PITTSBURGH -- While last year's Orange Bowl appearance represented the high-water mark for the Cincinnati program, the game marked the low point in quarterback Tony Pike's career.
Pike threw four interceptions in that loss to Virginia Tech. People wondered why coach Brian Kelly didn't pull his struggling starter for Dustin Grutza. Kelly did, however, question Pike's maturity and toughness this summer by pointing back to that game.
On Saturday, in the Bearcats' biggest game since that night in Miami, Pike seemed to be reliving the same nightmare. Through three quarters, he was just 11-for-29 for 174 yards and three interceptions at Pittsburgh, with the Big East title and an undefeated season slipping away.
After his third pick, an ugly underthrown ball that doubled his season total for interceptions coming into the day, Pike grabbed his helmet in frustration and disbelief. Kelly said something to him on the sideline, and backup Zach Collaros began warming up in earnest. Collaros had played so well while Pike was injured in October and November that some questioned why he didn't keep the job permanently.
Kelly could have made the switch right then, and everyone would have understood. Instead, he stuck with Pike again. This time, it worked as Pike threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- including the game-winner with 33 seconds left -- in a 45-44 victory.
Kelly said it wouldn't have been possible if not for the experience last year in Miami.
"He made some of the same mistakes as he did in the Orange Bowl, but today he fought through it," Kelly said. "The Orange Bowl came back to help us."
Pike said the message from Kelly after that third interception was, "You're my guy."
"I feel like coach Kelly has a lot of faith in me," he said.
The senior went 11-for-15 for 128 yards in the fourth quarter. His final drive was the stuff of future lore.
Cincinnati took over at its 39, trailing by six with 1:36 to go. Pike needed just 63 seconds to complete four passes, the last of which hit a stretched-out Armon Binns in the corner of the end zone for a 29-yard score.
"That pass was something I missed two or three times in the game," Pike said. "The defense came up and basically said it was going to go man-to-man. I don't think any team in the country can man up on our receivers. This time, it was Armon who had man coverage, so I looked the safety off a little bit and came back to Armon."
That simple decision is what Pike lacked earlier in the game. He was getting pressured heavily by the Pitt defensive line in the first half. His receivers also had some drops and missteps. But Pike also admitted he tried to go for the big play a few too many times. Not until the team was in full fourth-quarter comeback mode did he settle down.
"In the beginning, I tried to force too many things," he said. "Once you get into the two-minute drill, you forget about thinking. You just go out there and make your reads.
"It's funny how you can go 11-0 and play so well, and the whole season comes down to a minute and 30 [seconds]."
Cincinnati is glad it kept Pike in control of that situation.