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Cincinnati tested again but still standing

CINCINNATI -- Unbeaten? Check.

Invincible? Maybe not.

No. 5 Cincinnati became the first team to get to 10 wins this season and the first team in school history to start 10-0 with Friday night's 24-21 win over West Virginia. These are heady times for a program that has never been in the national title discussion this late in the year, if at all.

But is the book out on how to beat these Bearcats?

After steamrolling through their first eight opponents, they have needed to recover onside kicks in the final minute at home the last two weeks to stay unblemished. A week ago, Connecticut nearly knocked them off in a 47-45 shootout. This time, West Virginia made them slug it out to the wire.

Both the Huskies and the Mountaineers tried similar tactics against the Bearcats: pound the ball in between the tackles, wear down the Cincinnati defensive line and keep Brian Kelly's potent offense on the sidelines. UConn and West Virginia each rushed for more than 200 yards in the narrow losses.

If that is indeed the way to beat the Bearcats, one team left on their schedule fits that strategy perfectly: Pittsburgh, with its power running game behind Dion Lewis. And the Dec. 5 Pitt-Cincinnati game at Heinz Field will serve as the Big East championship game now that West Virginia has been eliminated from contention.

Kelly scoffed at the notion that opponents have found any sort of secret to his team.

"We've got 10 wins," he said. "So they're not doing such a good job."

It's true that even if everything goes according to plan, beating the Bearcats still isn't easy. On Friday night, they lost a fumble for the first time all season, threw just their fifth interception of the year, botched a field goal and were held to a season-low point total. They coughed up another fumble before replay officials overturned a call at the goal line and instead ruled that Isaiah Pead had scored a touchdown first, a call that will be debated from Morgantown to Fort Worth all weekend.

Still, they managed to win for the 16th straight time in the regular season.

"We don't get caught up looking at stats or what they run," linebacker Andre Revels said. "All we need to know is we came out with a win."

How many other teams can plug in a backup running back and have him explode for 175 yards, as Pead did? Or have their injured former Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback (Tony Pike) come in for just four plays, all inside the West Virginia 10, and throw two touchdown passes? And have the record-setting former backup quarterback (Zach Collaros) be totally happy with that arrangement?

"I was joking, because we play basketball together, that I had an assist," said Collaros, who was seen hugging Pike in a hallway after a game. "He says it's like Steve Nash to Amare Stoudemire, but it's more like Derrick Rose to Joakim Noah."

Kelly seemingly has answers for every situation and makes up new ones when the moment strikes him.

"I don't know if anybody's ever done that before," he said of the quarterback-as-closer toggling. "That was kind of crazy."

Maybe it's crazy to think somebody will beat Cincinnati this season. But expect the remaining opponents to go for the UConn/West Virginia plan.

Sure, the Mountaineers are known for running the ball, but they had more success inside the tackles than on the perimeter. This was more of a grind-it-out attack than the old quick-strike West Virginia; Noel Devine's longest run went just 11 yards, and the biggest Mountaineers gainer on the ground came on a 37-yard touchdown rumble by bruising fullback Ryan Clarke. Dave Wannstedt has to have taken notes.

Cincinnati's dominance has disappeared the last two weeks, but Kelly said he doesn't care about that.

"[West Virginia] is a Top 25 team," he said. "We're nicked up, banged up, we're playing two quarterbacks out there. We're just trying to fight every day to win football games."

The Bearcats may not be invincible. They'll settle for being unbeaten.