NCF Nation: Terrill Byrd
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.
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 ...
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."
CINCINNATI -- Brian Kelly began his sales pitch the minute he became Cincinnati's coach in December 2006.
He told his new players they would compete for the Big East championship and become a Top 25-caliber program right away.
|Jim Rinaldi/Icon SMI|
|Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly has the Bearcats thinking big.|
His optimism met some understandable skepticism. The Bearcats had just finished a 7-5 regular season, a banner year by their recent standards, and were happy to get invited to the International Bowl.
"We had a lot of seniors on the team, and it was kind of like, 'Who's this guy coming in and saying all this big talk?'" senior defensive end Connor Barwin recalled.
Kelly led Cincinnati to a bowl victory, then continued his ambitious proselytizing all summer. When Cincinnati knocked off Oregon State by 31 points in Week 2 last season, the new coach had found true believers.
"That's when we started to think, 'OK, this guy knows what he's talking about and his philosophy works,'" Barwin said. "That allowed us to get the confidence he had been talking about since he walked through the door."
The Bearcats finished 10-3 in Kelly's first season, the most victories by the program since 1951. They landed their first-ever spot in the final Associated Press poll, at No. 17.
Now, the sales pitch aims even higher. Kelly will take his team on the road against No. 4 Oklahoma this Saturday, and he sounds positively giddy about the opportunity.
"We took this game on as an opportunity to measure ourselves against the very best," he said. "When I came here, my first goal was to get our football team to change its mindset as far as how they compete, what they compete for. This is the next progression. We know we can compete for a championship in the Big East. Now we want to find out where we stand on a national stage."
Kelly went looking for a prominent 2008 opponent even before the 2007 season kicked off. (Oklahoma will return the favor in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium in 2010).
He could hardly have found a tougher measuring stick. The Sooners are 50-2 at home since 2000 and have been installed as a 21.5-point favorite Saturday. The game will be played before 82,000 Boomer Sooner faithful, nearly two-and-half times as many fans as Cincinnati sees at its own home stadium.
But the Bearcats shouldn't be too intimidated by the atmosphere. They have a veteran team -- 18 juniors and seniors fill the starting lineup -- and many of the upperclassmen remember the 2005 trip to Penn State and the 2006 visit to Ohio State.
Of course, both of those games ended in blowout losses. The difference this time around? Cincinnati players believe.
"When we went to Ohio State, I don't want to say we didn't think we could win," Barwin said. "But it was kind of like, 'Hey, if we get a couple of breaks and play our best, maybe we'll come out with a big upset.'
"But this year, everybody's excited. We know how talented we are and we're confident in our ability. We think we can go down (to Oklahoma) and come out with a win."
Part of that confidence stems from Kelly's offensive brilliance. From Grand Valley State, where he won back-to-back Division II national championships, to Central Michigan, Kelly's teams have always scored points in bunches. Cincinnati has averaged 35.9 points in his 15-game tenure, eclipsing 40 points six times.
"We feel like we can score on anybody," receiver Dominick Goodman said.
Facing the spread won't be anything new for Oklahoma, which had mixed results against the scheme last season. The Sooners' two victories over Missouri -- 41-31 in the regular season and 38-17 in the Big 12 title game -- had some analysts decreeing that Bob Stoops had found the key to stopping the spread with his speed on defense. But Oklahoma also lost to Texas Tech and Colorado, both of which employ different types of spread principles.
"I think at Missouri they'd probably say, 'We played well offensively, but we didn't hold them down,'" Kelly said. "Those were shootouts. And our systems are a little bit different."
And there was one other game on the Sooners' schedule last year that caught Cincinnati's attention. Fellow Big East member West Virginia rolled over Oklahoma 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Bearcats only lost 28-23 to the Mountaineers in November.
"That showed us their weaknesses," Goodman said. "Hopefully, we can go out there and do the same thing West Virginia did."
But Kelly doesn't see many weaknesses to exploit on the Sooners, who boast one of the nation's most experienced (and talented) offensive lines, a star backfield with quarterback Sam Bradford and tailback DeMarco Murray and NFL prospects all over the defense. Kelly described Oklahoma as "a Big East all-star team."
Cincinnati has some studs of its own, especially on its underrated defense. Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith are two of the best defensive backs in the country who combined for 14 interceptions a year ago. Defensive tackle Terrill Byrd, back after a one-game suspension, was a second-team all-American last year.
The Big East sure could use a respectable effort by the Bearcats after its teams went 0-4 against major-college competition in the first weekend.
"If Cincinnati went out there and got a win," said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, "it would do a lot for Cincinnati and do a lot for our conference."
Kelly is a restless promoter of his program and a master of the perfect sound bite. He publicly complained last year when his hometown paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, didn't bother to send a reporter to Big East Media Day. Instead of feuding with the paper, though, he began writing a preseason diary in its pages.
He's convinced just about everybody that Cincinnati can field a winner. But the next level of credibility can only be purchased by winning games like this.
"(A win) would kind of give us that national attention, the national respect," Barwin said. "You don't get respect after one year. You've got to do it consistently."