Mountaineers expect a fight out of Cincinnati
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Should things go according to plans for West Virginia and Cincinnati on Saturday, the Mountaineers will take a two-score lead over the Bearcats at some point in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium.
Only then will things get interesting in the noon game that's televised on ABC.
"There's not a whole lot of quit to them," Mountaineers Coach Dana Holgorsen said of the Bearcats.
No. 23 Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0 Big East) has moved into first place in the conference by overcoming deficits of 9, 10 and 10 points in the second half of consecutive wins against Louisville, South Florida and Pitt.
"Cincinnati is a team that has found ways to win," Holgorsen said. "They've been in a bunch of close games, but the one thing that stands out about them more than anything is the amount of effort that they play with. When you play with that kind of effort, good things happen."
The Bearcats were down 16-7 at Paul Brown Stadium at the half to the Cardinals and won 25-16. They trailed the host Bulls 27-17 in the fourth quarter and 34-30 with 1:27 left to play, but won 37-34. Cincinnati was behind the Panthers 23-13 in the third quarter, but won, 26-23.
"The thing I like about this football team is the way we've managed our business," Coach Butch Jones said. "We talk about 'snap and clear.' Play the next snap, play the next play and clear the last one from your mind. That mindset keeps us playing through the deficits and the adversity we've had to overcome."
The Mountaineers (6-3, 2-2) haven't been as resilient.
They were down against Marshall, Norfolk State, Bowling Green and Connecticut and won each game, but they only trailed in the first half and never by more than one score. Rallies against LSU and Syracuse were dismissed when the Tigers and Orange returned kickoffs for touchdowns.
WVU trailed Rutgers 31-20 at halftime, but outscored the Scarlet Knights 20-0 in the second half and Holgorsen thought his team had matured from the experience. Saturday's loss to Louisville suggested otherwise.
"I don't know how to fix it," Holgorsen said. "I talked about it all week and then we didn't have any energy on the sidelines. We were dead. There wasn't a whole lot of excitement when good things did happen for us."
Holgorsen said the problem is hard to fix, especially at this point of the season, but they'll try.
"It's not my team; it's their team," he said. "We do our best to organize it in a way that puts them out there in the best position and then it's really about how they play. We talk about it all the time that we're all in this together. Our job is to put them in a position to win.
"We've got to have guys that have invested enough into the program, that have enough to them, that step up and give their absolute best all the time. The leaders pinpoint guys who aren't buying in and they slap them around to the point that they get them bought in."
Holgorsen said Cincinnati has that player who isn't afraid to challenge his teammates and get those around him to play better. Senior quarterback Zach Collaros is in his second as the starter, but was a valuable player before then when the Bearcats needed someone to play and keep their unbeaten 2009 season alive.
He has completed 147-of-232 passes for 1,784 yards, 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions and run 72 times for 245 yards and eight touchdowns. Jones compared Collaros and his want to win to what Jones witnessed from Pat White when Jones was a WVU assistant in 2005-06.
"Butch would know about that," WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "When you watch Zach, he's the guy you're going to pick first, I don't care what sport you're playing. You're going to want that guy on your team."
The Bearcats have been coming back for a while now.
They were tied 14-14 at Tennessee in the second game of the season and lost 45-23. They've won six straight games and built a surging certainty in themselves ever since. Cincinnati led Akron 59-0 a week later in a 59-17 win, scored the first 21 points in a 44-14 win against North Carolina State and then shut out Miami University 27-0.
"You have to coach it every play and every snap in practice," Jones said. "Our philosophy is that effort has to be coached every snap. You can't assume it. That's why you hold every player accountable to high standards and high expectations."
It worked and those three straight wins gave the Bearcats momentum, which provided the belief to come back in the past three wins.
"When you win, that breeds confidence," Jones said. "Right now, we're playing with a lot of confidence. There's something to be said about passion and energy. That's mental energy. That's mental intensity. It's not about just one game. It's born throughout the course of the week. You play how you prepare and how you practice. I can't say enough about our practice habits."
Cincinnati was picked fifth in the Big East preseason poll, but is the only team without a conference loss in the only league where every team has at least three wins - and every Big East team has at least four wins overall.
The Bearcats are the only team that controls the conference championship race, though that's no concern to a team that doesn't look at the scoreboard until the game is finished.
"Absolutely not," Jones said. "Since August we have talked about focusing on the task at hand. It is one game at a time and every game is a new season and there are still four games to go. As we have seen throughout this entire football season, success can be very short-lived."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.