MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Butch Jones has Cincinnati pawing its way toward another Big East title, the 18th-ranked Bearcats now 7-1 after last week’s comeback victory at Pitt and owning a one game lead over second-place Louisville heading into this weekend’s game against West Virginia at Paul Brown Stadium.
Jones’ Bearcats will try to make the Mountaineers victim No. 4 on Saturday.
Cincinnati (3-1 in Big East play) has rebounded nicely from a 4-8 record of a year ago, the ex-Mountaineer assistant coach serving under Rich Rodriguez helping catapult the Bearcats to the top of the league standings with consecutive wins against Louisville, USF and Pitt. In all three games, Cincinnati trailed by two-score margins in the second before rallying.
“Cincinnati is a team that has found ways to win,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “They’ve been in a bunch of close games, but the one thing that stands out about them more than anything is the amount of effort that they play with.
“When you play with that kind of effort, things happen.”
Trailing USF 34-30 with 1:27 left in the game, quarterback Zach Collaros engineered a seven-play, 70-yard drive that ended in the end zone with 12 seconds left when the QB took it in himself from the 2.
“Zach Collaros has a ton of experience and does an excellent job with his leadership role and not turning the ball over,” said Holgorsen. “He’s willing his team to be able to get victories.”
Last week against Pitt, the Cincinnati defense stiffened in the second half, holding the Panthers to three three-and-outs, a turnover on downs and an interception on the way to another comeback win. On Pitt’s final eight drives, the Panthers accumulated just 51 yards of offense and one first down.
Jones will be the first to admit that the biggest difference for his team this year is the way the defense, returning nine starters from a year ago, is performing.
Cincinnati ranks fifth in the nation in tackles for a loss, sixth in run defense, eighth in sacks and ninth in net punting. But the biggest difference is an opportunistic unit that has created 25 turnovers this year and is plus-13 this year in turnover margin, a statistic Jones learned to appreciate while working for Rodriguez at West Virginia.
Last year’s Bearcat defense created only 14 turnovers and finished the year minus-15 to rank 119th in the country in that category.
“They’re physical,” said Holgorsen. “Their defensive line is very physical. Their linebackers are physical. They play the run well, they play with effort and they’re pretty good at it.”
Offensively, Cincinnati is no longer a one-trick pony relying mostly on Collaros’ arm to move the football down the field. With Pitt’s Ray Graham out for the rest of the year with a knee injury, Isaiah Pead is now the clear-cut No. 1 runner in the Big East, and you won’t get any arguments from West Virginia’s defensive coaches.
Pead is averaging 9.7 yards per carry in his last two games against the Mountaineers, running for 178 yards and a touchdown in a 2009 win at Cincinnati and rumbling for a 53-yard touchdown in last year’s loss to West Virginia in Morgantown.
Pead has nine career 100-yard games, including four 100-yard performances this year against Tennessee (155), North Carolina State (167), Louisville (151) and Pitt (118).
He enters this week fourth among all active ball carriers with a 6.42 yards-per-carry average. Pead has also performed well at Paul Brown Stadium, running for 320 yards and a touchdown in games against Oklahoma last year and against Louisville earlier this year.
That doesn’t bode well for a West Virginia run defense that is giving up 129.9 yards per game and has struggled of late stopping opposing running backs.
“It looks like they have a running back that they rely on quite a bit,” said Holgorsen. “They’re going to give it the ball quite a bit. If you have a feature back like that, along with a quarterback who can run 10 times a game, they’ll try and weed you out.”
Cincinnati is averaging 194 yards per game on the ground to rank second in the Big East, and is fourth in the conference in passing with an average of 231 yards per game, making the Bearcats one of the most balanced offenses in the league. Collaros has only had to try more than 40 passes once this year (41 vs. USF), and he didn’t throw a touchdown pass in Cincinnati’s 26-23 win at Pitt.
For the year, the senior is completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 1,790 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Sophomore Anthony McClung is Cincinnati’s top receiver with 33 catches for 444 yards and three touchdowns with his best game being a six-catch, 94-yard performance against N.C. State in week four. Junior Kenbrell Thompkins (35 catches, 427 yards and two touchdowns) and senior D.J. Woods (31 catches, 370 yards and two touchdowns) are also threats in the passing game.
Cincinnati’s defense thrives on negative yardage plays, the Bearcats getting 65 tackles for a loss in eight games with 26 sacks - 22 of those coming in the last five games.
Twenty three different Bearcat players have at least one tackle for loss led by Derek Wolfe’s 12, which ranks second in the Big East. The senior defensive tackle leads the Big East with seven sacks and shows 17 for his career heading into Saturday’s game against West Virginia.
Junior defensive end Walter Stewart and senior middle linebacker J.K. Schaffer have also been active behind the line of scrimmage with six negative yardage stops each.
The one area where Cincinnati has been vulnerable is in the passing game with opponents averaging 277.1 yards per game and scoring 12 touchdowns through the air. Tennessee burned Cincinnati’s secondary for 405 yards and four touchdowns in week two, N.C. State threw for 348 yards in week four, and USF got 409 yards through the air in week seven.
That is something Holgorsen will surely look at very closely.
“When you face a team (that stops the run effectively), teams get discouraged with the run and start throwing the ball more,” said Holgorsen. “That naturally gets you yards, which is why they’re not as good at defending the pass as they are the run, based on how many times (opponents) throw the ball compared to how many times they run the ball.”
Despite some offensive inconsistency, West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) has thrown the football reasonably well all season long. The Mountaineers have passed for more than 300 yards in six of nine games this season, including a 410-yard, three-TD performance from Geno Smith last Saturday against Louisville.
Smith has now completed 240 of 374 passes for 3,125 yards and 23 touchdowns, and is averaging 347.2 yards per game through the air to rank seventh in the country in that category.
Junior Tavon Austin is the team’s leading receiver with 63 catches for 781 yards and four touchdowns, while sophomore Stedman Bailey shows 51 catches for 933 yards and nine scores. Bailey has six 100-yard receiving games in 2011 and is averaging a team-best 18.3 yards per catch.
Sophomore Ivan McCartney has also been a weapon in the passing game with 41 catches for 536 yards and three scores. Senior Brad Starks, who was coming on of late with 14 catches for 174 yards and four touchdowns, was injured during last week’s loss to Louisville and will be out for Saturday’s game.
Freshman Dustin Garrison leads the team in rushing with 581 yards and a 6.1 yards-per-carry average, but 291 of those yards came in one game against Bowling Green. Junior Shawne Alston has become West Virginia’s No. 1 red-zone option with a team-best seven rushing touchdowns.
Sophomore safety Darwin Cook leads the WVU defense with 64 tackles while senior linebacker Najee Goode shows 61 stops, 5 ½ tackles for a loss, a sack and an interception.
Senior Bruce Irvin has a team-leading 4 ½ sacks to go with 10 total tackles for a loss.
Holgorsen said Tuesday he is considering taking a pared down travel roster of only 55-60 players to Cincinnati this weekend, bringing just the players he believes are fully committed to playing winning football.
“We’re going to take who wants to win; we’re going to take who wants to pull for his teammates and who wants to be all-in on this thing – not guys that pout and mope because they’re not playing or any of the rest of it,” he said. “We’re going to be a united team, and the only way I know how to get that accomplished is to make sure that we’re only taking people that are focused and headed in the right direction.”
Saturday’s game will kick off at noon and will be televised on ABC.