Saturday November 14th, 2009

CINCINNATI -- All week, college football followers wondered how Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly would manage his unique quarterback derby. The quarterbacks involved weren't completely in the loop themselves.

"It caught me off guard," admitted Bearcats starter Zach Collaros, when, on first and goal on Cincinnati's first possession, Kelly suddenly sent in Tony Pike in his place.

"I thought he just wanted to talk to me," Pike said when he first heard his name called. "I kind of had some trouble getting my chin strap on."

He didn't dally long. On his first play since injuring his left forearm against South Florida on Oct. 15, Pike fired a 10-yard touchdown strike to receiver Armon Binns. By the end of the fifth-ranked Bearcats' 24-21 win over West Virginia here Friday night (RECAP | BOX SCORE), Pike -- former Heisman candidate, future NFL draft pick -- had asserted himself as college football's most effective relief pitcher.

Two completions. Two touchdowns. And Cincinnati is 10-0 for the first time in school history.

"I don't know if anyone's ever done that before," Kelly said afterward. "It was kind of crazy."

This entire season has been crazy for this 114-year-old football program that inexplicably finds itself on the footsteps of football bluebloods Florida, Texas and Alabama. For the second straight week, a Nippert Stadium record crowd (35,105) watched their beloved BCS aspirants stave off a furious last-minute comeback attempt by a thought-to-be vanquished Big East foe. This one required two quarterbacks, a career night from sophomore tailback Isaiah Pead (18 carries, 175 yards), a fortuitous replay review, a stalwart defensive effort containing Mountaineers star Noel Devine (25 carries, 88 yards) and, with 36 seconds remaining, an onside kick recovery to put win No. 10 in the bag.

"I don't care how we score points. I don't care what it looks like," said Kelly. "I just want to win."

The Bearcats' offensive wizard has now won 32 of the 38 games he's coached here, and this one required more of his mad-scientist tinkering. He'd decided early in the week to give the torrid sophomore Collaros his fourth straight start while easing Pike back into action in advance of his anticipated return to the starting lineup Nov. 27 against Illinois. His plan -- to use Pike in selected red-zone situations -- was far from arbitrary.

"We wanted to minimize [Pike's] risk," said Kelly. "In a short field, there was a three to four percent chance of pressure [from West Virginia] based on film tendencies. We knew we would get a lot more bracket coverage, and Tony can fit it in tight spaces. He can see those creases just a little bit better than Zach."

That he did. Both of his touchdown throws were lasers, but the second -- a 6-yard strike on a third and goal slant to D.J. Woods early in the third-quarter -- was as perfectly placed a throw as anything you'll see from a Tebow or McCoy. The throw put Cincinnati up 21-14. He never saw the field again after that.

Lest you think Kelly's creative platoon might cause friction among his quarterbacks, Pike and Collaros hugged in a hallway just outside the Bearcats' postgame press conference, where they'd just finished hamming it up for reporters.

"Guys on the sideline were joking that I got the assist and he got the [basket]," said Collaros. "It was like Derrick Rose to Joakim Noah."

Collaros, who set a school record with 555 yards of offense six days earlier against Connecticut, cooled off a bit Friday night. While he made some nice throws, he finished a modest (by Cincinnati standards) 17-of-24 for 205 yards and threw an ill-advised interception shortly before halftime.

The Bearcats' undisputed offensive star Friday night was Pead, who saw the most extensive action of his young career due to an injury to backfield mate Jacob Ramsey. With Kelly mixing in a few option pitches with his usual zone-read draws, the fleet-footed Pead broke off runs of 52 and 43 yards.

He also scored an important game-tying touchdown late in the second quarter after Cincinnati fell behind for the first time since Sept. 19 -- although it appeared at first that he'd committed a crushing miscue instead. On first and goal at the 3, Pead leapt over the top of the pile and stretched the ball forward toward the goal line -- only to have it fall loose. The officials on the field called it a fumble.

Remarkably, the Bearcats had not lost a single fumble during their first nine games -- but tight end Adrien Robinson coughed up the first at the end of a long reception in the first quarter, and now it appeared Pead had committed an even costlier second. The replay officials bailed him out, however, ruling the ball had crossed the plane. Certain angles on ESPN2's broadcast seemed to confirm as such, but it was far from overwhelming evidence -- yet another controversial break for one of the nation's unbeatens.

"I was praying [on the sideline]," said Pead. "I felt like I [got in]. [Backup running back] John Goebel told me I went from 'zero to hero.'"

Cincinnati's defense must have felt much the same way. For the second straight week, an opponent rushed for 200-plus yards on the Bearcats (202), with fullback Ryan Clarke darting untouched for a 37-yard second quarter touchdown. After falling behind 14-7 with 8:05 left in the second quarter, Cincinnati made several big stops while holding West Virginia (7-3) scoreless nearly the entire second half.

But Mountaineers quarterback Jarrett Brown (17-of-25, 188 yards) proved elusive much of the night, constantly scrambling away from pressure, even with Bearcats defenders' hands draped around his leg. After the Bearcats finally went ahead two scores, 24-14, on a 38-yard Jacob Rogers field goal with 2:08 left, Brown drove West Virginia 64 yards on seven plays, capping it with a miraculous scramble and throw on the run to Bradley Starks for a 3-yard touchdown.

For the second straight week, Cincinnati found itself needing an onside recovery to seal the deal. While the Bearcats' bandwagon keeps growing, their victory margins are suddenly shrinking.

Their bye week couldn't come at a better time. Following a non-conference game against the 4-6 Illini on Thanksgiving weekend, Cincy (10-0, 6-0 Big East) will travel to No. 9 Pittsburgh (8-1, 5-1 Big East) the final night of the season (Dec. 5) with a BCS berth -- and maybe, possibly more -- on the line.

"Winning football games is hard," said Kelly. "We have won 10 in a row, and we are banged up. We're just fighting to win every day."

As of Friday night, they'd won more than any team in the country -- and any team in their school's history. Not bad for a team with a revolving door at quarterback.

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