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Cincinnati gets moment in the sun

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- All week, Mardy Gilyard predicted to his Cincinnati teammates that they were going to break a kickoff return for a touchdown. Gilyard saw the haphazard ways that West Virginia covered kicks -- the Mountaineers rank last out of 119 teams in the nation in that area -- and told his blockers that "I'll run until I puke."

And that's exactly what happened, right down to the gory details. Gilyard fielded the game's opening kickoff four yards deep in his own end zone and ran it back for a score. He missed his team's opening offensive series because he was evacuating his stomach on the sidelines from the long journey.

Hey, it takes guts to beat the Mountaineers in a night game on their home field. That's what the Bearcats showed, in more ways than one. The kickoff was the first sign that they could do it.

"I think it set the tone for the whole game," defensive tackle Terrill Byrd said. "That we're here, and y'all are going to have to play your A-plus game against us."

For a while, Cincinnati thought it might cruise to the victory. A 20-7 first half lead held up until the final two minutes. Then disaster nearly struck.

Head coach Brian Kelly opted to take a safety rather than risk a punt from his own goal line with 1:11 left. West Virginia then drove down against a prevent defense and scored a touchdown with 18 seconds left. After a successful onsides kick, the Mountaineers hit one big pass play and got a 52-yard field goal from Pat McAfee to tie the score.

West Virginia players danced on the field while the Bearcats huddled up in shock.

"A lesser team would have folded under those circumstances," Kelly said.

Kelly, though, told his players that this what they always expected -- a fight to the last minute. There was never an easy way to knock the king off his throne. Blessed with 19 seniors, Kelly knew his team had the poise to weather the collapse.

The defense held West Virginia to a field goal on the first series of overtime, and Cincinnati's offense -- which had mustered only one first down and fewer than 50 yards of offense in the second half -- needed just three plays to find the end zone. Quarterback Tony Pike hit a wide-open Kazeem Alli for the game-winning 2-yard throw.

"That was probably the hardest throw I've ever had to make in my career," Pike said. "The ball seemed like it was in the air for like a minute."

What happened next was an emotional celebration you don't see too often in regular-season games. The Cincinnati players and coaches sprinted to the northeast corner of the stadium to engulf Alli. Players were jumping up and down, screaming. Some were in tears.

The Bearcats have won some big games the past two years, including four over ranked teams. But they've never had a bigger moment since joining the Big East. They were 1-14-1 against West Virginia all time going into Saturday.

"We came in when Pat White was fresh, and they've been doing their thing for years," Gilyard said. "It feels like we just won the Big East championship."

Not yet, but Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1 Big East) is closer to it than ever before. The Bearcats are in a first-place tie with Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and Pitt has to come to Nippert Stadium later this month. First up, though, is a game at Louisville this Friday night. Though the Cardinals are in a funk, Cincinnati hasn't beaten its longtime rival since 2002.

"This one means nothing if you go down to Louisville and muck it around," Kelly said. "You've got to be able to bounce back. That's what good teams have to do. We'll find out whether we're a good team. We don't know."

Kelly worked to slow down talk that a changing of the guard has taken place or that his team stamped itself as the league favorite. He knows Cincinnati still has three games left in an unpredictable league.

"You cannot validate anything in the first week of November," he said. "Validation happens at the end of the year, and then you take stock. But clearly, we're closing the gap.

"West Virginia is still the team in this league that has done it consistently, and we're not a consistent player in this league yet. But I think we'll be able to take stock in that as we go through the year."

Kelly has already taken this program to heights unseen in more than 50 years. The Bearcats won 10 games last year and finished the season ranked No. 17. They should be back in the Top 25 on Sunday if people are paying attention.

No moment can top the one from Saturday, though. At least not yet.

"We know now that we control everything we do," Gilyard said. "Last year, we were hoping somebody might slip up or get upset, but now we actually control our own destiny.

"And since we beat the big brother in the Big East, now it's time to really show everybody that we can play top-caliber football."