- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Cincinnati coach Butch Jones hardly had to say a word to Zach Collaros before his quarterback took the field, down 34-30 with 1:27 remaining against USF.
Collaros already had the 2-minute drill in his head. He already knew exactly how he would lead his team down the field. He already had thrown two fourth-quarter touchdowns and led his team back from a 10-point deficit. What was another bit of adversity to overcome?
With his trademark confidence, Collaros drove the Bearcats 70 yards down the field. One completion for 33 yards to Kenbrell Thompkins here. Another 21-yarder to Anthony McClung there. Before you knew it, Collaros was running into the end zone from 2 yards out with 12 seconds left in the game to give the Bearcats a 37-34 victory against the Bulls (4-3, 0-3).
Cincinnati (6-1, 2-0) is the first -- and only-- Big East team to become bowl eligible, and is all alone in first place in the Big East.
"I told Zach when there was 1:27 left is great quarterbacks are defined in how they lead their team to victory in the 2 minute drill on the road," Jones said. "He made the plays down the road for us. Our receivers, our line. I can't say enough about our team."
Collaros ran for two touchdowns and threw a 30-yarder to Alex Chisum in the decisive fourth quarter, which featured three lead changes and one big play after another on both sides. It was as exciting as you can get in-season, both teams trading their best shot. But when it counted most, it was Collaros rising up -- finishing with 389 yards passing, 21 yards rushing and five total touchdowns.
What made his performance even more impressive was the way he came back from a subpar first half, in which he threw two interceptions and was 13-of-23 for 155 yards. One of the interceptions went into the end zone. The other was one of the ugliest passes you will ever see, as he tried to flip the ball out of bounds but instead it landed into a sea of USF players.
But in the locker room at halftime, he told his teammates, "I've got ya."
When asked what allowed him to shake off that start and put together his impressive game-winning drive, Collaros said, "My teammates. They had confidence in me all game. We had a shaky first half, and they did a great job of picking me up. We pushed through the adversity. We were confident on the last drive. The receivers made plays and the O-line did a great job protecting me."
Running back Isaiah Pead said, "There was confidence all around. Nobody was scared. We live for games like this."
Linebacker JK Schaffer made sure he got close to the goal line because he was absolutely sure Collaros would lead the team to the win.
"I've seen Zach do that two-minute drill hundreds of times, and I had all the faith in the world in him," Schaffer said. "He's a tough kid to stop, he's got all the poise. He's clutch. Not only him, the offense, they did a great job. Doing the simple things right in such a big situation. It's not the easiest thing in the world. And they did it."
Now the Bearcats are going bowling, something that can truly never be taken for granted. Last season, Cincinnati went 4-8 in Jones' first year as a head coach, a year after an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl appearance. The Bearcats were picked to finish fifth in the preseason Big East media poll, and to be sure, nobody expected a resurgence quite like this one.
Nobody outside Cincinnati, that is.
"All the hard work and all the things we've been through over the last year and a half, all that stuff has finally come togther," said a visibly emotional Schaffer. "I can't get a grasp on this game yet, but just being bowl eligible and not having to sit and watch other teams play in bowl games, that's huge for us. I'm at a loss for words right now. I'm just so happy we have the offense that we do and the quarterback that we do."