Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
TAMPA, Fla. -- As South Florida's players trudged silently off the field and into their locker room, defensive lineman Leslie Stirrups turned to no one in particular and voiced his frustration.
"The main people they talked about didn't even do [expletive]," Stirrups said.
That is the major marvel of Cincinnati, which downed the Bulls 34-17 Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium. The Bearcats can bludgeon you with their best, and they can beat you with guys you've never heard of.
They won this much-hyped Big East showdown despite losing Heisman Trophy contending quarterback Tony Pike early in the second half and with star receiver Mardy Gilyard mostly contained. Head coach Brian Kelly simply plugs and plays, this time with backup quarterback Zach Collaros and some no-names on defense.
"That's what all the coaches talk about: just find a way to win," safety Aaron Webster said. "When a guy goes down, it's next man in. We preach that all the time, and it showed today."
The Bulls came into the game undefeated and ranked 21st, had the fourth-largest crowd in program history egging them on and made the nation's No. 3 offense huff and puff. Still, they couldn't slay the defending Big East champs. So it's time to raise the question: Who will?
Even if Pike misses significant time with an injured left arm, Cincinnati (6-0) should be favored in all of its remaining games. The next three -- Louisville, at Syracuse and Connecticut -- provide an easy road map to 9-0. A visit from West Virginia on Nov. 13 and a season-ending trip to Pitt might be all that stands in the way of perfection.
The eighth-ranked Bearcats have already won at Rutgers, at Oregon State and now at South Florida. Who or what is going to keep them from crashing into the BCS title game?
"We're starting to build a little bit of a résumé," Kelly said.
Kelly remains the team's greatest asset, coaching circles around the rest of the Big East, while closing in on his third straight league coach of the year trophy. His on-the-fly adjustment Thursday night will only add to his legend.
When Pike went down, the Bearcats completely revamped their entire philosophy. They abandoned their shotgun spread, pass-happy attack for a zone-read option scheme to befit Collaros. The sophomore ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, silencing the crowd and allowing Pike to safely change into a red sweat suit.
Much was made before the game of former Kelly assistant Joe Tresey's familiarity with the Bearcats from his days as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator. But even Tresey couldn't have game-planned for the Collaros wrinkle; the Bearcats gained more yards behind Collaros (235) than they did with Pike (166).
"You're reaching back and doing some things," Kelly said. "I don't want to bore you with details, but I've been down this road before. We have some things in a worst-case scenario, and we got it done, in an environment where you don't want to have to do that."
South Florida's hyper-athletic defense, led by future NFL draft pick Jason Pierre-Paul at defensive end, harassed Cincinnati all throughout the first half. Other than an 84-yard touchdown drive -- which got going after Pike barely avoided getting sacked for a safety to make a great roll-out throw -- the high-scoring Bearcats had only 49 yards by halftime. Kelly called the Bulls "the best defense I've seen in a long time."
His own defense continues to defy all expectations after replacing 10 starters from a year ago. The Bearcats chased scrambling quarterback B.J. Daniels in the 80-degree heat all night. Yet, other than a touchdown set up by a Collaros interception, they shut the Bulls down in the second half, yielding just 118 yards.
"They're used to running in this heat, and we're coming from the cold, so it was tough," said Webster, who had a momentum-changing 83-yard interception return to start the second quarter. "After the interception, I don't think I caught my breath the rest of the game."
The rest of college football better take a deep breath. Cincinnati looks like it can't be stopped.