QB-cursed Cincinnati lays hurt on South Florida

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
CINCINNATI -- Tony Pike sat in the Cincinnati training room on Wednesday afternoon and suddenly realized he was surrounded by peers.

"There were five quarterbacks in there getting treatment," Pike said. "We even had a redshirt freshman break his foot this week. It was pretty much a training room full of quarterbacks."

The latest in the never-ending series of quarterback casualties struck Chazz Anderson, who missed Thursday's game against South Florida with a medial collateral sprain in his knee. He's out for about 10 days, becoming the third different starting quarterback the Bearcats have lost to injury. And that's not even counting Ben Mauk's failed appeal to the NCAA this summer.

Such calamities might have killed lesser teams. But Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1) is still very much alive in the Big East race after its best overall performance of the season in a 24-10 win over the No. 23 Bulls.

These were the Bearcats last seen during their 10-win campaign a year ago and the ones everyone expected this season. The defense rediscovered its ball-hawking ways, intercepting Matt Grothe three times. The offense, stymied for weeks by the quarterback uncertainty, produced 396 yards while finding a nice balance between the running and passing games.

"Everything played into our hands tonight," receiver Mardy Gilyard said. "We played our best game."

They couldn't have done so without Pike, who was questionable to play until Tuesday. The junior broke his left forearm in the Sept. 27 game at Akron and needed to have a plate and six screws inserted. He sat two games, then fell awkwardly in the first half at UConn. That caused the plate to push against a nerve and made his left hand go numb. He also suffered a broken radius in his wrist. Anderson had to finish out the 40-16 loss.

Bearcats coach Brian Kelly didn't know who his starter would be this week. Pike practiced on Sunday but was in considerable pain. He took Monday off as freshman Zach Collaros saw the majority of practice snaps. It wasn't until Pike proved he could go through drills on Tuesday Kelly decided to start him.

Trainers put a different cast on Pike's arm for Thursday night, one with more padding around the wrist. He tried to make sure he didn't land hard on his left side, which is not an easy thing when you're facing South Florida's quarterback-terrorizing defensive end George Selvie.

"That's the last thing in the world you want to do," Pike said.

But Pike played without caution, completing 20 of 28 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns. He showed off surprising quickness and mobility for a 6-foot-6 guy, at one point sidestepping a Selvie sack attempt. He also displayed a terrific touch on deep balls, a weapon Cincinnati has lacked without him.

"He's like 6-foot-30, so he sees the whole field," Gilyard said. "He sees things much faster than shorter quarterbacks would. Everything is so fluent when he's in there."

Pike stayed in the shotgun to keep pressure off the hand on snaps. He took an exchange from under center right before throwing his last touchdown pass, a 1-yard rainbow in the corner of the end zone to defensive end Connor Barwin early in the fourth quarter. The pain returned.

"That jarred it back," Pike said. "I was just happy I didn't fumble it."

The Bearcats started their next two drives just outside their own end zone, and Kelly didn't want to risk the shotgun, especially with starting center Chris Jurek out with an ankle injury. So Collaros came in to finish off the game. Just some more quarterback juggling by Kelly, who's gotten far too used to the art this season.

Cincinnati didn't need any more from Pike anyway, because its defense took care of the rest. Grothe went just 13-of-31 for 174 yards, and other than a 38-yard scramble late, didn't do much with his feet either.

"We were just physical," cornerback Mike Mickens said. "We got a lot of pressure up front with our defensive line, and we matched their receivers in zones. We just tried to match up with everybody and make a play on the ball."

Mickens grabbed his school-record 13th career interception early in the game, setting up a touchdown with his 58-yard return. Cincinnati led the nation with 26 interceptions last season but had only eight going into Thursday night. Cornerback DeAngelo Smith, who shared the national lead in 2007 with eight picks, got his first of 2008 in the third quarter.

Twice in the fourth quarter, the Bulls had a first down inside the Bearcats' 13-yard line. Both times, they came away without any points, gaining only seven yards on eight plays.

"The biggest difference down there in being stout is we were playing pass and defending the run with a six-man box," Kelly said. "And I don't think they believed that we could do that.

"That was arguably our best performance of the year defensively."

Something about South Florida seems to bring out the best in Cincinnati, which has now won the last three in this series. And something about being in the national spotlight brings out the worst in the Bulls (6-3, 1-3). After climbing to No. 2 in the polls last year, they lost three straight. This year, South Florida is 1-3 since reaching No. 10 in the rankings. Now it is virtually eliminated from the Big East race before November.

Cincinnati remains in the hunt. Even while its quarterbacks remain in the training room.