It was 3-0 Syracuse in the second quarter when the Orange dropped back to punt from their own 40 yard line. I'll admit to being surprised when I saw Isaiah Pead on the other end of the field waiting to return it. After all, the senior from Columbus had not return a punt since...
"Eastmoor Academy -- my senior year of high school," Pead told me after the game. "It's something that I've been asking for since I've been here. I guess they finally decided to pull the trigger."
It was more like lighting a fuse.
Pead caught Jonathan Fisher's 50-yard punt at the 10 yard line and broke several tackles on a 34-yard return. It helped set up a game-tying field goal that sparked the Bearcats in their 30-13 win at the Carrier Dome.
"He's been in my ear all season and our players have great confidence in him," said head coach Butch Jones. "When he went back there it really energized our team and I thought it switched the momentum."
It was one of 28 "touches" in the game for Isaiah as he rushed 17 times for 80 yards, caught 9 passes for 112 yards, and returned 2 punts for 54 yards. That's 246 badly-needed yards when the Bearcats were playing without injured quarterback Zach Collaros.
"That's what you play the game for," said Pead. "I just did what I could to help the team. Our captain is down right now and the team has to lift his spirits. It starts with me. I'm a senior running back and I think I did what I could today."
The decision to allow Pead to return punts was made early in the week.
"After the disappointing loss at Rutgers, Coach Jones came into the team meeting and said, 'Pead -- you're going to be returning punts this week,' Isaiah told me. "I embraced it. I started watching more film and started taking care of my body more. The players were up for it -- they like blocking for me."
In case you're wondering why Pead hasn't returned punts before at UC, consider the first skill required in performing the job.
"Catching a punt with 10 guys running down at you full speed is not a very easy skill to perform," said Coach Jones. "He's really worked hard at that skill. I'll tell you what, the progress that he's made from last year to this year in the skill of catching punts is a tribute to his work ethic. He's been practicing all year and waiting for this opportunity."
And while Pead relished the opportunity, he downplayed his role in the victory.
"Coach told me at the beginning of the week that it was on me," said Pead. "I said, 'It's not on me. I'm going to play my role like I always do -- just a little bit more.' I think it all worked out great. The offensive line did good, the receivers were great blocking on the edge, and it was a great team victory."
"We fed #23 and he played a great game," said Coach Jones.
This week, Isaiah will be one of 21 Bearcats honored on Senior Day at Nippert Stadium. The 25th-ranked Bearcats host UConn at noon for a share of the Big East championship. If USF beats West Virginia on Thursday night, the Bearcats will play in a BCS bowl game for the third time in four years if they beat the Huskies.
"It's going to be a great challenge," said Coach Jones. "I can't tell you how excited our kids are to get back and play in Nippert Stadium. We're going to need the 12th man on Saturday because they are extremely physical. We're playing in a Big East championship game and we need everyone -- there's absolutely no reason why Nippert shouldn't be sold out."
Come early. Be loud. And wear black.
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