NCF Nation: Morgantown 0811

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- All week, Mardy Gilyard predicted to his Cincinnati teammates that they were going to break a kickoff return for a touchdown. Gilyard saw the haphazard ways that West Virginia covered kicks -- the Mountaineers rank last out of 119 teams in the nation in that area -- and told his blockers that "I'll run until I puke."

  Charles LeClaire/Getty Images
 Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly led his team to another monster win -- this time over Big East top dogs West Virginia.

And that's exactly what happened, right down to the gory details. Gilyard fielded the game's opening kickoff four yards deep in his own end zone and ran it back for a score. He missed his team's opening offensive series because he was evacuating his stomach on the sidelines from the long journey.

Hey, it takes guts to beat the Mountaineers in a night game on their home field. That's what the Bearcats showed, in more ways than one. The kickoff was the first sign that they could do it.

"I think it set the tone for the whole game," defensive tackle Terrill Byrd said. "That we're here, and y'all are going to have to play your A-plus game against us."

For a while, Cincinnati thought it might cruise to the victory. A 20-7 first half lead held up until the final two minutes. Then disaster nearly struck.

Head coach Brian Kelly opted to take a safety rather than risk a punt from his own goal line with 1:11 left. West Virginia then drove down against a prevent defense and scored a touchdown with 18 seconds left. After a successful onsides kick, the Mountaineers hit one big pass play and got a 52-yard field goal from Pat McAfee to tie the score.

West Virginia players danced on the field while the Bearcats huddled up in shock.

"A lesser team would have folded under those circumstances," Kelly said.

Kelly, though, told his players that this what they always expected -- a fight to the last minute. There was never an easy way to knock the king off his throne. Blessed with 19 seniors, Kelly knew his team had the poise to weather the collapse.

The defense held West Virginia to a field goal on the first series of overtime, and Cincinnati's offense -- which had mustered only one first down and fewer than 50 yards of offense in the second half -- needed just three plays to find the end zone. Quarterback Tony Pike hit a wide-open Kazeem Alli for the game-winning 2-yard throw.

"That was probably the hardest throw I've ever had to make in my career," Pike said. "The ball seemed like it was in the air for like a minute."

What happened next was an emotional celebration you don't see too often in regular-season games. The Cincinnati players and coaches sprinted to the northeast corner of the stadium to engulf Alli. Players were jumping up and down, screaming. Some were in tears.

The Bearcats have won some big games the past two years, including four over ranked teams. But they've never had a bigger moment since joining the Big East. They were 1-14-1 against West Virginia all time going into Saturday.

"We came in when Pat White was fresh, and they've been doing their thing for years," Gilyard said. "It feels like we just won the Big East championship."

Not yet, but Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1 Big East) is closer to it than ever before. The Bearcats are in a first-place tie with Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and Pitt has to come to Nippert Stadium later this month. First up, though, is a game at Louisville this Friday night. Though the Cardinals are in a funk, Cincinnati hasn't beaten its longtime rival since 2002.

"This one means nothing if you go down to Louisville and muck it around," Kelly said. "You've got to be able to bounce back. That's what good teams have to do. We'll find out whether we're a good team. We don't know."

Kelly worked to slow down talk that a changing of the guard has taken place or that his team stamped itself as the league favorite. He knows Cincinnati still has three games left in an unpredictable league.

"You cannot validate anything in the first week of November," he said. "Validation happens at the end of the year, and then you take stock. But clearly, we're closing the gap.

"West Virginia is still the team in this league that has done it consistently, and we're not a consistent player in this league yet. But I think we'll be able to take stock in that as we go through the year."

Kelly has already taken this program to heights unseen in more than 50 years. The Bearcats won 10 games last year and finished the season ranked No. 17. They should be back in the Top 25 on Sunday if people are paying attention.

No moment can top the one from Saturday, though. At least not yet.

"We know now that we control everything we do," Gilyard said. "Last year, we were hoping somebody might slip up or get upset, but now we actually control our own destiny.

"And since we beat the big brother in the Big East, now it's time to really show everybody that we can play top-caliber football."

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Cincinnati is resilient.

Despite the huge collapse in the final three minutes, the Bearcats respond and win in the first overtime, getting a Tony Pike touchdown pass after West Virginia settled for a field goal.

Crazy game. I'm heading down for interviews. More to come later ...

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Wow. Just wow.

West Virginia was totally done. Cincinnati had the ball with three minutes to go up 13.

But then the Bearcats took a safety rather than punt from their own goal line. West Virginia drove the field and scored in the final minute. The Mountaineers got an onsides kick. One big Pat White pass later, Pat McAfee kicked a 52-yard field goal to send us to overtime.

Unbelievable turn of events, and half the stadium had already left and missed it. How does Cincinnati overcome this emotional swing?

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- West Virginia has shut out its past three opponents in the second half.

The defense might have to do that again tonight or else there could be a changing of the guard atop the Big East.

Cincinnati takes a 20-7 lead into intermission and has to feel like it should be ahead by more. The Bearcats had to settle for field goal attempts twice deep in the red zone. Jake Rogers banged one off the uprights late in the half, after he had tied the school record earlier in the game with his 13th straight conversion.

But Cincinnati has been moving the ball much more effectively than the Mountaineers. Quarterback Tony Pike, after starting out 3-for-10, completed 10 of his last 12 and went 6-for-6 on a second-half scoring drive. He's done an excellent job of avoiding pressure and keeping plays alive. He even did a Pat White impression by running in from four yards out for a score. For a 6-foot-6 guy, he can really move.

Except on one scoring drive, the Mountaineers haven't penetrated the Cincinnati side of the field. They've only run for 61 yards on 18 carries, a scant 3.4 yards per attempt, as the Cincinnati defense has kept White and Noel Devine hemmed in. And the Bearcats' defensive backs are hard to throw against consistently. Sooner or later, they're going to get their hands on one.

The Mountaineers have been so much better in the second halves of games lately. Let's see if they have another rally in them.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- West Virginia seems to like playing from behind in the first half, and it will do so again tonight.

Cincinnati has taken the crowd out of the game early, but probably should be ahead by more if not for some miscues in the passing game and a missed opportunity on a trick play. But the Bearcats have done a pretty good job against the Mountaineers' running game, especially bottling up Noel Devine, without changing their normal scheme too much.

West Virginia's best success so far has come through the air, as Pat White threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Alric Arnett after a fake reverse. White hooked up with Jock Sanders for 30 yards one play earlier.

But the Mountaineers, who came into tonight as the worst kickoff coverage team in America, have again been terrible in that area. Mardy Gilyard brought the opening kick back 100 yards (actually more like 104, but you can't go longer than 100 in college stats) for a touchdown. Cincinnati got the ball to its 42 on the second kickoff. That kind of field position advantage is too much to give a good offense.

Or an allegedly good offense. Tony Pike missed his first five passes and has been off most of the night so far. Maybe he misses the cast. He was just 3-for-10 in the first quarter, and Cincinnati probably can't win without a better passing effort.

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Greetings from Milan-Puskar Stadium, the only place in the state of West Virginia you'd want to be when the Mountaineers are playing a big night game.

It's a chilly evening, with temperatures dipping in the low 40s tonight, but nothing that should affect the game. What will affect it is the center situation for both teams.

I told you about Mike Dent being out in an earlier blog post. Cincinnati's center, Chris Jurek, wore a boot in practice all week after spraining his ankle against South Florida. But he's expected to start. It bears watching to see how well Jurek can move around.

The good news for the Bearcats is that quarterback Tony Pike won't need to wear that soft cast on his left arm tonight. He's expected to wear a sleeve on the arm he broke in the Akron game, but he should be able to take snaps under center, unlike last week's South Florida game.

This game intrigues me not only because these are two good teams playing for first place, but because each team excels in areas the other doesn't. West Virginia is a great running team with a really strong rush defense, while Cincinnati is a terrific passing team with an excellent pass defense. So that means whoever's strength is stronger might win, if that makes any sense at all.

West Virginia certainly seems to be putting it together, but all week coach Bill Stewart sounded cautious notes about handling this success. He didn't think his team did that well early in the season, and he still sees plenty of chinks in his team's armor, particularly its slow starts. But he did agree that his players are starting to rediscover their swagger.

The Bearcats are a pretty confident group as well. They truly think they're as good as West Virginia and can walk out of this tough atmosphere with the win tonight.

We're about to find out. Much more to come throughout the evening ...

West Virginia center Dent out

November, 8, 2008

Posted by's Brian Bennett

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Senior center Mike Dent won't play for West Virginia tonight against Cincinnati because of a neck injury.

Dent practiced all week, but the team decided Friday he couldn't play. He will be replaced by sophomore Eric Jobe.

It's a key loss, as Dent is one of the best and most experienced centers in the Big East. Jobe has been the backup center all season and has played some, so the snaps shouldn't be a problem. Blocking up front and controlling the play calls, however, could be an issue. Dent's absence might prompt the Mountaineers to look for more rollouts and runs to the perimeter, which is usually their strength anyway.