Butch Jones stood in the Bearcats' team meeting room last September and talked to his team about playing meaningful games in November. At this point last year UC was 3-4, and bowl eligibility was just about all it had to play for in the final month. That has all changed.
"From here on out, every game is a championship game," Jones said. "Everyone's goal is to become Big East Conference champions. Everyone is chasing that goal, that dream, that aspiration. For us, it's focusing on the task at hand."
UC's task this week is beating Pittsburgh on the road, something the 23rd-ranked Bearcats have managed to do just once in six attempts. The last time they played the Panthers at Heinz Field, the Bearcats won a memorable 45-44 thriller which earned them the Big East title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
What's at stake in this week's matchup is maintaining the upper hand in the conference race. A victory would set the stage for next week's showdown with West Virginia at Paul Brown Stadium.
But first things first. The last time the Bearcats came out of a bye week they played miserably in the first half against Louisville before rallying for the victory. UC can ill afford a poor start against an explosive and physical Pitt team.
"We do need to get off to a fast start, but if we don't, we need to continue to keep working and getting into a rhythm," Jones said. "The way Pitt plays defense it's hard for you to establish a rhythm with all the different fronts and blitzes they give you. They're trying to take that rhythm away from you."
The Pitt game begins a stretch in which the Bearcats will play three of their final five games on the road. They don't play at Nippert Stadium until the regular-season finale against Connecticut on Dec. 3.
"We've managed our business well to date and we haven't gotten ahead of ourselves," Jones said. "Pitt is going to challenge us. We probably won't be favored in any of our remaining games, so we just need to control what we can control."
--Cincinnati ranks fifth in the FBS with 23 turnovers forced, including 11 interceptions and 12 fumble recoveries. Last season the Bearcats had just 13 total turnovers gained.
--The last time Cincinnati played Pitt at Heinz Field was in 2009 when UC won a 45-44 thriller earning them the Big East Conference title and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
SERIES HISTORY: Pittsburgh leads 8-2 (Last meeting, Pitt won 28-10 at Nippert Stadium).
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 corps, 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 nine 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. Linebacker J.K. Schaffer and sophomore cornerback Deven Drane have three INTs apiece.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't even know if our players realize that they're going to be leaving the Big East. That's for the media and all that. It's just focusing on the task at hand, being 3-0 in our conference, and playing a physical, well-coached Pitt football team." -- Butch Jones, when asked if Pitt's departure from the Big East Conference will add significance to this week's game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Nov. 5 -- The Bearcats won two straight in the series during their back-to-back Big East Conference championship seasons in 2008 and '09, breaking a streak of seven straight Pitt victories.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Pitt will be without star RB Ray Graham, but the Bearcats will need to focus on RB Zach Brown and dual-threat QB Tino Sunseri, who's passed for seven touchdowns and rushed for two more. This game likely will be decided by how well UC controls the Panthers' formidable defensive front. The Bearcats want to avoid a slow start coming off the bye week.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--Senior RB Isaiah Pead provides the spark for the Bearcats offense. He has rushed for 703 yards and 8 touchdowns in seven games. He ranks fourth among active career leaders with a 6.47 yards per carry.
--Senior QB Zach Collaros has 14 touchdown passes but 6 interceptions, a few of which have occurred in the red zone. Collaros is a dual threat with 6 rushing TDs but is still improving on his decision making.
--Senior LB J.K. Schaffer leads the team with 54 tackles and 3 interceptions. He is the captain of a vastly improved Bearcats defense which ranks second nationally in rush defense and eighth in sacks.
--Freshman OL Eric Lefeld made his second career start in the win at South Florida on Oct. 22. 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 sustained in the victory at South Florida. This, after junior DB Malcolm Murray tore his ACL in practice and will miss the remainder of the season.
--With injuries in the secondary, freshman DB Trenier Orr is expected to get more opportunities for playing time.