Collaros was knocked out of the game in the second quarter by a severe ankle injury, and West Virginia rallied for a 24-21 victory Saturday that turned the Big East into a wide-open race.
''We feel confident,'' running back Isaiah Pead said. ''We've still got confidence. It's a little, minor setback. We can't sit in self-pity. We've got three more games to play. We're still ahead in the race.''
The Bearcats (7-2, 3-1) could have pulled into a commanding lead. Instead, they wound up trying to overcome the loss of their senior quarterback, and nearly succeeding.
Munchie Legaux led a pair of second-half touchdown drives for a 21-17 lead. The Mountaineers pulled back ahead behind Geno Smith's passing, and the Bearcats' chance to tie it on Tony Miliano's 32-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds was blocked.
''Extremely disappointing loss,'' coach Butch Jones said. ''It stings a little bit. We suffered about every adversity you can suffer in every single facet of the football game. But we kept fighting and it came down to the last play.''
A loss would have knocked West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) out of the title chase, making Cincinnati's path a little easier. Instead, the Bearcats left a lot of drama for its closing games, some of which they may have to play without Collaros.
The senior hurt his right ankle in the second quarter on a play that changed everything. He watched the rest of the game on crutches from the sideline with his right foot and ankle heavily wrapped. He was expected to get more tests on Sunday.
When he was carted off, the signal calling fell to an untested sophomore. Legaux had thrown only seven passes all season.
''I said, `You might have to finish this game off and be the hero,''' Pead said.
He almost pulled it off.
Legaux got the 48,152 fans at Paul Brown Stadium chanting his first name when he led the Bearcats to a pair of touchdowns for a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Legaux ran 7 yards for a score, and Isaiah Pead went 10 yards for his second touchdown.
A late drive led by Smith and West Virginia's first blocked field goal since 2004 prevented Legaux from becoming a sensation. Smith directed a 10-play drive that culminated in Shawne Alston's 1-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown with 8:52 left. Smith was 29 of 43 for 372 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions.
Collaros got hurt when he retreated from the pass rush to extend a play and got tackled by end Bruce Irvin at the goal line. Collaros lost the ball and his right leg got twisted beneath him as he went down.
Julian Miller fell on the ball in the end zone for a 17-7 lead. Collaros lay on the ground, both hands on his forehead. He put no weight on the right leg as he was helped to a cart to leave the field for an exam.
On came Legaux, who appeared nervous and had has his second pass intercepted.
''On that first series, I was kind of nervous,'' said Legaux, who finished 10 of 21 for 144 yards and ran eight times for 89 yards. ''After that first series, I got comfortable.''
For the fourth straight game, Cincinnati overcame a deficit of at least nine points to take a second-half lead. This time, it didn't stand up.
The Mountaineers have been one of the conference's mainstays, finishing first or second in each of the last nine years. The Bearcats were on quite a surge, winning six in a row. They've even come up with their own victory song, dancing to ''Get The Dub'' each time they come away with a ''W'' from a game.
They wore all-red uniforms Saturday for the first time since 1993, another indication of how much this one meant.
It started with big-play drama.
Pead weaved his way past defenders along the left sideline on a 40-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. Smith found Stedman Bailey beyond the coverage for a 59-yard touchdown pass that tied it. Pead had a 19-yard catch and 33-yard run that helped Cincinnati get to the 1-yard line, where Collaros was stopped inches short of the goal line on a fourth-down draw play.
Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard field goal gave West Virginia its first lead at 10-7 early in the second quarter. On Cincinnati's next possession, the Bearcats lost their most indispensable player.