Cory Mccartney
Friday November 13th, 2009

John Madden used to say "if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any," but it's unlikely the erstwhile commentator ever saw anything quite like Cincinnati's two quarterbacks.

In Zach Collaros and Tony Pike, coach Brian Kelly and the fifth-ranked Bearcats have a headache-inducing problem for defensive coordinators and an advantage unlike any team in the country.

Collaros will get the start Friday night against No. 24 West Virginia, with Pike coming in to run a package of plays to get the rust off before taking over the starting job on Nov. 27 vs. Illinois. Kelly said earlier this week that "after careful consideration, Tony's our guy."

But why settle on just one? The Bearcats are much more dangerous when they use both Collaros and Pike.

In Pike, the Bearcats have a pure passer, a sixth-year senior who has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,633 yards and 15 touchdowns and was a budding Heisman contender before he injured his non-throwing forearm on Oct. 15 at South Florida. In the sophomore Collaros, Cincy has a quarterback who can kill you with his arm (1,028 yards, eight touchdowns and 76 percent completion percentage) and legs (149 yards and two TDs).

With Pike, Cincinnati runs a wide-open, quick-strike spread. With Collaros, you add in a zone-read, rollouts and play-action passes.

It's basically two quarterbacks, two offenses and one team. This is no Doug Johnson/Jesse Palmer combo; you could just imagine the hair-pulling going on in darkly-lit film rooms as coaches try to figure out how to prepare for both Collaros and Pike.

While the Wildcat has enabled teams to give defenses multiple looks with a change-of-pace threat to run or throw, this would be far different. Darren McFadden has become the benchmark for college running backs in the Wildcat, but even he only threw the ball 22 times in three years at Arkansas. Collaros may not be able to run like McFadden, but McFadden certainly can't throw like Collaros, who is coming of a 480-yard performance against UConn.

With any quarterback rotation, there's the potential to confuse the offense just as much as the defense. Different passers means different cadences, different velocities on the ball, etc. But if Kelly's track record is any indication, he can make it work; last season the Bearcats won 11 games with four different passers. As Chris Brown of Smart Football points out, Kelly has become one of the hottest names in coaching because he gets the most out of players and he preaches details, which don't change no matter who's at quarterback.

The Collaros vs. Pike debate has become its own soap opera, ripe with indecision ("Generally I'm pretty good about making decisions. It's a difficult one," Kelly said Monday.) and even dissension (In a Cincinnati Enquirer online poll, 42 percent of respondents voted for Collaros, 41 percent for Pike and the remaining 17 percent chose "I can't make up my mind!").

This certainly wasn't what anyone was expecting when Pike went down against USF with the Bearcats leading 17-10. Collaros was only supposed to be a fill-in, a Band-Aid until Pike was healthy enough to return. But he Collaros has thrived. "What's unique is he sees a lot of things well beyond his [three] starts," Kelly said. "Here's a guy that makes plays on the perimeter but is savvy and smart enough to throw the ball away and not put our team in a position where we're going to turn it over. [He has the] ability to do some things that a seasoned player would only know, and he's got it after only a couple of starts."

As well as Collaros has played, he's given Kelly the benefit of bringing Pike along slowly. Initially it was thought that Pike would return within two weeks after he was fitted with a cast he was comfortable in. But then Collaros totaled 305 yards and three TDs against. Louisville. Last week, Pike was fitted for a custom brace, was medically cleared to play and was in uniform, but he watched from the sideline again as Collaros carved up UConn with the second-best passing performance in UC history.

"There is a margin of risk when you play somebody with a fracture," Kelly told Cincinnati fan site BearcatLair.com "What we're trying to do is gradually minimize that risk as we move forward to the point where we get him at a low risk situation and he's able to do all of the things that he did prior to the injury."

Whether he's really bringing Pike along slowly or simply playing a hot hand, there's no debate that Cincinnati has an embarrassment of riches at quarterback. Collaros' passer rating of 210.2 would make him far and away the nation's most efficient passer if he'd played in at least 75 percent of the Bearcats' games. Pike's was among the national leaders in passing yards, TDs and efficiency before his injury and his average of a scoring strike every 8.5 completions is still among the top 10 nationally.

Kelly isn't giving away too much about how exactly he'll use Pike, instead forcing West Virginia to prepare for everything.

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