Big Ten: Zach Collaros

Anyone who has watched Cincinnati's offense operate this season knows the Bearcats are stacked at both quarterback and wide receiver.

Cincinnati has dissected opposing secondaries all fall, regardless of whether Tony Pike or Zach Collaros was making the throws.

That's why it seemed odd to see this quote from Illinois co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch following Friday's 49-36 loss to No. 5 Cincinnati. Pike returned to the field and threw for 399 yards and a school-record six touchdowns against Illinois, while Cincinnati barely tried to run the ball.

"You go into a game trying to make them pass," Illinois defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. "That may be a mistake against them. We gave up too many big plays."



Yep, big mistake. I wasn't the only one taken aback by the strategy.

Illinois-Cincinnati pregame notes

November, 27, 2009
11/27/09
10:29
AM ET
Here are a few items to get you ready for today's Illinois-Cincinnati clash (ABC, noon ET), courtesy of ESPN's Stats & Information group.

Tony Pike will get the start at quarterback for the Bearcats, who have received great play from both Pike and backup Zach Collaros this season.

The Illini might not face as strong of a downfield passing attack with Pike taking the snaps.

Illinois has held its own against undefeated teams from Ohio during the Ron Zook era.

Big Ten pick: Week 13

November, 24, 2009
11/24/09
3:00
PM ET
Only one game on tap this week, and it's a chance for the Big Ten to notch a major nonconference victory.

Cincinnati 38, Illinois 27: The Illini have quietly run the ball well this year, ranking 24th nationally in rushing, and Cincinnati seems vulnerable against the run right now. Running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford keep Illinois in this one for a while, but the Bearcats offense eventually proves to be too much. Cincinnati simply has too many weapons for an Illinois defense that struggles in the back seven. Tony Pike and the Bearcats pull away late, and Mardy Gilyard hauls in two touchdowns.

Week 12 record: 4-1

Season record: 61-24 (.718)
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett

Eight FBS teams call Ohio home, but only one program has been nationally relevant for decades. Ohio State is the state's premier program, having won 13 national championships and 33 Big Ten championships. It's produced seven Heisman Trophy winners.

But for the first time in recent memory, the Buckeyes face a legit challenger for the title of best in state. Cincinnati has surged under third-year coach Brian Kelly, winning the Big East last season and rising to No. 8 in the BCS standings, nine spots ahead of the Buckeyes, who already have two losses. While the teams don't meet again until 2012, the two programs have been compared a lot during the past few weeks.

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break down the debate in the Buckeye State.

Adam Rittenberg: We've already looked at Iowa-Cincinnati and Penn State-Pitt. Now let's get to a topic that has been debated for a while this season. A Cincinnati radio station even got into the act to mock Ohio State after the Buckeyes' loss to Purdue. What's your take on these two teams?

Brian Bennett: Adam, Cincinnati fans are getting a bit chesty after decades of playing the role of little brother in Ohio. Well, maybe more like little second cousin than little brother. Look, there's no question that the Buckeyes have a William Taft-sized edge on the Bearcats in history, tradition, resources and facilities. But college football is becoming a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and it's hard to argue against the fact that Cincinnati is having the better season this year.
 
 AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
 The Buckeyes have yet to figure out how to best utilize Terrelle Pryor’s skills.


Which team is better? That's debatable. But let me ask you this: If given the choice, would you rather have Terrelle Pryor, who looks ill-suited for Ohio State's system, or Tony Pike expertly running the spread? Or, for that matter, Bearcats backup Zach Collaros, who's a dual-threat guy himself?

Rittenberg: Cincinnati knows exactly who it is on offense, and the results show every time the Bearcats take the field. The system is bigger than any player, as Kelly can plug in just about anyone at quarterback and get tremendous results. Ohio State, meanwhile, hasn't established an offensive identity since Pryor became the starter. The Buckeyes keep experimenting with the spread, the pistol formation, a pro-style set, etc., as they try to mold the offense around Pryor. I wish they'd just pick something and stick with it, even if it's an option-based offense. I do think Pryor will get better over time. He's just so talented.

Ohio State's defense knows exactly who it is, and it's an extremely talented group. I know UC's offense is tremendous, but do the Bearcats face any defenses like Ohio State's in the Big East?

Bennett: Well, a couple of weeks ago, I might have said South Florida, but the Bulls have since been exposed. So it's true that at least so far, the Bearcats haven't faced any shutdown, stout defenses. The last time they did, in fact, was against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and that didn't work out so well.
 
 Joel Auerbach/US Presswire
 Brian Kelly’s offense has proven successful no matter who is at quarterback.


But I do think this is a better, more well-rounded offense than even last year. And if you can fairly ask if Cincinnati has seen a defense like Ohio State's, I can fairly counter by asking if the Buckeyes have faced anything as good as Kelly's offense. USC wasn't exactly airing it out. Purdue runs some spread and managed to beat Ohio State, and I think we'd both agree that the Boilermakers aren't quite in the Bearcats' class. And on the flip side, don't count out that Cincinnati defense, which statistically has been better than the one in Columbus.

Rittenberg: I can't believe you, Bennett. You're totally neglecting the mighty Toledo Rockets, the nation's 14th-ranked offense that managed to put up exactly zero points against Ohio State back on Sept. 19. I see how it is. Now that Cincinnati is highly ranked and competing for state bragging rights, you totally neglect the little guy. Jim Tressel wouldn't approve.

In all seriousness, no, Ohio State hasn't faced an offense that resembles Cincinnati's, though the Buckeyes really did a nice job against USC until the final drive. It's too bad Illinois never showed up this season, as the Illini could have given Ohio State a nice challenge. But Kelly's scheme would really test Ohio State, especially in the secondary. Kurt Coleman is one of the best safeties in the country, but corners Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence would have their hands full. Ohio State's pass rush would need to be on point, but I have full faith in the Buckeyes' defensive line.

OK, Brian, you're on the spot. Who wins this game? And perhaps, more importantly, could Cincinnati win in Columbus? I don't think the Bearcats enter many environments nearly as hostile as The Shoe.

Bennett: Does this mean we have to debate Toledo vs. Akron next?

You know, if they played every year or even if they played 100 times this year, Ohio State would probably win the majority of them. But in a one-shot deal, this year, no matter where the game was played, I'd cast my lot with the Bearcats. Not only is this a really good team, but it's a team full of guys who grew up in Ohio but weren't considered good enough to play for the Buckeyes. Combine their talent with motivation, and I think that would be enough to change the state's power structure for one day, at least.

Who would you take?

Rittenberg: I agree the Bearcats would have no trouble getting up for this game. Cincinnati clearly has the better offense, but I don't think UC has seen a defense like Ohio State's. Keep in mind the Buckeyes play a similar style to Virginia Tech, which beat Cincinnati pretty handily in the Orange Bowl. Location also would make a difference. Cincinnati wins at Nippert, but I don't see the Buckeyes losing this game in Columbus.

Blogger debate: Iowa vs. Cincinnati

October, 27, 2009
10/27/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg


Several teams remain alive in the BCS title game hunt. But outside of the Big Three (Florida, Texas, Alabama), only two BCS conference teams are still unbeaten -- Iowa and Cincinnati. And both are the subject of considerable debate.

So let's break it down now with Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett.

 
 AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
 Mardy Gilyard has scored 10 touchdowns so far this season.
Brian Bennett: First of all, Adam, do you think either the Hawkeyes or the Bearcats are worthy of playing for the national title this season?

Adam Rittenberg: Brian, I think both teams are worthy, and before getting to each case, let's look at the sport as a whole. Who is really good this year? Florida has flaws, Alabama has flaws, Texas has flaws, USC certainly has flaws. The most dominant teams to me have been TCU, Boise State and yes, your Cincinnati Bearcats, but those teams will always face questions about overall strength of schedule.

When it comes to Iowa, I know the Hawkeyes don't win many style points with the voters outside the Big Ten region. I know they should have beaten Arkansas State and Northern Iowa by a lot more. But trust me, it can't be understated how hard it is for a team to go into State College, Madison and East Lansing and come out with victories. If Iowa completes its road circuit with a win at Ohio State, I don't know how you leave that team out of the title chase.

So let's hear it. Make your case for Cincinnati. Are they worthy? I feel like Wayne and Garth right now.

BB: Party time, it's excellent. (We're dating ourselves here, Adam.)

Well, Cincinnati has been simply dominant, winning its three Big East games by an average of 27 points. Two of those were on the road. In fact, the Bearcats are 4-0 on the road, including a 10-point victory at Oregon State. Mighty USC just beat those same Beavers by 7 at home.

Look at the national statistics, and Cincinnati is everywhere: second in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense, first in sacks, third in turnover margin, ninth in kickoff returns. This is a complete, well-rounded football team with a couple of real stars on offense (Tony Pike, Mardy Gilyard) and one of the best coaches in the business right now, Brian Kelly.

Iowa has had a great year, but I just can't shake those close shaves to Northern Iowa and Arkansas State out of my mind. Can a team that has as much trouble scoring as the Hawkeyes do really be taken seriously as a national championship contender?

AR: I'll admit to having a man-crush on Brian Kelly. He's an amazingly innovative coach, and I love the way he never lets a setback like losing a quarterback affect his plan.

 
 Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
 Tyler Sash leads the Big Ten in interceptions with five.
As for Iowa, does a team have to be an offensive juggernaut to win the national title? I know it's a quarterback's game, but we seem to build up those players so much and then get disappointed (like with Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford this year). Iowa's defense has more dynamic playmakers than most offenses in the FBS. The defensive line is a joy to watch, as all four guys, especially ends Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns, totally wreak havoc. Safety Tyler Sash leads the Big Ten in interceptions for the second straight year and makes a ton of exciting plays. Same goes for cornerback Amari Spievey, safety Brett Greenwood and linebacker Pat Angerer. Really, how can you not love a middle linebacker named Pat Angerer?

The offense has some bright spots as well (tight end Tony Moeaki, running back Adam Robinson, wideout Derrell Johnson-Koulianos) and while quarterback Ricky Stanzi has had his ups and downs, he's incredibly resilient and just knows how to win games. He's 16-3 as the starter.

I just keep pointing to the road wins, plus a nice home victory against surging Arizona. Corvallis is a tough place to play, but it isn't State College, Madison or Columbus. The Big Ten still has the intimidation factor going for it. Does Cincinnati run the table with Iowa's road slate?

BB: I think Cincinnati would win at Wisconsin and possibly at Penn State, given that Syracuse stuck around there in Week 2 without any offense at all. As for Ohio State, well, that's a subject of great interest for many Bearcats fans that we'll have to take up later this week.

I do seem to remember, however, Iowa losing at Pitt last year. Different year, I know, but a lot of the same players on both sides. And it proves that the Big Ten and Big East aren't too far apart.

I wonder if we should be watching the Arkansas State-Louisville score this weekend, since Cincinnati beat Louisville 41-10 and of course Arkansas State nearly knocked off the Hawkeyes. Unfortunately, given the system, comparative scoring is about all we have.

Well, that and opinion. So in your opinion, who's better between Cincinnati and Iowa?

AR: You're right in that there isn't much to compare these two leagues, but this Iowa team is totally different than the one that lost at Pitt last September. The quarterback situation was messy back then, and Stanzi's presence has completely changed things and provided the offense a new degree of confidence.

As for who's better, it's a tough call. Cincinnati is certainly the sexier team. Heck, Iowa even admits that it isn't the prettiest car in the lot. It's almost a point of pride. I would certainly pay to see Clayborn, Binns and the Iowa defense go up against the Bearcats' offense. Stanzi and the Iowa offense would need to limit mistakes and try to control the clock to keep Pike or Zach Collaros or Brian Bennett or whomever is playing quarterback for UC off of the field.

But if the game is close, and you'd figure this game would be, you simply can't bet against Iowa. The Hawkeyes are fail-safe in the clutch, while Cincinnati hasn't been in many down-to-the-wire games. You need a special quality to dig deep and pull out the close ones, and Iowa has that quality this season. If the Hawkeyes could keep things close until the fourth quarter, I would like their chances.

OK, you get the last word on this. Who's better?

BB: I've got to stick with Cincinnati (assuming that Bennett kid is far away from the huddle). I just think the Bearcats would definitely score some points on offense and that they have a much more modern attack than Iowa sees most weeks in the Big Ten. I have no confidence that the Hawkeyes could score enough against a very underrated Cincinnati defense. Stanzi is clutch but is nowhere near Pike's league. And I have learned to never bet against Kelly.

Let's just hope that neither team gets shut out of the BCS title game if indeed it can go undefeated. Or that would make a lot of fans Angerer.

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