NCF Nation: Connor Barwin
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Twenty-seven Big East products had their name called over the weekend in the NFL draft. Three league schools had their best drafts ever.
Cincinnati had six players taken, the most of any Big East team and the most in program history. The previous school record had been five, which happened in 1998, 1960 and 1947. The Bearcats were one of only nine schools to have six or more players drafted this year.
Connecticut had never had a player taken in the first two rounds of the draft before Saturday. Four Huskies went in the first two rounds this year, including the school's first-ever first-rounder, running back Donald Brown.
Rutgers had a record-setting five players drafted, including the Scarlet Knights' first-ever first-rounder, wide receiver Kenny Britt. The most Rutgers had ever previously had drafted in one year was three, in 2007.
Here's a rundown of all the league draft picks and some commentary:
Player, Position, Round, Team
• DeAngelo Smith, DB, 5, Dallas Cowboys
• Mike Mickens, DB, 7, Dallas Cowboys
Thoughts: Kind of surprising that Mickens went after Underwood and Smith, when he was generally regarded as the best pro prospect of the three for most of his career. The fifth round is lofty territory for a punter, but Huber is that good.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• Donald Brown, RB, 1, Indianapolis Colts
• Cody Brown, OLB, 2, Arizona Cardinals
Thoughts: We thought UConn would have a huge day, and the Huskies sure did.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• George Bussey, OT, 5, New England Patriots
Thoughts: Bussey didn't get much pre-draft buzz, but the Patriots must have liked the former walk-on who became a three-year starter and All-Big East performer. Wood will play guard for the Bills.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• Scott McKillop, LB, 5, San Francisco 49ers
• LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, 7, Arizona Cardinals
Thoughts: OK, Pitt fans. How do you feel about McCoy going to Philly? Will you still root for him? Getting McKillop in the fifth round seems like a steal.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• Kenny Britt, WR, 1, Tennessee Titans
• Jason McCourty, DB, 6, Tennessee Titans
• Courtney Greene, DB, 7, Seattle Seahawks
Thoughts: I didn't think Teel would get drafted, but good for him. The Titans and Seahawks must have liked Greg Schiano's program.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• Tyrone McKenzie, OLB, 3, New England Patriots
Thoughts: Despite all that Florida talent, the Bulls had the smallest draft class in the Big East.
• Ryan Durand, OG, 7, Tennessee Titans
Thoughts: Durand was another guy who wasn't on many mock draft boards. There were some good fullbacks in the Big East, including Pitt's Conredge Collins and Louisville's Brock Bolen. But Fiammetta was the only one drafted.
Player, Position, Round, Team
• Ellis Lankster, CB, 7, Buffalo
• Pat McAfee, K, 7, Indianapolis
Thoughts: Can't wait to see how the Dolphins, who showed a lot of creativity on offense last year, use White.
Prominent players who went undrafted:
• Hunter Cantwell, Louisville
• Jamaal Westerman, Rutgers
• C.J. Davis, Pittsburgh
• Julius Williams, UConn
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
• Bill Stewart has left no doubt that West Virginia is Jarrett Brown's team, Mike Casazza writes in the Charleston Daily Mail.
• UConn will probably split carries in the backfield, but Jordan Todman is the Huskies' most electrifying runner, John F. Silver writes in the Journal-Inquirer.
• The Star-Ledger's Tom Luicci doesn't understand why former Rutgers star receiver Kenny Britt is being labeled as a possible problem child as the NFL draft approaches.• The Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Daugherty says he has never seen anything like the way Connor Barwin has willed himself into becoming a top-flight NFL prospect.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Who will be the next batch of players to post have breakthrough seasons? Unlike the top newcomers, which we explored on Thursday, this list is about players who have already seen some time on the field but may be about to make you sit up and take notice. This is a tough exercise to do before seeing players in the spring, but here are five early possibilities:
• Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida: He appeared in only one game in 2008 before being shelved by an ankle injury, for which he gained a medical redshirt. Bulls coaches love him and think he has the most talent of any of their young interior linemen. Look for him to fight for a starting spot on what could be the league's best defensive line in '09.
• Dominique Battle, CB, Cincinnati: Battle was named the Bearcats' newcomer of the year after playing in every game as a freshman, but he was overshadowed by Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith. With both those guys off to the NFL Draft, Battle should step right in as a starting corner. Cincinnati has shown it knows how to develop ball-hawking defensive backs, and the athletic Battle fits that mode to a tee.
• Julian Miller, DL, West Virginia: Miller was the Mountaineers' scout team defensive player of the year during his redshirt season, then played all 13 games last year as a backup, recording 3.5 sacks. He should challenge Larry Ford for the starting job at defensive end. On a defense that returns most of its starters from a year ago, Miller could be the biggest depth-chart mover.
• Andre Dixon/Jordan Todman, RB, UConn: Donald Brown cast a long shadow by leading the nation in rushing in 2008, so one or both of these guys might emerge in his absence. Dixon led the team in rushing two years ago and was second team All-Big East, but he vanished as a junior. Todman made a strong freshman debut and has the burst to excel in many roles in the Huskies' new no-huddle offense.
• T.J. Porter, WR, Pittsburgh: Porter backed up Derek Kinder at flanker last season but still finished third on the team in catches, yards and yards per catch. The graduation of Kinder and Oderick Turner opens up plenty of playing time for the Florida-bred speedster. And with defenses no doubt gearing up to double team Jonathan Baldwin, Porter could be in line for a big senior season.
National signing day is just a week away now. As teams scramble to fill out their needs and hold on to their commitments, it's a good time to look back at some of the most memorable moments in Big East recruiting over the past five years.
1. Ray Rice spurns Syracuse for Rutgers: The star running back committed to the Orange after his junior season. But after Paul Pasqualoni was fired in late December of 2004, Rice backed out of that pledge and cast his lot with the Scarlet Knights. He went on to become one of the best running backs in Big East history with three spectacular years in Piscataway, while Syracuse struggled offensively during coach Greg Robinson's tenure.
2. The 2004 quarterback coups: Louisville announced itself as a major player when it convinced local schoolboy legend Brian Brohm to stay home instead of going to Notre Dame or Tennessee. Brohm led the Cardinals to an Orange Bowl win his junior year and broke several school records. West Virginia got a quarterback in that class who was less heralded but turned out to be pretty good in his own right. Pat White pulled off a signing day surprise by switching from LSU to the Mountaineers, who told him he could stay under center instead of moving to another position. White ended his career as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NCAA history.
3. Pitt gets real McCoy: Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt found some early success on the recruiting trail, but he really made waves by signing running back LeSean McCoy in 2007. McCoy had been recruited by all the top schools in the country before a senior-year injury prompted him to go to prep school, and then Wannstedt was able to beat out Penn State the following year. McCoy stuck around for only two seasons before bolting for the NFL, but his huge production and star power helped change the fortunes and the image of the program.
4. Cincinnati's super sleepers of '04 and '05: Nobody thought much of Mark Dantonio's first and second recruiting classes. One major recruiting service ranked the 2004 group 80th in the nation, while the following year's class was tied for 94th. But those unheralded recruits included such players as Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith, Dominick Goodman, Mardy Gilyard, Terrill Byrd, Trevor Canfield, Connor Barwin and the vast nucleus of a team that would win 21 games in 2007 and 2008, culminating in this season's Big East title and FedEx Orange Bowl berths. Just goes to show you what recruiting rankings are worth.
5. Louisville's 2005 and 2006 disasters: All seemed right in the world for the Cardinals on the field in 2005 and 2006. They were winning lots of games under Bobby Petrino and captured their first Big East title in '06. The recruiting classes Petrino signed were ranked among the highest in school history. But more than half of those two classes never made it to campus, suffered career-ending injuries, transferred or were dismissed for off-the-field transgressions. Several others never lived up to their billing. The program is still paying the price for those recruiting failures, having not reached a bowl game since and facing serious depth issues next season.
My Pac-10 counterpart Ted Miller did this earlier in the week, and I'm blatantly stealing the idea. Want to know how accurate recruiting rankings are? Let's take a look at this year's All-Big East team and see how each player was rated by the two major star-system recruiting services (where the two differ, I note the high and low end):
QB Pat White (two to three stars)
RB Donald Brown (two to three stars)
RB LeSean McCoy (four to five stars)
WR Mardy Gilyard (two stars)
WR Kenny Britt (three to four stars)
TE Nate Byham (four to five stars)
OT Will Beatty (one to two stars)
OT Ryan Stanchek (two stars)
OG George Bussey (zero to one star)
OG C.J. Davis (two stars)
C Eric Wood (two stars)
DL Connor Barwin (two stars)
DL Cody Brown (two stars)
DL George Selvie (one to two stars)
DL Arthur Jones (three to two stars)
LB Scott McKillop (three stars)
LB Tyrone McKenzie (two to three stars)
LB Mortty Ivy (two stars)
CB Mike Mickens (two stars)
CB Darius Butler (one to two stars)
S Brandon Underwood (three stars)
S Courtney Greene (one to two stars)
Big East teams don't get a lot of "five-star" guys, but plenty of four-star players make their way into the league. I find it very interesting that the only two players on this list to reach that level were McCoy -- a no-brainer -- and Byham, who had a solid but hardly spectacular year in a league without many productive tight ends.
Offensive linemen are probably the hardest guys to evaluate, and whoever was evaluating the Big East prospects proved that. Not one of the All-Big East first team offensive linemen earned more than two stars, and the former walk-on Bussey and left tackle Beatty were rated the same as your average throw-in prospect. This isn't a bad crop, either; Wood, Beatty and Stanchek should all get drafted, with Davis and Bussey having a shot, too.
And, yes -- someone really watched Selvie and Butler play and rated them as one-star prospects. That really happened. To be fair, Selvie played center in high school and his best quality -- desire -- is hard to measure. But we're talking about a two-time All-American. And Butler's athleticism is hard to deny.
I get that White was hard to judge as a quarterback, and that a lot of teams were recruiting him as a receiver or just an all-around athlete. But for him to garner only two or three stars is absurd. Here are some of the players who were ranked as the top dual-threat quarterbacks in 2004: Robbie Reid, Kirby Freeman, Nick Patton, Larry Lerlegan and D.T McDowell. Would you trade any of them for Pat White? Heck, would you trade all of them for Pat White?
There are always going to be can't-miss prospects, and there are going to be players who improve greatly through sheer hard work and maturation. Recruiting rankings can be a useful guide and fun to look at, but if you think they predict which players will turn out to be the best in their leagues, think again. Keep this list in mind come next Wednesday, and remember to curb your enthusiasm.
MIAMI -- Cincinnati players were understandably down after Thursday night's 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
|Streeter Lecka/Getty Images|
|Brian Kelly is confident his team is heading in the right direction.|
"Disappointing is maybe not even the right word for it," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "But we're disappointed that we couldn't give the university and this city an Orange Bowl championship and leave on the best note possible.
"It's so sad. We wish we would have played better."
The Bearcats played uncharacteristically messy on their biggest stage, failing to score after their opening drive and turning the ball over four times. But while their moods were sour, the team couldn't remain completely distraught over the Orange Bowl outcome.
Just getting to a BCS bowl was in itself a major accomplishment and a first for the program. Cincinnati won a school-record 11 games this season and its first Big East championship while rising to No. 12 in the final regular-season rankings. Nothing that happened in the postseason can erase that.
"A loss is a loss; it stinks," coach Brian Kelly said. "It's lousy. But does the foundation crack in our program? No. Do the expectations change? Absolutely not. From a big-picture standpoint, the things we want for this program are in place.
"We're on a journey. We're not there yet. But if you keep knocking on that door, if you keep putting yourself in that position, we'll finish the deal. So, yeah, it doesn't feel good to lose, not when you put in as much time as we do. But I'm not going to be jumping off the Fontainebleau tonight."
Orange Bowl result aside, Cincinnati's program has never been in better shape. The school is building new practice fields and an indoor bubble. Nippert Stadium expansion is on the horizon. Most importantly, Kelly has pledged to stick around despite other schools' courtships.
At least 15,000 Bearcats fans attended Thursday's game at Dolphin Stadium, outnumbering Virginia Tech fans. It wasn't that long ago that Cincinnati couldn't convince 15,000 people to come to their home games.
"I've been telling people that it's official: A portable Nippert is a reality," Barwin said. "We're so thankful for that."
MIAMI -- The biggest question going into tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl seems to be: Is Cincinnati ready for this kind of stage?
The Bearcats had a great regular season. Then again, if you look at their schedule, you'll see that they didn't beat any elite teams. Their best wins came over Pitt and West Virginia. While Virginia Tech, at 9-4, wouldn't qualify for the nation's upper echelon this year, either, at least the Hokies have lots of big-game bowl experience.
We'll find out shortly how much that all matters. But I can tell you that coach Brian Kelly, his staff and players have sounded extremely confident going into this game that they're well-prepared and have the right game plan.
And make no mistake, playing Virginia Tech requires a different game plan than most weeks.
"Their style of defense and what they do is extremely unique to a spread offense," Kelly said on Wednesday. "As you know, its base roots are in the eight-man front. So ... there's a lot of different things that go along with preparing for Virginia Tech's defense than other defenses that you see during the year. It might look the same, but I can tell you, for a guy that's been in the spread offense for a long time, there's a lot of different things that I have to prepare our offense for that we don't see during the year."
Watch for Cincinnati to try some wide receiver screens to Mardy Gilyard. They made a living off that play in the regular season, but it remains to be seen whether it will work against a fast Hokies defense.
The flip side is, did Virginia Tech see a similarly prolific spread offense this season in the low-scoring ACC? Coach Frank Beamer certainly seems to have a healthy respect for the Bearcats.
"Offensively .. they know what they're doing," Beamer said. "They operate efficiently. (Tony) Pike, he gets the job done and he's very efficient. I don't think he's fast, but he's nifty, and he buys time and gets the ball out there to his good receivers."
A key matchup tonight will be Cincinnati's interior defensive linemen, led by Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel, against new starting right guard Jaymes Brooks, a freshman with virtually no playing experience. The middle is the place to get pressure on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, too, because the Bearcats don't want their defensive ends running up the field and leaving room for Taylor to scramble.
"It takes away from some of the different pass rush moves you can use," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "He feels pressure probably better than anyone we've faced, and he gets out of there quickly."
There's plenty more to say about this matchup, and I'll be saying a lot more as we go along. Stay tuned and enjoy the game ...
A brief primer on tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech:
What to watch: How will Virginia Tech generate offense? The Hokies are not a great passing team, and testing the talented Cincinnati secondary would be dangerous. So it appears that their hopes rest on tailback Darren Evans and shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"Everybody knows what Virginia Tech wants to do," Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin said. "Tyrod Taylor is a lot like Matt Grothe -- he's going to make his plays outside the pocket -- and then he's fast like Pat White when he takes off and runs. Just like we did against those guys, we have to contain him and not let him get out of the pocket."
Who to watch: Quarterback Tony Pike has been remarkably efficient in some of the Bearcats biggest games. He was 20-of-28 against South Florida and 26-of-32 versus Pittsburgh. He'll need to be sharp against Virginia Tech's aggressive defensive backs and avoid his tendency to force throws into coverage.
Why to watch: Casual observers may shrug at a BCS matchup between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, but this shapes up as possibly the most competitive game of all the BCS bowls. Cincinnati is a fun team to watch, and if you're a Big East fan, you have to root for your league to win its fourth straight BCS game.
MIAMI -- The Fontainebleau, Cincinnati's home during FedEx Orange Bowl week, is a shrine to opulence.
Re-opened last month after a reported $500 million renovation, the Miami Beach resort is teeming with stars and stargazers around its 45,000 square foot lobby and lush pool cabanas. Bearcats players and officials have done double-takes while spotting Jamie Foxx, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Alex Rodriguez in their hotel this week.
Whenever they had to leave the decadent grounds this week, Cincinnati's entire entourage was given a police escort to and from their destinations. On Tuesday night, the team took in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade showdown at a Cleveland Cavaliers-Miami Heat game.
Power programs like USC and Florida probably take this kind of royal bowl treatment as a given. But the BCS-newbie Bearcats are used to postseason trips to places like Birmingham, Toronto and Fort Worth. So you couldn't blame them for being wide-eyed and slack-jawed here, just happy for the opportunity to play on this stage Thursday night against Virginia Tech.
Except that they're not approaching it that way.
"Winning this game means everything," quarterback Tony Pike said. "It's a great honor to make the Orange Bowl. At the same time, down the road we don't want to just tell people we made it to the Orange Bowl. We want to say we got to the Orange Bowl and we won it."
It's debatable just how important winning a BCS game is to a program. Ask Louisville, which won its first BCS appearance in the 2007 Orange Bowl -- and hasn't made the postseason since. Or look at last year's Orange Bowl champion, Kansas, which finished 7-5 this year. Just getting here was enough to energize the Cincinnati fan base and provide immeasurable exposure.
But the Bearcats also take seriously the responsibility of carrying the Big East banner. They're very aware that since they joined the league in 2005, the Big East has gone 3-0 in BCS games. They do not want to be the ones to break that streak.
"We want to represent the Big East," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "We want to get more and more respect for the Big East, because we know how people talk about our conference."
On Wednesday morning, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly pointed to the Big East's 11-2 bowl record in its last 13 games.
"We can let the numbers speak for themselves," he said.
But when asked after last month's win over Syracuse about the league's credibility issue, here's what he had to say:
"I think validation is that you have to play well any time you're on a national stage. I don't think we have to apologize for anything, but we do a carry a burden, and that's that we have to continue to play well out of conference."
Kelly said whether Cincinnati wins or loses Thursday night won't do much to change the perception of his program. That only comes from repeated appearances in these kinds of games. And he has the perfect example on the other sideline.
Like Cincinnati, Virginia Tech had a modest college football history until Frank Beamer got things going in Blacksburg. The former Big East member has now been to 16 straight bowl games.
"There is no other perception than success when you go 16 straight," Kelly said. "So this is a journey; this is a process for us. We think we've made great strides. There's a long road ahead of us that we'll have to continue to work on."
Beamer said the Bearcats remind him of when his own team made its first trip to what are now known as the BCS games, when the Hokies beat Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.
"I know that was a big steppingstone for us," he said. "But then when you get there, to win it,
it's another step. I think it's two big steps. I guess I'd say it that way."
Though the Hokies have the huge edge in big-game experience, Kelly and his staff are used to dealing with pressure situations. They successfully guided Grand Valley State through the Division II playoffs and have won two bowl games already at Cincinnati, including one just weeks after Kelly took the Bearcats job in December 2005.
Handling the trappings of South Beach is something new. But Kelly said his players faced similar distractions in their season-ending game at Hawaii, when the team stayed at a beachside hotel. This is just a little more opulent.
OK, a lot more.
"It's been unbelievable here," Barwin said. "Everything is top notch.
"But after it's over, you don't remember what the weather was like or anything like that. You remember if you won or lost the game."
Here are my selections for the 2008 All-Big East team:
QB: Pat White, West Virginia
RB: Donald Brown, Connecticut
RB: LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh
WR: Kenny Britt, Rutgers
WR: Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati
TE: Nate Byham, Pittsburgh
OT: Ryan Stanchek, West Virginia
OT: Anthony Davis, Rutgers
OG: C.J. Davis, Pittsburgh
OG: Greg Isdaner, West Virginia
C: Eric Wood, Louisville
DL: Cody Brown, Connecticut
DL: George Selvie, South Florida
DL: Connor Barwin, Cincinnati
DL: Arthur Jones, Syracuse
LB: Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh
LB: Tyrone McKenzie, South Florida
LB: Mortty Ivy, West Virginia
CB: Mike Mickens, Cincinnati
CB: Darius Butler, Connecticut
S: Carlton Williams, South Florida
S: Courtney Greene, Rutgers
P: Kevin Huber, Cincinnati
K: Pat McAfee, West Virginia
KR: Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati
PR: Jasper Howard, Connecticut
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 -- 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 ...
Why are Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the surprise clubhouse leaders in the Big East title chase? In a word: balance.
To this point in the season, the No, 19 Bearcats and No. 20 Panthers have been the most well-rounded teams in the league. They have the fewest warts and the most strengths. That's why they're the only two clubs who still control their own destiny in the Big East.
"When you combine their special teams with their defensive talent and experience and the production they've gotten on offense, you can see why they're the top-rated team right now in our conference," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said of Cincinnati.
"What they bring to the table is great balance in all that they do," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said of Pitt.
Few predicted before the season that Saturday's game at Nippert Stadium (ESPN2, 7:15 p.m. ET) would loom as the Big East's Game of the Year. Maybe we should have.
CINCINNATI -- We hear all the time about this or that contest being a "big game" for some college football team. But it's not too often that a team can definitively say the next date on the schedule is the biggest game in the history of its program.
That's what Cincinnati has on the docket this week. There's really no precedent for what the 19th-ranked Bearcats can accomplish this weekend. If they beat No. 20 Pittsburgh on Saturday, they will be the Big East champions unless they somehow stub their toe at home against Syracuse the following week. The school had some nice teams in the 1950s under Sid Gillman, but winning the Mid-American Conference doesn't really compare to going to a BCS game.
"It's definitely the biggest game in UC history," senior defensive end Connor Barwin said. "I don't see how you could say it isn't.
"Everybody's jumped on the bandwagon and people are excited around campus. Nippert Stadium is going to be as exciting as it's ever been. I'm pumped to see what it's going to be like. The Bengals haven't been doing so good this year, so we've even got some Bengals fans behind us now."
Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1 Big East) is entering what Brian Kelly called "unchartered territory." But the coach says this should be just the beginning for the Bearcats.
"There's no reason why this shouldn't be the largest crowd in the history of Nippert Stadium -- right now," he said. "We don't want this to be the end of where we are, relative to attendance. We see this thing growing as we continue to do this, as the stadium increases and the fan size increases. This is just the start. We want to see how high we can go."
Kelly said he wants Cincinnati fans to come to view this as "old hat," that the team will be competing for conference championships late in November from here on out. First, though, it must take care of business, and remember to treat this as a normal game.
The Bearcats are coming off three straight emotional victories. First they beat South Florida at home on a Thursday night ESPN game. Then they went to West Virginia and held on in overtime to beat the Mountaineers for the first time in league play. Last week, they withstood some sloppy weather conditions and a second-half deficit in Louisville to snap a five-game losing streak in the Keg of Nails rivalry.
Now comes Pittsburgh, which has never lost to Cincinnati in seven tries, including three Big East contests. The Panthers had last week off to rest and prepare, while the Bearcats have been through the meat grinder, playing five of their last seven games away from home. Kelly said his team was a little "road-weary" at Louisville last week. But he expects them to have plenty left in the tank for this game, and he's talked to them about staying on an even keel.
"We're keeping poised and not trying to be as rushed up," wide receiver Dominick Goodman said. "We're eager to play but we want to stay focused until gametime comes and then let all our emotions out."
Kelly sure seemed loose on Tuesday. He came to his news conference wearing a brand new, XXL red fleece pullover, piggybacking off Cincinnati's request that all fans wear red at Nippert this weekend. He promised the pullover to whichever reporter asked the best questions, then took it off and handed it over to Cincinnati Enquirer beat reporter Bill Koch midway through the session.
This is a team that's confident in itself, believes it can achieve things Cincinnati has never done before. That comes from senior leadership and Kelly's self-assured manner.
"Last year, we thought there was one team that was more talented than us, and that was West Virginia," Kelly said. "The only way we were going to catch them is if we got stronger physically in the offseason, and I thought our kids did a great job closing that gap.
"I think, in the Big East, our kids can go out now and feel comfortable that they can compete against anybody."
Their next competition will be the biggest game in the history of the program. Win that, and even bigger things will come.
"Everybody's just so happy that we're at this stage," Goodman said. "People wouldn't think the Cincinnati Bearcats would be on this rise, but it's happening."
Showing no lingering effects of the broken arm that kept him out of the second half at UConn, Pike has thrown for 227 yards in the first half. He's also shown surprising mobility and touch for a guy his size (6-foot-6).
The Bearcats would probably be up even more if not for three first-half turnovers, including two fumbles by running backs Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. South Florida has turned it over twice on a pair of Matt Grothe interceptions. His first was returned 58 yards by Mike Mickens to set up Cincinnati's first touchdown. His second came on a great play by Connor Barwin, who reached out with his left hand to tip the ball in the air, allowing Lamonte Nelms to come up with the pick.
The Bulls have surprisingly made a big commitment to the running game despite missing top backs Jamar Taylor and Mike Ford. It has worked as they've produced 108 yards on 23 carries, which includes some negative plays on sacks and failed reverses. But the passing game has struggled; Grothe is just 5-of-11 for only 71 yards. Credit the Cincinnati pass defense for shutting down throwing lanes, but Grothe and his receivers have been a little off most of the night.
South Florida just can't get out of its own way. The Bulls have already drawn six penalties and have continued their annoying habit of jumping offside on defense, which they repeatedly did at Louisville last week. They've been called for three pass interference penalties, and even worse, Cincinnati connected on two of those.
Cincinnati had gone 0-for-25 on third down in its past two games. Tonight, the Bearcats are 4-for-5. They look like they're in good shape to pull off this much-needed win.