MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Butch Jones looks back on when he arrived at the University of Cincinnati to coach football in December of 2009, he remembers a team that finished the regular season unbeaten and would play in the Sugar Bowl, but had just two players who could bench press 400 pounds.
"Now we have 18," Jones said. "That goes hand-in-hand with playing our physical style of offense and defense and generating turnovers and taking care of the football as well."
Jones was 4-8 with the Bearcats in 2010 and just 2-5 in Big East play. Cincinnati is No. 23 in the Associated Press poll and the BCS rankings as it takes a sixgame winning streak into Saturday's game against West Virginia. The Bearcats (7-1, 3-0 Big East) play host to the Mountaineers (6-3, 2-2) at Paul Brown Stadium, which is preparing for a crowd around 50,000. The game kicks off at noon and will be broadcast by ABC.
"Last year, he inherited a winning program and worked very hard and was very diligent in getting things the way he wanted them," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They're reaping the benefits from it this year."
Cincinnati trailed 30-0 at halftime last year at Mountaineer Field and lost 37-10. The defense is now No. 18 in scoring (19.5 points per game) while the offense is No. 11 in scoring (39.13). All 11 starters returned on defense, and quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receiver J.D. Woods lead the offense. All are seniors. A year ago the Bearcats were average on offense, but struggled on defense. They allowed 30 or more points in seven games, including five in a row in Big East play, and 400 or more yards five times. They finished No. 68 in scoring defense (28.0) and No. 63 in total defense (369.4 yards per game). There's no greater difference, though, than in turnover margin. Cincinnati was the secondworst team in the country last season (minus 1.25 per game), but today is No. 3 (plus 1.63).
"It is very hard when you hear the term 'laying the foundation,'" Jones said. "In society, I think there's a negative connotation, but I think there is something to be said about laying the foundation. We were the youngest defense in all of the BCS conferences last year.
"This year I think we're winning with consistency and with continuity from being able to keep the same defensive staff in tact and being able to use the same schemes and grow from that, just a complete year to really coach the standards and the expectations to where we want everyone to play to."
Holgorsen believes WVU is having similar problems in his first season. His team has lost two of the past three games and gone from No. 11 in the Associated Press poll and No. 15 in the BCS Oct. 21 to being absent from both. Holgorsen says the problems are less about personnel than about personality.
"Effort gives you a chance," he said. "There are talented teams across the country that can go out there and play average and still win the game. There are only a few of them - there aren't many. Very few teams can line up and have just that much more talent and, regardless of what kind of effort they play with, can win the game. There are only a few of them. We're obviously not one of them. In order to win, we have to play with effort all the time." Jones said Cincinnati has had similar issues. The Bearcats followed their only loss at Tennessee with three wins by a combined 102 points. They led the games 59-0, 21-0 and 27-0. In the past three, though, Cincinnati has trailed 6-0, 7-0 and 13-6 and had trailed at halftime once and been tied twice.
In all three games, the Bearcats trailed by two scores in the second half, but they've also won all three games and are now the only team that control of the Big East championship race.
"I think the last couple weeks has shown the character of our football team," Jones said. "We talk about a thing called 'championship character' and our kids just play. We are playing with great confidence right now, but we can't continually put ourselves in holes and get off to slow starts. "I think sometimes people think you just roll the balls out and you have success. They're on scholarship too. Their coaches get paid and they're good football teams so they are going to have some success. I think we have played some very good football teams that have had a hand in that and the thing we just have to continue to do is we can't be a team that turns the football over and for the most part we have been able to overcome our adversities."
The Mountaineers haven't had three conference losses since 2001. WVU was 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the conference in Rich Rodriguez's first season, when he was laying a foundation for either outright or shared Big East titles in 2003-05 and 2007. The last time WVU lost three out of four games was a threegame losing streak to end the 2004 season and two of those took WVU out of the Big East lead and into a tie for first when the BCS bid went to Pitt.
A loss Saturday would just about eliminate WVU's chance to get the BCS bid and make even a share of the conference championship unlikely. The Mountaineers were named the favorites in the preseason poll while the Bearcats finished fifth. "Our goal is to win the Big East," Holgorsen said "We're hanging on to that hope. We need to win this week in order for that to happen. That doesn't change the fact that we're trying to stay in the same routine and do the same thing every week."