The Year in Review: Cincinnati (10-3, 5-2)
By Paul Myerberg // Feb 24, 2012
In a parallel universe, Zach Collaros rolls to his left, eludes one potential tackler and then slides ahead for a short gain. In another parallel universe, Collaros simply accepts his fate, and is swallowed under by three, four, five West Virginia defenders. In a third parallel universe, Collaros stiff-arms a pass rusher, rolls to his right and throws the ball three rows high in the stands. Instead, Collaros took the shotgun snap, stepped back three yards, hopped two paces to his right, reversed course, paused, pump-faked and ran diagonally towards the goal line before being ripped down to the turf, falling with his full weight upon his right ankle, the ball popping high into the air and into the end zone, where it was recovered by West Virginia’s Julian Miller for a touchdown.
Collaros’ regular season was over: his right ankle broken, he underwent surgery two days later before returning in time for Cincinnati’s bowl win over Vanderbilt. In his place came Munchie Legaux, a sophomore, and out went the Bearcats’ chances at winning the Big East.
Legaux would rally the Bearcats in the second half against the Mountaineers, actually giving Cincinnati a 21-17 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter. But West Virginia would block a 31-yard field goal as time expired to preserve its 24-21 win, essentially handing the Mountaineers the conference title, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker.
A week later, Legaux’s first career start went terribly: Rutgers put the clamps down on the entire Cincinnati offense in a 20-3 win, limiting Legaux to 158 passing yards on 31 attempts, along with an interception. While the Bearcats would rebound with two Big East wins to end the year — Syracuse and Connecticut — the damage was done; thanks to one play, a once promising season was cut down in its tracks.
Again, imagine a world where Collaros throws the ball away, or slides to the turf, or simply assumes the fetal position and takes the sack. For starters, West Virginia doesn’t score that touchdown; Collaros doesn’t have the ball stripped loose on the goal line, and Miller doesn’t pounce on the loose ball in the end zone.
With Collaros under center and the defense taking its bend-but-not-break approach against Geno Smith and West Virginia’s passing game, the Bearcats might rally in the second half and escape, 27-24, with a marquee conference win. A week later, Rutgers’ defense might find life far less pleasant with Collaros, not Legaux, under center.
Syracuse and Connecticut would be easy prey; the Legaux-led offense made each look silly, so it makes sense that Collaros would have been equally successful over the final two games of Cincinnati’s season. With the regular season in the books, Cincinnati might be 11-1, having lost only to Tennessee in September — the Volunteers did an outstanding job controlling the clock — and a perfect 7-0 in Big East play.
It’s a painful look at how Cincinnati’s season turned on one play; had Collaros stayed upright, there is reason to believe that the Bearcats, not the Mountaineers, would have met Clemson in the Orange Bowl in early January. It’s painful, but also illuminating: the swift change in Cincinnati’s fortunes perfectly illustrates every season’s fragility.
Collaros throws the ball away. Dan Goodale’s kick against T.C.U. splits the uprights. Wisconsin’s prevent defense bats down Michigan State’s last-second heave. Ryan Broyles doesn’t elude the first potential tackler against Texas A&M; Trent Hunter never gets to him, meaning Broyles never tears his A.C.L., ending Oklahoma’s B.C.S. chances. It’s a short, jam-packed season: one play can make all the difference in the world.
Season grade: A- It was a nice bounce-back year for Jones, who led Cincinnati to its fourth double-digit win season in five tries after his disappointing debut. The most noticeable development was the improvement on the offensive side of the ball, where the Bearcats scored nearly an additional touchdown per game than in 2010; after ranking 57th nationally in scoring in Jones’ first season, the Bearcats moved up to 26th in the F.B.S. last fall. The offensive growth overshadowed the great strides taken on defense, where the Bearcats were in their second season playing in a base 4-3 set after using a 3-4 look under Brian Kelly. Cincinnati finished sixth nationally in rush defense, ahead of Georgia, Michigan State and Virginia Tech, among others, and only yards behind L.S.U.
High point Wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh, which along with a win over South Florida gave the Bearcats a perfect start to Big East play. Also in the running: Cincinnati’s 44-14 destruction of N.C. State in September, one the Bearcats led by 41-14 after three quarters, and the bowl win over the Commodores.
Low point The loss to West Virginia. The Bearcats still had a shot at the Big East title heading into the final week of the regular season, but the Mountaineers were able to get past U.S.F. to clinch the Orange Bowl berth.
Offensive M.V.P. There’s no questioning how important Collaros was for Cincinnati, as touched on above. The Bearcats went 8-1 in games he started and finished, losing only that game to Tennessee, and overall, Collaros went 16-8 as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback — 4-0 as Tony Pike’s replacement in 2009 and 4-7 as a first-year starter in 2010. Once again, he and running back Isaiah Pead formed the back backfield pairing in the Big East. Pead finished with a Big East-best 1,259 yards on the ground, his second straight season above the 1,000-yard mark, and added 15 total touchdowns. After suffering a significant drop-off statistically with Legaux in the starting lineup, Pead rushed for 149 yards against Vanderbilt.
Defensive M.V.P. Derek Wolfe made every single teammate around him better. Is there any higher praise you can give a football player? Despite being the constant focus of attention, Wolfe still paced Cincinnati with 21.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He was a very easy pick for Big East Defensive Player of the Year, an honor he shared with Rutgers’ Khaseem Greene. But Wolfe’s impact went beyond his own numbers: his presence in the middle gave J.K. Schaffer, Walter Stewart, Brandon Mills and others open lanes to the quarterback, helping the Bearcats finished second in the F.B.S. in sacks.
Stock watch West Virginia’s gone. Rutgers and Pittsburgh have brand-new coaching staffs. Louisville is young and promising, but should Cincinnati enter next season as the prohibitive Big East favorite? Perhaps, but don’t ignore the looming holes the Bearcats face on both sides of the ball. Legaux is now the full-time starter, though the experience he gained down the stretch will come in handy in September. Pead must also be replaced; in fact, that may be the more pressing issue for Jones and his staff to address during spring ball. The offensive line loses three starters, while the defensive line loses both interior starters in Wolfe and John Hughes. How the Bearcats fill these gaps will determine whether they return to the top of the Big East.
Tags: Big East, Butch Jones, Cincinnati, Derek Wolfe, Isaiah Pead, Munchie Legaux, Walter Stewart, West Virginia, Zach Collaros
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