7:00 PM ET, November 5, 2011
Heinz Field, PITTSBURGH, PA
Coach Butch Jones wanted Cincinnati to play meaningful games in November.
A five-game winning streak that returned his team to the Top 25 has assured him of that.
Coming off a bye week, the No. 23 Bearcats will try to justify their lofty status while maintaining their lead in the Big East when they face Pittsburgh on Saturday night at Heinz Field.
Jones was named head coach of the Bearcats (6-1, 2-0) on Dec. 16, 2009, after Brian Kelly led the team to a Big East title and a 12-1 record that earned them a season-ending No. 8 ranking.
Cincinnati is back in the AP poll for the first time since, and owns the conference's top spot.
"It's better to be sitting here at 6-1, than 3-4," Jones said. "It's all about playing meaningful games in November. From here on out, every game is a championship game. We've managed our business well to date and we haven't gotten ahead of ourselves.
"Teams that win championships are better in December than they were in August."
Cincinnati has won five in a row for its longest winning streak since 2009. However, the Bearcats' latest victory didn't come easy as quarterback Zach Collaros ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one with 12 seconds left in a 37-34 win at South Florida on Oct. 22.
Playing three of the remaining five games on the road will be a challenge for the Bearcats, who have dropped five of eight away from home under Jones.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us going on the road," Jones said. "It goes back to controlling what we can control, having great road focus and coming off a bye week going back and trying to work on some of our deficiencies as a football team."
The offense, which ranks third in the conference, hasn't been one of those areas and Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead are major reasons.
Pead has 703 rushing yards and is tied with West Virginia's Dustin Garrison atop the Big East with 6.2 per carry. The senior's eight touchdown runs are second to Pittsburgh's Ray Graham, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
Collaros accounted for five TDs against South Florida, completing 26 of 41 for a season-high 389 yards with two interceptions.
His 147.3 passer rating is second in the Big East, but he's also a major threat on the ground with 225 yards on 61 attempts and six touchdowns -- nearly half of his 14 through the air.
"One of Zach's strengths is his ability to ad lib a little bit," Jones said. "But, it also is managing those and not making catastrophic plays. You don't want to take a person's aggressiveness away and make them play passively because that's not in Zach's game."
Collaros didn't fare well against Pittsburgh (4-4, 2-1) in a 28-10 home loss on Dec. 4. He completed half of his 24 passes for 109 yards with one TD and three picks.
Collaros and Pead appear poised for continued production on the ground with Pitt's defense surrendering an average of 143.8 rushing yards during a 2/3 stretch.
The Panthers' strong rushing game may struggle without Graham, who was hurt in a 35-20 win over Connecticut on Oct. 26. He has 958 of the team's 1,202 rushing yards and nine of the 15 scores.
Zach Brown will seek the bulk of the carries in Graham's absence. He'll be facing the conference's top-ranked run defense, with the Bearcats yielding 72.7 yards per game.
"You cannot replace a player like (Graham), but in the same breath, Zach Brown did a tremendous job in coming in and being productive," coach Todd Graham said. "We will have one of our freshmen come in and play the role that Zach played."
After a dismal performance the previous week against Utah, Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri bounced back in a big way versus Connecticut. The junior threw for a career-high 419 yards and two touchdowns without an interception while gaining 40 yards on 12 carries.
Protecting Sunseri, however, has been a major problem. He's been sacked an FBS-high 34 times and that could be an issue against the Bearcats, who have 20 of their 22 sacks in the past five games.
|Avg Points Allowed||19.5||23.8|