PITTSBURGH -- Butch Jones' rebuilding plan at Cincinnati is ahead of schedule. Way ahead.
Zach Collaros threw for 214 yards and ran for two touchdowns as the Bearcats (No. 23 AP) took firm control of the Big East race with a 26-23 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Isaiah Pead rushed for 118 yards and Tony Miliano kicked four field goals for Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0 Big East), which won its sixth straight to take a major step toward winning the program's third conference title in four years.
Not bad for a program picked to finish fifth in the league in the preseason. Seems like a long time ago now.
"We talk to our players about focus and we use a term called 'snap and clear,'" coach Butch Jones said. "You play one snap and you remove it from your mind. You don't look up to the scoreboard until the end. Our team has tremendous confidence in each other and belief."
The Bearcats played like it after erasing a 10-point third-quarter deficit.
Yet Cincinnati rallied doing what it's done all season: Forcing opponents into careless turnovers and turning them into points.
Pitt led by a touchdown late in the third quarter when Sunseri appeared to scramble for a first down. The ball popped out, however, and the Bearcats recovered at the Pitt 27. Cincinnati needed just three plays to tie it at 23, with Collaros plunging over from 3 yards out for his second touchdown of the game.
It took the Bearcats all of three plays to get it back again. Sunseri tried to throw the ball in double coverage and instead it wound up deflecting into the hands of Camerron Cheatham, who returned it to the Pitt 26.
"It was kind of a slow-moving game," Cheatham said. "Once the defense got into it and we got our hands on a few balls it seemed we snapped out of our little slump and we began to play ball."
The pick led to Miliano's fourth field goal of the game, and the Bearcats held on. Barely.
"You can't have turnovers inside your own 30, especially against an offense like Cincinnati that's high-powered and can score a lot of points," Sunseri said. "So, I've just got to make sure I play turnover-free, keep the ball high and tight and learn from our mistakes."
Pitt (4-5, 2-2) had a pair of opportunities to tie it in the final minutes. But the Panthers opted to go for it on fourth-and-6 at the Cincinnati 36 rather than have Kevin Harper attempt a 53-yard field goal. Sunseri threw incomplete to Devin Street and the Bearcats took over.
"We had a good play and we thought we could make it," Pitt coach Todd Graham said.
The Panthers had one last chance as Sunseri frantically drove them from the Pitt 11 to the Cincinnati 33 with 14 seconds remaining. Harper, who drilled a 52-yarder through the same goal posts in the first quarter, came on to send the game to overtime. His 50-yarder never had a chance, sailing wide ride and sending the Bearcats storming onto the field.
Now Cincinnati finds itself all alone atop the Big East standings with plenty of legroom. Louisville is the only team in the conference within shouting distance and the Bearcats beat the Cardinals last month. Every other team in the Big East has at least two losses.
While Jones cautions there's still plenty of football to play, Pead thinks the Bearcats can keep it going after rallying from a significant second-half deficit for the third time in three Big East games. Cincinnati has trailed by at least nine points in all three conference games, and won all three.
"It's trust, belief, confidence," Pead said. "It's confidence in what we do day in and day out in practice. ... Every piece that a team should have I think we have."
It's the kind of confidence Graham hoped his team would gain after mauling Connecticut a week ago, a game in which Sunseri threw for 419 yards.
Instead the Panthers took another step back in an uneven season.
Pitt rolled up 179 yards rushing against the Bearcats, who came in ranked second in the country in rushing yards allowed, giving up just 72.9 yards per game.
The Panthers had that number by halftime even without star running back Ray Graham, who tore the ACL in his right knee against UConn. He underwent surgery on Monday and led his teammates onto the field just before the opening kickoff, slowly working his crutches across the turf.
His presence helped stake the Panthers to a 16-13 halftime lead thanks to a rare mistake by Collaros, who threw two interceptions for a team that entered third in the nation in turnover margin.
When Sunseri found Graham to put Pitt up 10 less than 2 minutes into the third quarter, Pitt was in full command. Then, as the Panthers have done too often this season, they self-destructed.
The offensive line collapsed, Sunseri -- who completed 24 of 38 passes for 218 yards and a score -- had no time to throw and the Bearcats started chipping away.
"I thought after that first drive of the second half we were able to generate more of a pass rush on Tino and obviously the turnovers were huge," Jones said.