TAMPA, Fla. -- Zach Collaros greeted the man who recruited him Thursday. Joe Tresey, the assistant who helped convince Collaros to play at Cincinnati, smiled and said hello.
Tresey always knew the Bearcats redshirt sophomore quarterback was special. He knew Collaros had led Steubenville (Ohio) High to a 30-0 record and back-to-back state titles in 2005 and 2006. Tresey grew up 76 miles away in Warren, Ohio, or, as Collaros calls it, "the same neck of the woods." This knowledge and a nod from Bearcats coach Brian Kelly resulted in Collaros receiving his only BCS-conference scholarship from Cincinnati.
For his first two years in the program, Collaros tried to pick apart Tresey's defenses as the scout-team quarterback. He excelled at impersonating West Virginia's Pat White and South Florida's Matt Grothe. Before Thursday, Collaros never dreamed that the next time he faced a Tresey defense, it would be in front of 63,000 fans on national television with Bearcats' starter Tony Pike sidelined by an arm injury.
See, when Tresey greeted Collaros on Thursday, Tresey wore the green and gold of USF. Kelly dumped Tresey in favor of Bob Diaco this past offseason, and Tresey landed in Tampa. Little did he know the quarterback he recruited would hand him his first loss at USF. "Man," Tresey said, "the irony of ironies."
Collaros, who also plays in the outfield for Cincinnati's baseball team, relieved Pike for good early in the third quarter and made few mistakes as he led the Bearcats to a 34-17 win that kept No. 8 Cincinnati undefeated and gave the Bearcats a 2-0 head start on the race for the Big East title. Collaros only threw for 72 yards, but he ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The most important run came midway through the third quarter during the first full series with Collaros at the helm. Up seven, the Bearcats faced third-and-11 from their own 25. Collaros watched the sideline, but he couldn't decipher the signal. Exasperated, Kelly called timeout. On the sideline, Kelly made sure Collaros understood he wanted to run a quarterback zone read. "He said he got it the second time," Kelly cracked. "It was the same play -- just a little bit clearer."
Collaros took the snap, and his linemen engulfed their assigned defenders. Back Jacob Ramsey crushed a linebacker, and Collaros did the rest. He danced through the second level and outran USF's secondary for a 75-yard score. "I got tired by the 10," said Collaros, whose family watched from home save for his grandmother, who made the four-hour drive from Boca Raton, Fla. Asked if he'd ever broken a 75-yard run against Tresey's defense as a scout-teamer, Collaros laughed. "They would have blown the whistle" before he got that far, he said.
The Collaros run soothed an anxious Cincinnati sideline. Pike, the star and potential Heisman Trophy dark horse, had come up holding his left arm after he was sacked by Aaron Harris late in the second quarter. Pike broke the same arm last year against Akron, forcing him to miss two games. He tried to play after halftime Thursday, but he went out for good after a hit by Keith McCaskill.
"The plate that's in there has shifted," Kelly said of the injury. "We don't know exactly what that means until he gets seen by a specialist [Friday]. It may mean surgery. It may not mean surgery. ... I would say right now that he's definitely going to be out for Louisville."
Pike, who finished the game in street clothes, stayed upbeat. "It's frustrating, but you see what Zach did tonight," Pike said. "You've got a level of comfort. We've got to just get back, figure out what's wrong, figure out how to help this team."
With Collaros in, Kelly drastically altered his pass-happy offense. Suddenly the Bearcats turned into West Virginia, or, irony of ironies, USF. The plays Collaros ran looked as if they'd been drawn up for Grothe, the USF star who shredded his knee last month, or for current USF starter B.J. Daniels, the player Collaros imitated on scout team this past week. "It's in our system," Kelly said. "We try to prepare for every circumstance." Later, Kelly explained why. "I don't want to bore you with the details," he said, "but I've been down this road before."
The details are more painful than boring. In 2008, the Bearcats hoped the NCAA would grant oft-injured incumbent starter Ben Mauk an extra year of eligibility. After Mauk was denied, Kelly turned to senior Dustin Grutza. Grutza broke his leg in week two at Oklahoma, so Kelly turned to Pike. Two games later, Pike broke his arm against Akron. Collaros got the save in a 17-15 win. The following week, Kelly named redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson the starter. Pike returned two weeks later against Connecticut with a plate and six screws in his arm, but he couldn't feel his hand after halftime. Anderson, who had sprained his MCL a week earlier, played poorly and the Bearcats suffered their second and final regular-season loss. Pike then returned and led the Bearcats to a Big East title.
This time around, Kelly isn't content to simply stick with the kid who came out of the bullpen to thwart the No. 21 Bulls. The coach said he'll spend the next week deciding whether to start Collaros or Anderson against Louisville on Oct. 24. One former Bearcats assistant probably has his money on Collaros. "He's a winner," Tresey said.
He's more than that, Kelly said. That's why the Bearcats plucked Collaros from Steubenville.
"I loved his moxie and savvy," Kelly said. "He didn't lose a game as a high school quarterback. From that position, you want to be able to do what we did tonight. Sixty thousand [fans]. On the road. You just lost your star quarterback. And the No. 2 guy comes in and does what he does, and it's because of his makeup. He's got the intangibles I look for in a quarterback."