Immediately following last year's season-ending loss to Pittsburgh, UC head coach Butch Jones asked that every shred of evidence of the 2010 season be removed from the football offices. He didn't want to think about the 4-8 season again. Good thing for Jones, his players have never stopped remembering. So despite a 5-1 record and a top-25 ranking in both major polls, the Bearcats remain hungry.
Following a bye week, UC embarks on the most important stretch in Jones' second-year as head coach with three of the next four games on the road, beginning with the Nov. 5 game at Pittsburgh.
The Bearcats (6-1) are now bowl eligible and control their destiny in the Big East Conference race. Senior quarterback Zach Collaros said the players were humbled by last season, while Jones credits familiarity in his second season, and a sense that the team collectively has bought into his system.
"We said we were laying a foundation," Jones said. "A lot of times people don't want to hear 'foundation'. They think you just show up and win."
Jones said his team would be defined by how they handle adversity. Well, they've had a season's worth of adversity in two months. Since a humiliating 45-23 loss at Tennessee, the Bearcats have overcome a pair of poor first halves against Miami of Ohio and Louisville, and a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit at South Florida, to post victories.
UC has been led by an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that has produced 23 turnovers and a balanced offense that averages just 33.9 more yards passing than on the ground. Isaiah Pead, who has rushed for 703 yards and 8 TDs, and Collaros who has passed for 14 TDs and rushed for another 6, are the stars.
But the Bearcats have gotten contributions from underclassmen and role players up and down the roster. It's a culture that closely resembles former UC and current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's next-man-in creed that helped the Bearcats reach consecutive BCS bowls.
"We can't step on the field and just beat people," Jones said. "We're not going to beat people with talent. We're going to beat people with execution and fundamentals, and playing hard on every snap."
--Senior QB Zach Collaros was named Big East Conference offensive player of the week after compiling 410 yards of offense and five touchdowns in a 37-34 win at South Florida. Collaros passed for 389 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for 21 yards and two touchdowns including the game-winner on a 2-yard run with 12 seconds left.
--Senior LB J.K. Schaffer was named to the Big East's weekly honor roll after recording eight tackles and a fumble recovery in the win over USF.
BYE WEEK MISSION: Head coach Butch Jones might spend a good portion of the bye week shielding Bearcats players from their accolades. Throughout the season the players have insisted that last year's 4-8 record remains etched in memory and won't allow them to become complacent, but a top-25 ranking will test that. It's not as if the Bearcats have been perfect during the 5-game winning streak, and Jones believes there's plenty of cleanup to be done.
LOOKING AHEAD: UC might control its destiny but there's a tough stretch ahead with three of the final four games on the road beginning with a game at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh on Nov. 5. The Bearcats can't afford to look ahead to the following week's clash against West Virginia, at Paul Brown Stadium, which has early billing as a Big East Conference title game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's great for our fans, it's great for our program. It's getting back on what we refer to as the national stage. It's great for recruiting. But there's a lot of football left to be played." -- Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones on the Bearcats getting ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2009.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Bearcats offense is anything but one-dimensional. It has shown uncanny balance with 200 yards rushing and 233.9 yards passing per game, and the ability to pound the ball with Isaiah Pead, who has 703 yards and 8 TDs. But when the opportunities have presented themselves, UC has unveiled its signature big-play passing game behind Zach Collaros who has passed for 1,576 yards and 14 TDs to a deep receiving which has five players with two or more TD catches. When pressured or by design, Collaros has rushed for 225 yards and 6 TDs. The offensive line has been a pleasant surprise with redshirt freshman Eric Lefeld earning two starts.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: If you're looking for a reason why UC is the Big East Conference's first bowl-eligible team, look no further than the Bearcats' defense. Since being a big question mark in the preseason, UC is plus-13 in turnover margin, with 9 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. A revamped defensive line has produced 23 sacks led by Derek Wolfe with five and Dan Giordano and Brandon Mills with four each. LB J.K. Schaffer and sophomore CB Deven Drane have three INTs apiece.
--Freshman OL Eric Lefeld made his second career start in the win at South Florida. He has appeared in all seven games this season.
--Senior DB Dominique Battle will miss the remainder of the season with a torn right ACL suffered in the victory at South Florida on Oct. 22.
--Junior DB Malcom Murray tore his ACL in practice earlier this month and will miss the remainder of the season.