Cincinnati picks good week to survive a scare

November, 8, 2009
11/08/09
1:48
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

CINCINNATI -- Brian Kelly encountered an odd situation in the locker room after Cincinnati's game against Connecticut on Saturday night. He had to give his players a pep talk -- after a victory.

Judging from their muted shuffle off the Nippert Stadium turf or the downtrodden stares on some defensive players' faces, you might not have known the No. 5 Bearcats beat UConn. That's what a white-knuckle, 47-45 game will do to a team that's contending for the national title.

"I had to tell a lot of guys in there, 'We just won a football game,'" Kelly said. "They had that look about them defensively. But you've got to enjoy a win like this. It's hard to win."

Actually, winning hadn't been too difficult for Cincinnati (9-0, 5-0 Big East) before Saturday. Only one opponent had come within 10 points all season, and Fresno State never seriously threatened in that 28-20 decision.

It looked like another easy stroll for the Bearcats once they built a 30-10 halftime lead and a 37-17 cushion over UConn in the third quarter. But the ever-resilient Huskies stormed back, coming within a missed two-point conversion of erasing the entire deficit.
 
 Frank Victores-US Presswire
 Zach Collaros passed for 480 yards, the second most in school history, to keep Cincinnati's offense rolling.

In the process, they exposed the warts, moles and scar tissue on the Big East's beauty queen.

"It was actually good for our guys," Kelly said. "Because we hadn't been in this kind of adversity all year."

In any other week, critics would tear apart Cincinnati, harping on an alarmingly poor defense (462 total yards) and special teams problems (UConn's Robert McClain had an 87-yard punt return touchdown). But the Bearcats picked the perfect week to scuffle, as several other Top 10 teams either also skirted by or got trap-doored.

No. 4 Iowa lost, allowing Kelly's team to move up one spot in the BCS food chain. No. 7 Boise State won a similar shootout at Louisiana Tech, 45-35. No. 8 Oregon gave up 51 points in a loss at Stanford, and No. 10 Georgia Tech needed overtime to beat Wake Forest at home.

Almost every championship team has to get through a scare. So even though the Bearcats had a rare showcase opportunity on ABC in prime-time, all they really needed to do this week was survive, not worry about style points.

"We'd all like to play our best in every phase of the game, but sometimes you've just got to find a way to win," Kelly said.

All the style Saturday night came from the offense, which continues to produce at a breathtaking pace. The Bearcats piled up a school-record 711 total yards without a single turnover. Mardy Gilyard summed up the night when he sat down at the postgame interview table, scanned the stats and said, "Oh, damn."

"It's just a beautiful thing to watch once we're clicking," said Gilyard, who had 12 catches for 172 yards.

Things are clicking like an overworked mouse pad behind backup quarterback Zach Collaros. Starting his third straight game for the injured Tony Pike, Collaros passed for 480 yards, the second most in school history, and broke the school and Big East record for most total yards (555).

Collaros has played so incredibly well with his arm and his legs that Kelly isn't sure if he'll start Pike next week against West Virginia. Pike was cleared medically and received a brace for his injured left forearm late last week. Kelly had previously said the senior would automatically regain his job once healthy.

"I think I have to reconsider my decision," Kelly said.

We know the offense can score no matter who's under center. This game raised major red flags about the defense, which came into the night third in the nation in points allowed. The Big East's beefiest offensive line -- UConn's guards and tackles all weigh between 315 and 333 pounds -- rammed through the smaller players in Cincinnati's 3-4 scheme. That causes questions about whether the Bearcats' defense could handle the offensive lines of, say, Alabama or Texas in a potential BCS title game.

But those concerns aren't as glaring in a week like this. This beauty queen may have some flaws, but so do all the other contestants in this pageant.

"It's always exciting when you don't your play best game and you still get the win," linebacker JK Schaffer said. "It shows you how much better you can be and how much more you can beat teams by."

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