Cincy tries for share of Big East crown vs UConn
CINCINNATI—Coming off a four-win season, Cincinnati set an overriding goal for 2011, one spelled out by a new, eye-catching display in a corner of their team meeting room.
A 6-foot-tall banner shows coach Butch Jones leading the team onto the field for a game under the heading: "2011 Be A Champion."
With one more win, they'd be a co-champion.
The Bearcats (8-3, 4-2) can win a share of the league title on Saturday by beating Connecticut, which would make for a three-way tie in first place along with Louisville and No. 22 West Virginia.
It would be Cincinnati's third title in four years -- the Bearcats won the other two outright and went to the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl.
The conference's BCS bowl bid is out of their reach, but not a title.
"They have a chance to do what we set out on January 3rd, and that's to become champions," Jones said. "Bowl games are great, but if you look at our program goals, No. 1 is to graduate and No. 2 is to win Big East conference championships, and we have that opportunity on Saturday."
Nobody will be rooting harder for the Huskies (5-6, 3-3) than the team an hour and a half away in Louisville.
If Cincinnati loses, then it's a two-way tie and Louisville (7-5, 5-2) would get the league's BCS bid based on its head-to-head win over West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) during the season. If it's a three-way tie, West Virginia will almost certainly get the automatic Bowl Championship Series berth.
The 22nd-ranked Mountaineers can expect to finish highest of the three schools in the final BCS rankings, which would be the tiebreaker. West Virginia put itself in position for the bid by beating South Florida 30-27 on Thursday night, a game that both the Bearcats and Cardinals were following.
A share of the title would be some consolation for the Bearcats, who were in control of the league race until senior quarterback Zach Collaros broke his right ankle.
"We've been through the best, we've been through the worst," said linebacker J.K. Schaffer, one of 21 seniors who will be honored before the game. "We've fought through a lot of stuff together. We've been through coaching changes, we've been through hard times, we've been through championships, we've been through a losing season."
Cincinnati lost control of the race when Collaros went down in the first half of a 24-21 loss to the Mountaineers on Nov. 12. Sophomore quarterback Munchie Legaux got the Bearcats in position to send the game to overtime, but Cincinnati's field goal attempt in the closing seconds was blocked.
The Bearcats then lost at Rutgers 20-3 as Legaux struggled, leaving an opening for Louisville and West Virginia to move ahead. Cincinnati went to a two-quarterback system last Saturday in a 30-13 win at Syracuse, with run-oriented Jordan Luallen splitting time.
They put a lot of the burden on senior running back Isaiah Pead, who ran for 80 yards, had a career-high nine catches for 112 yards and returned punts for the first time in his career.
"Oh boy, he's such a great back," Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "This guy catching the screen and catching the ball is scary. He's one of those guys that can put the ball in the end zone from a long way away. God forbid he gets free because I don't know who is going to catch him."
The Bearcats will use a two-quarterback approach and feature Pead again against Connecticut, which needs a win to become bowl eligible. The Huskies knocked Rutgers out of the running with a 40-22 win last week.
UConn shared the title with West Virginia and Pittsburgh last season, getting its first BCS bowl bid on the tiebreaker. The Huskies lost to Oklahoma 48-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Connecticut has been bowl eligible six times in the past eight seasons. Getting back to another bowl would be soothing.
"We want to keep this program rolling, and what they've done the last five years and every (one) since I've been here -- we've made a bowl," quarterback Johnny McEntee said. "And it's always one of our goals, and we want to keep running with it."
Associated Press writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.