Friday, December 2, 2011
Cincinnati, UConn have plenty to prove
By Andrea Adelson
For a team that went 4-8 last season, all that really matters to Cincinnati is winning a championship.
Cincinnati is focused on that more than any bowl destination. The Bearcats (8-3, 4-2) have to beat UConn (5-6, 3-3) to pick up a share of the Big East title, their third in four seasons.
"The only thing that matters to us right now is getting that ring," linebacker JK Schaffer said in a phone interview. "We understand this week is all about a championship. For the senior class, we can win this championship and not play in any bowl game at all and we'll be just as proud. The bowl game is like a bonus to us. We want to win a championship. You look around our locker room, you look around our team room, it doesn't say Orange Bowl everywhere. It says Big East championship everywhere."
A bowl win over an SEC foe helped Isaiah Pead and Cincinnati silence some critics of the Big East.
West Virginia beat USF on Thursday night, essentially eliminating Cincinnati from BCS contention. But when you consider the adversity this team has faced over the past two seasons, you believe it when the players say they are only focused on the championship. Last year, they struggled under first-year coach Butch Jones as he completely revamped the program and style of play. Players really bought in this season, and have undergone a physical transformation. This is a team that wants to overpower you, and has done that for the most part.
Cincinnati jumped out to a 7-1 start and was in control of its destiny. But after quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle against West Virginia, the Big East race suddenly opened up. Cincinnati dropped two games in a row and was in danger of falling out of contention for a league title.
The Bearcats rebounded with a win over Syracuse last week that featured a heavy dose of running back Isaiah Pead and some huge runs from backup quarterback Jordan Luallen. Now they are back where they expected to be -- they just have to finish.
"We've been through a lot, we've fought through a lot," Schaffer said. "Our confidence level is at an all-time high and we're just ready to get out there and play. We've had a good week of practice, and everyone knows it's going to take a full out effort on offense, defense and special teams to win this championship."
The Huskies, meanwhile, have to win in order to become bowl eligible. They hit the road for the first time since the end of October. This team has been much different in league play away from home. UConn is 0-2, and lost its games to West Virginia and Pitt by a combined 78-36.
These teams have similar strengths this season. Both have gotten great play up front -- UConn ranks No. 3 in the nation in rushing defense; the Bearcats rank 10th nationally in rushing defense (100.6 ypg) and lead the nation in tackles for loss (8.5 per game).
Both are playing two quarterbacks, and both are strong in the run game with the Huskies' Lyle McCombs and the Bearcats' Pead, the top two rushers in the Big East. That's especially important for Cincinnati without Collaros behind center.
There is no doubt both teams have motivation to win. Cincinnati is trying to supplant UConn as Big East champs.
"Everyone wants to show that we're still in it and that we're still good," UConn defensive end Trevardo Williams said. "We don't want to be doubted. We want everyone to believe in us and this is an opportunity for us to show that."