When Cincinnati settled for a field goal on its opening drive last week against Indiana State, there was no celebrating on the sidelines.
Instead, as quarterback Zach Collaros recalls, players were hanging their heads in frustration. At halftime of that game against one of the worst FCS programs around, the Bearcats led only 12-7. This came after mustering just two touchdowns in a 28-14 loss to Fresno State in the opener.
The offense that was the best in the Big East a year ago and predicted by many to be explosive again this year had suddenly become plodding.
"We were frustrated because we had great expectations for ourselves," Collaros said. "That kind of got us in a funk."
The Bearcats responded by scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter to blow last weekend's game open. Still, this offense hasn't yet looked like the one that scored 117 points in last season's first two games, or even like new coach Butch Jones' old high-scoring attack at Central Michigan. It ranks fifth in the Big East in scoring and just seventh in total offense, a neighborhood never known during the Brian Kelly era.
Cincinnati is hoping to get back to those high-flying days Thursday night at NC State (ESPN, 7:30 ET).
"Our offense has something to prove this week," offensive guard Alex Hoffman said. "We've kind of got a chip on our shoulders, especially as an offensive line."
Collaros was sacked eight times at Fresno State and hurried countless more. After that game, Jones opened up the competition at every offensive line spot, though he made just one change to the starting lineup, with Randy Martinez moved up to start at guard. Jones said he thought the line made "great strides, but we're still a work in progress."
They will also have their hands full against a blitz-happy NC State team that will be a whole lot more physical than lowly Indiana State.
"Our chemistry has been great this week, and we're all on the same page," Hoffman said. "We're going to protect Zach a lot better. He's not going to get touched."
A huge year was expected from Collaros, who turned in dazzling numbers in four starts replacing the injured Tony Pike last season. Collaros' stats through two games this year are solid -- he's completing 60 percent of his passes and has three touchdowns with no interceptions. But he also held onto the ball too long at times against Fresno, leading to some of those sacks.
"I was trying to make too many plays in the second half," he said. "I was trying to win a game by myself."
Jones has cautioned all along that, despite those four starts last year, Collaros is basically still a first-year starter at quarterback.
"Zach is still going through the evolution stages," Jones said. "People look at those four games, but it's still different when you're the starting quarterback. There's so much that goes into the leadership at that position, from making the right reads and the right decisions."
Collaros also no longer has as many weapons around him as he once did. Receiver Vidal Hazelton was lost for the year with a torn ACL in the Fresno game. Wideouts Kenbrell Thompkins and Dyjuan Lewis are ineligible. Running back Isaiah Pead missed the Indiana State game with swelling in his knee. The starting receivers are still strong, but Jones said there have been too many incompletions.
"Dropped passes are like turnovers in our offense," he said.
When the Bearcats are completing passes and avoiding negative plays, they get into a hyper tempo in their no-huddle offense. The pace picked up considerably in that third quarter outburst last week, and that's the way Cincinnati wants to play.
If that happens at NC State, then maybe this offense will look like its old familiar self.
"If we execute the way we know how, there's no question we'll put up big points and big numbers," Collaros said.