The Bearcats return home with a surprising set of concerns after a 28-14 loss at Fresno State.
FRESNO, Calif. -- Unacceptable. Disappointing. Should have played better.
Those were the words coming out of the mouths of Bearcats players and coaches as the final sentences were penned on the first chapter of the Butch Jones era at the University of Cincinnati.
By any stretch of the imagination, the 28-14 defeat at Fresno State lived far from the reality this team expected to habitate when stepping foot on the plane en route to the San Joaquin Valley.
But, as with every college football team in the country, the Bearcats learned lessons about themselves during the opening game of the year. Some left a painful mark like the bruises on QB Zach Collaros after suffering eight sacks. Others were mental scars like those left on a contingent of players digesting their first regular-season loss at UC in nearly two years.
Regardless, as the Bearcats stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac set against the rising sun early Sunday morning, they walked into a new reality with all new challenges.
"Ever since I have been at Cincinnati we have won," defensive tackle John Hughes said. "We just have to take it under the chin and keep moving on. We have Indiana State next. We have to start preparing tomorrow. That's what it is."
This new reality feels more like a bizarro world for the Bearcats. It's one where the questions surround the offense and optimism engulfs the defense. It's a far cry from 45-44 at Heinz Field.
The team with the potent weapons were unable to fire bullets for the final three quarters Saturday night. Collaros went down eight times for a total of 64 yards in the wrong direction. The Bearcats were sacked 15 times all of last year. They scored their lowest point total since a 13-10 win at Rutgers on Oct. 11, 2008. UC ran for 15 yards on 32 carries.
The problems were as surprising as they are serious. But this is the new reality. This is the new challenge for this team.
Teams have recovered from worse. In fact, the shining Brian Kelly era involved losses much more lopsided than this: 40-16 at UConn and 52-26 at Oklahoma in 2008. That team won the Big East and played in the Orange Bowl.
It's been done before.
The Bearcats aren't bailing on the season after Saturday's defeat. They may be a bit dazed, but they know where the problems lie and Jones is determined to fix them.
"All I know is it is just disappointing," Jones said. "We expect to win. We have very high expectations and standards. We didn't meet those standards and expectations today, but we will get those corrected."
Collaros plans on correcting those as well. He finished 24-of-41 for 241 yards with one TD passing and another rushing.
Too many times he held on to the ball instead of throwing it away. And too many times he found himself running for his life. And for the first time in his career, he finds himself dealing with a loss.
Collaros was perfect in his two years as the starting QB at Steubenville High, owning two state championshp rings as a reminder. He went 4-0 as a starter last season.
He wore disappointment as clearly as his sweat-drenched undershirt outside of Bulldog Stadium, but you don't win 34 consecutive games without mental resolve and leadership. Collaros knows it will be tested now more than ever.
"We got a good group of guys and we have to bounce back from this," Collaros said. "Give a lot of credit to Fresno, they played really great. We just got to clean up the mistakes. I think we can bounce back from this and make it a positive."
Sure, the list of ways to describe Saturday night's loss are as lengthy as a Thesaurus, but this team refuses to be defined by one game. They may have little choice, but accepting the challenge of this new reality begins the next chapter in a book that most certainly can still contain a happy ending.