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Collaros leads the way with his legs, yet again

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CollarosFly.jpgZach Collaros made his initial mark running the football at South Florida, as UC returns to Tampa for the first time since, the return of his rushing ability represents a significant story line.

CINCINNATI - The rules for the Louisville linebackers seemed simple enough. One followed Zach Collaros on the zone read while the other followed Isaiah Pead.

Only, at the beginning of the fourth quarter on the 50-yard line, both followed Collaros.

What resulted can be confidently referred to as the defining play of UC's first Big East victory of the season. Fitting, really, considering the zone read on the legs of Collaros has become the defining play in the scheme of this year's offense.

With the success of a running game owning more yards than the passing game to this point, what defenses have to prepare for begins at Collaros and Pead running toward the line with an option of the ball going in either direction.

"It has always been a huge part of our run package," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "When you can create situations where defenses have to defend the possibilities -- it makes them defend the actual run play, then the quarterback and you add maybe a bubble throw to that same exact scheme and they have to add a third element to the run game."

None of it would mean much without the running ability of Collaros. He's always been able to run with the football. Heading back to USF - the site of his 75-yard run where he broke on the scene --  reminds every Bearcats fan of that. As this year has progressed, though, his legs have developed into a more prominent aspect of the gameplan.

The first three weeks of the season, Collaros ran 14 times. In the last three games he's run 37 times - including 13 times Saturday against Louisville.

Collaros ran 121 times last year, but for the most part, those were the result of scrambling for his life. Most of those ended in negative yardage. For example, in three different games he ran at least seven times for at least minus-17 yards.

"I think I am just taking what the defense is giving us," Collaros said. "Last year being as banged up as me and Isaiah were for most of the year we had to rely a lot on the throwing game. For example, last week Louisville was dropping eight, seven guys into coverage. If its not there, I will hit Isaiah on a checkdown or take off and try to get what I can. I think its just really taking what the defense gives me and not try to force things."

This year, his running ability is used more as a running back and less as a scrambling quarterback. His 204 yards on 51 carries are two more than he gained all of last season. He's averaging four yards a carry with four touchdowns in the last four games.

The bigger the spot, the more likely the Cats have been to call on his services. That was apparent Saturday when on the biggest call of the game, Bajakian turned to Collaros to run off left tackle on fourth-and-goal for the touchdown.

The 23-year-old quarterback jokes about how he's not quite as athletic as he once was, but Collaros didn't look it as he found the opening and sailed through the air over the goal line. Butch Jones tells Collaros to get down when he runs into traffic. But doing so would be denying Collaros' most elementary instincts. And what has always made him an effective runner.

"If I know if it is third down and we got to get the first down I got to take a hit," he said. "I am not real big into lowering the shoulder, but I got six games left in my career and we want to win every single game."

Pead says Collaros runs with swag. He doesn't own the speed of a Mike Vick or even the elusiveness of his opponent this week, BJ Daniels. But, more often than not, when Collaros carries, the job gets done.

"I think he runs with swag," said Pead, who likely invented running with swag for the Bearcats. "He's elusive in his own way. He's not a slow guy. He'll lower the shoulder. He'll run by you. He'll give you a move. Zach's a football player above all."

Collaros' success on the ground plays hand-in-hand with that of Pead - quite literally. When the ball goes into Pead's stomach on the zone read, the explosive running back doesn't know if he's running with it or not.

The decisions haven't been perfect. Collaros wishes there were some he wouldn't have given away and some he wishes he would have. The combined 138 yards per game suggest the good outweighed the bad.

"With him and his ability to run, I won't always be the key on every run," said Pead, averaging 104 yards per game. "Predominantly we want to hand the ball off, but we got Zach if he wants to pull it. I have to play every fake as if I'm getting the ball. But if he pulls it, it is bittersweet."

They hope Saturday in Tampa, it will only be bitter for the Bulls. Collaros would be fine taking it himself or watching the defense follow him while Pead sprints to the end zone. It all counts the same way. 

"Really," Collaros said, "if I could hand the ball to Isaiah 95 percent of the time I wouldn't be mad because I know what he is going to do."

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