Nine games and four quarterbacks after the media picked Cincinnati to finish fifth in the Big East, the Bearcats have their BCS destiny in their hands.
After defeating West Virginia 26-23 in overtime last week, the Bearcats share the league lead with Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Cincinnati is at Louisville on Friday, then plays host to Pitt on Nov. 22.
The path has been an unexpected one for Cincinnati, especially at quarterback. After a long dispute with the NCAA, last year's starter, Ben Mauk, was denied a sixth year of eligibility before the season started. Dustin Grutza lasted only two games before he broke his leg against Oklahoma. Backup Tony Pike started only two games before a broken arm sidelined him for most of the next three games.
Coach Brian Kelly has been so wrapped up in handling the day-to-day changes with the quarterback situation that there's been little time to reflect on his team's unlikely trip to the top.
"We get so focused on what we're doing in the next hour or next day that you don't get a chance to sit back and look at it in its entirety," Kelly said. "At the end of the year, we'll be able to look at it."
After leading Cincinnati to back-to-back wins over USF and WVU, Pike will remain the Bearcats' starting quarterback even if Grutza is healthy enough to play this week.
Despite the turnover at quarterback, Cincinnati still leads the league in pass offense and is second in pass efficiency. Bearcats coaches have hailed Pike, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior from Cincinnati's Reading High, as a rising star in the league. Kelly has said he could become the best player in the Big East. Pike has mobility and a strong, accurate arm, but had no starting experience heading into the season.
Because of the injuries, Cincinnati now has three quarterbacks who have started and won multiple games. All have Big East wins under their belts. With 26 career starts, Grutza is the most experienced, but Pike has been a capable caretaker the past three conference games.
He threw the winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Mountaineers. He outdueled USF's Matt Grothe in the 24-10 win over the Bulls. In his return from a broken arm against Connecticut, Pike led the Bearcats to a 13-10 lead before his arm began bothering him.
If the past is any indication, there will be little grumbling from Grutza about Pike remaining the starter.
"What it does for you more than anything else is we don't have anyone complaining. If they're not complaining at that position, then how can it be hard for us not to have a guy go this series or this play," Kelly said. "It starts there and sets a tone that permeates for the rest of the program."
The Bearcats aren't without their flaws. During a two-game stretch against Rutgers and Connecticut, they went 0-for-25 on third-down conversions, and they were just 2-for-13 in the win over WVU. Cincinnati is seventh in the league in rushing, minus-four in turnover margin and is penalized a Big East-worst 68.9 yards per game.
"We're into November and we're a contender," Kelly said. "We'll be able to test to see if this football team has what it takes."
Rutgers at USF. Rutgers followed a miserable start with a three-game winning streak, causing the Scarlet Knights to start thinking about a fourth consecutive bowl bid. They will have to beat USF on Saturday to make that happen, though. While Rutgers has come on of late, USF has collapsed. The Bulls started 5-1 but have fallen apart in Big East play. The key might be Scarlet Knights running back Kordell Young, who has given Rutgers a steady presence in the ground game. Young, who ran for 143 yards and a touchdown against Syracuse last week, will go up against the nation's No. 5 rush defense.
Player to watch
Louisville QB Hunter Cantwell. Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe reaffirmed that Cantwell is his starting quarterback. Cantwell has thrown an interception in six consecutive games and goes against Cincinnati this weekend; the Bearcats are tied for the league lead in interceptions.
Rutgers has topped 400 yards of total offense in each of the past two games. The Scarlet Knights didn't exceed 300 yards in the previous four games. … Cincinnati became the first team to hold West Virginia to fewer than 100 yards rushing since Virginia Tech did it in 2001. … West Virginia (plus-5) and Syracuse (plus-3) are the only teams in the Big East with a positive turnover margin. … Cincinnati has 13 sacks in its past five games.
USF QB Matt Grothe has thrown five interceptions in the past two games. … Since rushing for 207 yards against Auburn, West Virginia running back Noel Devine has 118 yards in his past two games. … Connecticut quarterbacks have thrown just three touchdown passes and 12 interceptions this season. … Louisville ran 68 plays last week against Pitt – but none came in the red zone. … West Virginia is allowing 31.2 yards per kickoff return, the worst in the nation. … Syracuse has given up at least 207 rushing yards in four of its past five games.
What they're saying
"It's a disadvantage for members of the conference to give up a week of recruiting when we don't have a championship game. That's a hindrance. You only get six weeks from a contact standpoint. When you play the first week of December, you lose that and there's not a championship game to go with it. All the teams that play that first week of December, we're at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any team. We're giving up a week of the contact period when it's really not necessary." – Connecticut coach Randy Edsall on playing league games in the first week of December.
"Hunter's our guy and we were trying to make something happen and give Matt a couple of series. We put Hunter back in at the start of the third quarter. When the game progressed, we threw Matt back in the game. It wasn't a pre-planned thing. It was a decision we made on the sideline." – Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe on inserting backup Matt Simms for Hunter Cantwell against Pittsburgh.
"When LeSean (McCoy) walks away with 40 yards and Billy (Stull) comes up with a big day throwing the ball and we punt the ball well and cover kicks good and we score on defense, that's a nice confidence boost for your team and coaching staff. It's nice not to be one-dimensional." – Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt on last week's win over Louisville.
The Big East named John Marinatto commissioner Wednesday, replacing Mike Tranghese. Marinatto is the senior associate commissioner and chief operating officer and is the former athletic director at Providence. He said Wednesday there are no plans for football expansion in the league. … With 67 yards against Rutgers, Syracuse RB Curtis Brinkley was held to less than 100 yards for the first time since Sept. 13 against Penn State. … Pitt's LeSean McCoy ran for 39 yards against Louisville, his career low. … USF RBs Mike Ford and Jamar Taylor returned to practice after missing the Cincinnati game with injuries. … Syracuse coach Greg Robinson said QB Cameron Dantley (3-of-12 passing against Rutgers) will start against Connecticut, but there is a possibility Andrew Robinson will get into the game. … West Virginia C Mike Dent (neck) is week to week. … Connecticut's starting quarterback once again will be a game-time decision between Zach Frazer and Cody Endres. … West Virginia backup QB Jarrett Brown will not play basketball at the end of the season, as he did last year.