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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Big East battle that pits the Bearcats against WVU Mountaineers

Big East battle pits Bearcats against Mountaineers

Cincinnati, OH (Sports Network) - The fifth-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats try move one step closer to repeating as Big East champions, as they host the West Virginia Mountaineers in a key league bout this Friday at Nippert Stadium.

The Bearcats have coasted past just about every one of their opponents this year and it looked like more of the same this past Saturday, when the team held a 30-10 halftime lead on UConn. The Huskies however, rallied within a two-point conversion of the tying the game in the fourth quarter before Cincinnati came up with a stop and finished the night with a late touchdown for a 47-45 victory.

"How was that? Was that exciting football? That is going to age me quickly, said head coach Brian Kelly. "I think we helped the ratings for ABC. It was a great game and atmosphere."

It was certainly an thrilling game and the victory pushed Cincinnati to 9-0, marking its best start since 1951. The Bearcats have now won 10 straight games at Nippert Stadium and 15 consecutive regular season games dating back to last season, as they continue their magical run. At 5-0 in the conference, Cincinnati remains tied for first place with Pittsburgh, a team it will face in its regular season finale in early December.

As for the Mountaineers, they won a share of the Big East title in 2007 before taking a backseat to Cincinnati last season. WVU is still very much in the running for the title in 2009 with a 3-1 record, but it will likely need to run the table to accomplish that feat. Last weekend, the Mountaineers may have got caught looking ahead to this game, as they barely slipped past a struggling Louisville club, 17-9, in Morgantown.

"We found a way to win," said head coach Bill Stewart. "I'll take a Big East win any day of the week."

The Mountaineers, winners of five of their last six games, now stand at 7-2, with both of their losses coming on the road.

WVU holds a commanding 14-2-1 lead in the head-to-head series with Cincinnati, but the Bearcats picked one of their two wins last season, a 26-23 overtime triumph in Morgantown.

The Mountaineers didn't have their best game on offense last weekend, managing just 273 total yards, but they did enough to get past Louisville in a 17-9 decision. WVU, which is gaining a much better 393.6 total ypg on the season, used 173 yards on the ground and solid defense to edge the Cardinals. Jock Sanders, the starting slotback, rushed for a team-high 66 yards on 12 carries, as he stepped in for tailback Noel Devine, who left with a sprained ankle after gaining 56 yards on 13 totes.

"He's been hurt for two weeks," Stewart said. "He got beat up pretty good last week against South Florida. You cannot run a 5-foot-8, 178-pound man 30-35 times a game."

Devine is the one of the fastest and most elusive backs around and he already surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau for the second straight season, with 1,010 yards and 10 scores. Listed as probable for this game, Devine should be ready to go and lead a potent ground attack that is averaging a 181.4 ypg this season.

Quarterback Jarrett Brown adds another dimension to the ground game, rushing for 332 yards and four scores, and he has also been effective with his arm, completing 64.5 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns. Last weekend, Brown didn't have his best stuff, but was still able to throw for a score and run for 43 yards on eight carries.

Sanders was mentioned earlier as he replaced Devine in the backfield, but the 5-8, 175-pounder is the team's top wideout, leading the way with 58 catches and 555 receiving yards.

After getting torched by South Florida, WVU's defense rebounded nicely last weekend, holding Louisville to just 301 total yards and only three field goals. It was the first time this season the unit hadn't allowed a touchdown and it also limited Louisville to just 100 passing yards after being sliced through the air by South Florida.

"I was really proud of the defense the way it set the tone the entire day," said Stewart. "That was a great way to bounce back after a sub-par (defensive) showing last weekend."

The defense even came up with five sacks, bringing its season total to 24 in that department. However, despite the team's ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, WVU is still allowing 220.7 ypg through the air and this pass defense will be tested in a big way by Cincinnati's explosive offense.

Julian Miller is by far the team's best pass rusher, with 8.5 sacks and 11.5 TFLs to his credit, and he made a big impact last weekend, finishing with six stops and three sacks in the win over Louisville.

Offensively, the Bearcats are on a different level than the rest of the Big East and they are generating 482.6 total ypg and 40.0 ppg. The success hasn't come at the expense of turnovers either, as Cincinnati has committed only four and has yet to lose a fumble, a pretty remarkable accomplishment. The offense was clicking on all cylinders once again last weekend, racking up a school- record 711 total yards with no turnovers in a narrow win over UConn. Quarterback Zach Collaros threw for 480 yards, the second-best passing total in school history, and a touchdown, while rushing for 75 yards and two scores.

"I'd have to be a real bummer to pick a part his performance," said coach Kelly. "He sees the field extremely well and made plays all over the place."

The sophomore quarterback was making his third straight start in place of the injured Tony Pike (forearm), who was in uniform on Saturday, and he was sensational once gain. He has now completed 76.0 percent of his throws with 10 touchdowns and just one pick, leaving Kelly with the dilemma of who to start this Friday. Pike has been medically cleared to play and has also had great success with 1,633 yards and 15 touchdowns. Collaros though, brings another dimension to the offense with his legs, rushing for 288 yards, and he has everything working for him right now as well.

Kelly has decided to go with Collaros this weekend, and he will surely continue to look to one of the league's best receiver in Mardy Gilyard, who leads the team with 65 catches for 908 yards and eight scores. Armon Binns is another weapon that will surely be utilized and his size and strength has helped him to record 631 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The duo were both effective last weekend, as Gilyard hauled in 12 balls for 172 yards, while Binns had five receptions for 108 yards and a score.

"Zach will start this Friday night against West Virginia. Tony Pike is expected to play," Kelly said in Tuesday's press conference. "When Tony's back to [100 percent] he's our starter. He's not there yet. He's making progress."

The Bearcats can also be effective on the ground, gaining 157.9 ypg behind a 5.2 yard per carry average. Isaiah Pead heads the attack with 512 yards and seven scores and Jacob Ramsey follows with 419 yards. Ramsey had 91 yards on 12 carries against UConn, and Pead finished with 67 yards and two scores on 10 attempts.

Cincinnati's defense was exploited last weekend by UConn, which rolled up 462 total yards, including 201 on the ground. The Bearcats, who are giving up a far less 329.8 total ypg on the year, surrendered 322 of those yards and 35 points in the second half.

"The first half, we really didn't play too bad except for the long plays," said linebacker J.K. Schaffer. "We had a small mistake here and there. When you have guys not on the same page, it hurt us. In the second half, they were pounding the ball two or three yards at a time. Kudos to our offense for keeping the points on the board."

While the defense was shredded in the second half, it did come up with a big stop on a late two-point conversion attempt that would have tied the game at 40-40. That was about the lone positive to take from a unit, which had 29 sacks coming into the game, but managed just one in the win.

Andre Revels leads the defense, which had to replace 10 starters from a year ago, with 76 stops and that includes a 10-tackle performance in last weekend's win.

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