after a bad snap, keeping it tied.
Not for long. Clarke broke a 37-yard run on a third-and-short play, putting the Mountaineers up 14-7 midway through the second quarter. Cincinnati hadn't trailed since the third game of the season at Oregon State.
There were more Bearcat blunders to come.
Pead fumbled while diving over the pile and stretching the ball toward the goal line, with West Virginia recovering. The call was overturned on review, which indicated the ball crossed the goal line before he lost it.
Collaros forced a pass that was picked off just before the break for his first interception in his four starts, leaving it tied 14-14 at halftime.