Big East brawl pits Mountaineers against Bearcats

No longer part of the national rankings, the ranked Cincinnati Bearcats in Big East Conference play at Paul Brown Stadium in Ohio.

Not only are the Mountaineers on the outside looking in when it comes to national recognition, the team is now locked in a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference standings at 2-2 with the likes of Pittsburgh and Connecticut. Last week, WVU got caught up in a high-scoring affair with Louisville at home and wasn't able to keep up, eventually dropping a 38-35 final in Morgantown. The defeat was the second in the last three outings for a WVU program which is now 6-3 overall.

As for the Bearcats, they were locked up in a similar type of battle with the Pittsburgh Panthers on the road the same day, but in their case they were able to squeak by with a 26-23 triumph, marking the team's sixth straight win and the seventh in eight tries this season. A perfect 3-0 in conference play, the Bearcats are the only team in the Big East yet to experience a league loss.

As far as the all-time series is concerned, WVU has put up a 15-3-1 mark versus the Bearcats dating back to 1921 when the Mountaineers crushed Cincy in a 50-0 final in Morgantown. More recently, West Virginia secured a 37-10 win last year at home to snap what had been a two-game win streak by the Bearcats, although those two triumphs came by a combined six points. In fact, all three of the wins for Cincinnati have come by just eight total points.

WVU quarterback Geno Smith had another outstanding game last Saturday, at least from a statistical standpoint, as he completed 31-of-44 passes for 410 yards and three touchdowns, while Stedman Bailey recorded his sixth 100-yard receiving game with eight catches for 118 yards for a squad that drummed up 533 yards of total offense in a loss to Louisville at home.

"I don't care about the number of yards," WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said afterwards. "We had the ball in the red zone and didn't convert."

Coach Holgorsen was likely referring to a pair of field goal chances that Tyler Bitancurt failed to convert, the first missed from 32 yards out in the third quarter and the other a 23-yard attempt in the fourth that was blocked and returned 82 yards the other way for a touchdown.

For the most part this season the Mountaineers have been productive in the red zone, scoring on 87 percent of their opportunities, but a closer look inside the numbers shows that only 65 percent of the time have the Mountaineers scored TDs when they've been inside the 20-yard line, and that's tough to accept.

Smith is obviously putting up remarkable numbers this season with his 23 TDs, against just five interceptions, and 347.2 ypg through the air, but clearly there's a problem when the team settles in closer to the goal line and the play options become more condensed. Bailey is one of the nation's leaders in yards per game (103.7) and he has nine TD catches, while Shawne Alston and Dustin Garrison have continued to carry on the tradition of WVU's productive running attack with a combined 12 TDs through nine games. However, the difference these days is that the team is averaging just 126.8 rushing ypg and that ranks fifth in the conference and 90th nationally.

It may not have been a last-second field goal, but Tony Miliano's 41-yard conversion for the Bearcats just seconds into the fourth quarter still served the same purpose on Saturday as it gave his team the three-point edge it needed against the Panthers. Miliano tied a single-game school record and set a personal best with four field goals in the victory over the Panthers.

"We had very little wind tonight and it wasn't that cold so the conditions were pretty much optimal for a kicker," Miliano said after his performance. "Overall it was fun being out there and it was exciting to have the game come down to field goals."

Quarterback Zach Collaros contributed for the Bearcats by converting 19-of-32 passes for 214 yards, but he was sacked twice and tossed a couple of interceptions. On the ground the signal-caller ran for two TDs, while Isaiah Pead registered a game-high 118 yards rushing to help move the ball along.

Collaros has completed 63.4 percent of his pass attempts this season for 14 TDs, against eight interceptions, and while it is important for him to give Cincinnati a realistic passing attack, the truth is he is perhaps more valued as a runner who is tied for the team lead with eight rushing scores with Pead. Although, the difference between he and Pead is that Collaros is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, and Pead is picking up six yards a pop and is one of the nation's top ground gainers with 102.6 ypg.

Even though they've had their share of high-scoring games this season, the Bearcat defense has been one of the best in the country in both sacks (3.1 per game to rank eighth in the nation) and tackles for loss (8.1 per game, fifth nationally). Better still, the team's turnover margin is decidedly in their favor with a plus-1.63 per outing, ranking them third in the country at this point in the season.