NCF Nation: Cincinnati 0813
CINCINNATI -- Most people think of Brian Kelly's spread offense when they think of Cincinnati. It's the defense that has the Bearcats on top of the Big East.
On Saturday night, that defense held the league's top scoring team, Pittsburgh, to its lowest point total in conference play during a 28-21 victory. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Panthers had just 106 total yards and only seven points. A long touchdown pass against a busted coverage in the final 90 seconds prevented Pitt from posting its lowest score of the year. After a 69-yard touchdown drive on its first possession, the Panthers had just 37 until the fourth quarter began.
The Bearcats did it without one of their best defensive players. All-Big East cornerback Mike Mickens missed the game with a left knee strain. Just like they did when their quarterbacks went down this season on offense, the defense just kept going.
"It was just next man in," corner DeAngelo Smith said. "Brandon Underwood stepped in and did the job. Mike was cheering us on from the sidelines."
Two weeks ago, Cincinnati held West Virginia to under 100 yards rushing as a team for the first time in seven years. On Saturday, star running back LeSean McCoy managed only 82 yards.
This defense has speed and strength on the front line and outstanding cover skills in the secondary. Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull could only connect with deep threat Jonathan Baldwin once for 22 yards, and Baldwin had to make a terrific move to come back for the ball on that fourth quarter play. Stull was intercepted once and sacked seven times.
"The key for us was to keep McCoy under wraps and then be able to play some coverage situations," Kelly said. "We got Stull to move his feet, and that's so important, because when he can set his feet he can rip the ball down the field. And they've got great receivers who can go down and get it."
Defensive end Connor Barwin had three of his team's sacks on the night, giving him 10 on the season. That's not bad considering that he was a tight end until this spring.
"I don't know what I'm doing," Barwin said.
With 10 starting seniors, the Bearcats defense has plenty of knowledge and experience. And right now, it's why Cincinnati is on track to win the Big East.
CINCINNATI -- The second week of training camp this August, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly called Tony Pike in for a meeting.
|AP Photo/Al Behrman|
|Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike.|
The fourth-year junior quarterback had shown some potential during his time on campus but not much else. And Kelly told Pike that if that's all there was, he need not stick around for his senior season, because the team could use his scholarship on younger players.
"It was now or never for me," Pike said.
There's not much chance Pike will have to foot his own tuition bill anytime soon. Firmly entrenched as the Bearcats' starter, he turned in a dazzling performance in his team's most important game. Pike completed 26 of 32 passes for 309 yards and tossed three touchdown passes in Cincinnati's 28-21 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday night. He was so in control that the occasional incompletion felt like an upset.
"We could have thrown for as many yards as we wanted to throw for with him," Kelly said. "He was outstanding tonight."
Kelly and his staff figured that Pitt would try to use its athletic defensive line to get after Pike, so they turned that to their advantage. They began the game by using a series of quick passes, counter runs and throws with Pike on the move. Pike went 7-for-7 in the first quarter.
After that, the Panthers switched to more zone coverage, which let Cincinnati's receivers find open spots but also put the onus of avoiding pressure on the 6-foot-6 Pike. He slithered in and out of trouble all night.
"I've been watching a lot of tape of last year, and that's when a lot of our big plays would happen, on kind of a broken play," Pike said. "Ben (Mauk) would make the first guy miss and the defense kind of breaks down once they see you scrambling."
The Pitt defense wasn't sure what to do against Pike. Early in the third quarter, he took off on two quarterback draws that resulted in first downs. Then he took a snap and rolled to his right, so Panthers safety Dom DeCicco came up to help on the run. That left Mardy Gilyard wide open for a 39-yard touchdown catch.
"Pike, I'll tell you what, the kid was incredible," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We were chasing him and we could not get him on the ground."
He's come so far since that August meeting, which happened to coincide with senior quarterback and projected starter Dustin Grutza suffering a minor rib injury. That thrust Pike into the No. 1 role for the first time for about a week of practice. He said he took it upon himself then to become a leader, and he had the confidence to make more mistakes with the more reps he got.
Grutza still won the job but broke his leg in Week 2 at Oklahoma. Pike was ready to step in, and played very effectively until he broke his arm two weeks later. He's still playing with a pad on his left arm, and Saturday night he wore special protective covering on his sternum, which he bruised at the end of the Louisville game a week earlier. Even with those injuries, he's not afraid to stand in the pocket when he has to, though he's just as good when he doesn't.
"He did a tremendous job of keeping his eyes downfield and sensing and feeling the pressure," Kelly said. "I think as he's become more comfortable in the spread offense, he knows how he is protected and knows where he needs to look. He has a pretty good understanding of where all of our guys are."
Pike no longer has to worry about his scholarship. His future now may hold a Big East title, a BCS bid and who knows what else next year and beyond. It's still hard for the Cincinnati native to grasp how quickly his career has changed.
"It hits you like a brick wall," he said. "I used come to games in previous years where they were giving away tickets and you could sit anywhere you wanted. To come out and play in front of the largest crowd in history and to have hundreds of my family and friends here to watch us get the win, it's really special."
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
CINCINNATI -- It's still a bit too early for Cincinnati fans to book their hotels for the Orange Bowl, but they might want to go ahead and ask for the time off from work.
The Bearcats are just one win away from winning their first Big East title and going to the Big East. They'll play Syracuse at home next week for that honor.
They turned in a terrific overall performance tonight and held off a late rally in the fourth quarter. Pitt scored with 1:22 left to get within a touchdown but couldn't get the onsides kick. Cincinnati then got to go into victory formation, and what a victory it was. Brian Kelly's stock is going to be even higher after this one.
I'm heading to the locker room for interviews and will try to avoid flying oranges on my way there. More to come ...
CINCINNATI -- It's the biggest game in school history for Cincinnati, and the Bearcats are 15 minutes away from their biggest win ever.
They lead by only two scores, but that doesn't tell you how one-sided this game has been since the first drive. Tony Pike is picking apart Pittsburgh's defense with his arm and legs, and the defense is frustrating the normally high-scoring Panthers' attack. Pitt has just 37 total yards since scoring on its opening possession, only six in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Pike's receivers are catching just about everything he throws. The junior is 25-of-31 for 293 yards and three touchdowns with a quarter left to go. This is a superstar-making performance.
The sold-out Nippert Stadium crowd is starting to feel it, and a couple of Oranges have been thrown on the field already. There will be a lot more of that if this keeps up. Cincinnati can get to within one victory of the Orange Bowl by holding on these final 15 minutes. Pittsburgh has shown no reason to believe otherwise thus far.
CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh had the extra week to prepare for this game, but Cincinnati came in with the better game plan.
Coach Brian Kelly and his staff knew that Pitt's defensive line loves to get up the field and pressure the quarterback, so they countered that in the first half with a lot of quick throws and by getting Tony Pike out of the pocket. It worked beautifully, as Pike was 16-of-21 for 169 yards and had two touchdowns in the first half.
On at least two occasions, Pitt showed an obvious blitz at the line of scrimmage, and Pike checked into the right play to burn it. The first touchdown came that way, as Marcus Barnett walked into the end zone from 20 yards out after defender Elijah Fields fell down.
After going 69 yards on its opening drive to score, Pitt managed just 31 total yards the rest of the half. Even without Mike Mickens, the Cincinnati secondary has managed to contain the deep pass, and the one time Bill Stull tried to find Jonathan Baldwin long, DeAngelo Smith had good coverage.
The game's still very much in doubt, but it will be up to the Panthers to come out with a better second-half plan.
CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh very nearly took control of this game early. The Panthers scored on their opening drive, then caused a fumble on the ensuing kickoff from Mardy Gilyard.
But Cincinnati's defense rose up and got two sacks to force a three-and-out and get the football back. The Bearcats have been on a long drive ever since to eat up the rest of the first quarter.
Pitt's defensive line is getting good penetration, but Cincinnati is doing a better job of using that to its advantage by running quick handoffs, shuffle passes and getting quarterback Tony Pike on the move. A couple of times Pike's receivers came back to the ball as he threw it to them on the run to move the chains. Pike is off to a 7-for-7 start.
It's going to be interesting to see how Cincinnati makes up for Mike Mickens' absence. Cedric Tolbert got called for a key defensive holding call on Pitt's touchdown, and the Panthers will surely try to throw deep to Jonathan Baldwin in the near future.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
CINCINNATI -- Star cornerback Mike Mickens did not start for Cincinnati and is on the sidelines without a helmet. No word yet on why Mickens is out, but if he's gone for any length of time it's a huge blow to the Bearcats' chances.
UPDATE: Mickens has a sprained left knee that he suffered in practice on Thursday. He's questionable to play tonight
CINCINNATI -- Greetings from Nippert Stadium, where it's brrrr ... cold. Ice planet Hoth cold. Temperature at kickoff is expected to be about 29 degrees. Thank goodness for heated press boxes.
You have to wonder how the cold will affect these two teams. It's not windy, so the passing game shouldn't suffer too much except for those chilly receivers' fingers. If it becomes more of a running contest, then the advantage definitely swings toward Pittsburgh and LeSean McCoy.
Cincinnati can't clinch the Big East outright this weekend because of West Virginia's win earlier today at Louisville. But the Bearcats will only have to beat Syracuse to take the BCS bid if they win today. If Pitt wins, it will set up a huge Backyard Brawl next Friday.
This is the fourth time I've seen Cincinnati in person this season and my third trip to see Pittsburgh, so I feel like I know these teams pretty well. I see this as being a very close game, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a low-scoring affair.
Pitt is 7-0 all-time against Cincinnati, including 3-0 in Big East play. Bearcats defensive end Connor Barwin lamented that earlier this week by saying, "They haven't been on top of the Big East like West Virginia, and we still haven't been able to beat them." Cincinnati got two monkeys off its back the past two weeks by taking down West Virginia and Louisville, so it would be fitting to make it three in a row on the way to a possible title.
I'll be back with more before kickoff after I let my fingers and toes thaw out from the walk over here ...
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24