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One championship brings hope of more

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The seniors went out as champions with Saturday's 35-27 victory against Connecticut but needed a glimpse into the program's bright future to do so.

CINCINNATI - On a day when the Bearcats honored the past, they spent Saturday painting a bright picture of the future.

A collection of seniors who own property at the center of the program's rise to prominence exited with a third Big East title for their careers.

Yet, leaving Nippert Stadium for the final time until August 2012, the conversation flipped from the great memories delivered by the seniors to the potential of those following in their footsteps to create more.

This team defined by 21 seniors, in their coronation moment, saw all five touchdowns scored by players returning next season.

"We are still not anywhere where we need to be in the program," Butch Jones said. "But I think you can see the young talent we have in this football program. To me, it's about the seniors. They set the standard and expectation for many years to come for what's expected."

Indeed, three Big East titles in four seasons raises the bar higher than Clifton knew imaginable even five years ago. Jones was doused with his first Gatorade bath as a UC coach and jumped directly into the arms of his closest senior, John Hughes. As Hughes lifted Jones into the air, he literally did what the seniors have figuratively been doing all season.

Derek Wolfe reminded UConn he will be playing at the next level in 2012, racking up 10 tackles, five for a loss and 2.5 sacks. He's now third on UC's career sacks list with 19.5. The guy he passed (Trent Cole, 18.5) ranks as one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.  

JK Schaffer contributed his standard double-digit tackles and big play. There is no stat line more befitting the LaSalle product's final game at Nippert Stadium than 11 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery.

When the game grew close and a third-down conversion was necessary to capture a championship, Isaiah Pead slithered his way past the sticks for one final home highlight. It concluded a long journey of leadership and adversity.

"To be totally opposite ends of where we were last year, I mean, that was our goal," Schaffer said. "That is what we talked about from the first meeting on. That is what we set out to do."

None of it would have happened if not for early development of the future.

If it weren't for the dreads slinging across his nameplate, recognizing Munchie Legaux as the same quarterback who made his first start two weeks ago would be difficult. The uncertainty which defined the rocky game at Rutgers was replaced by instinctual decisions and athletic reactions Saturday.

In a first half that would be all that mattered, he was 12 of 19 for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He threw downfield with confidence. He rolled out and threw on-target strikes. He attacked the edges effectively with his legs. He even threw the ball away when plays broke down.

He looked like, well, the starting quarterback.

"I feel more comfortable," Legaux said. "I am not afraid to make mistakes. I am not perfect, I am going to make mistakes. As long as I trust in the scheme and my offensive lineman and receivers, I feel like I will do well. The more games I played, the more comfortable I felt."

The comfort level likely stemmed from throwing the ball around with his roommate, Anthony McClung, for four hours. Legaux and McClung connected eight times for 142 yards and two touchdowns. That combination was at the core of Saturday's victory and will be central to any captured next season.

"We spend a lot of time together," Legaux said. "He's right next door to me. That bond that we have together is going to be very strong. I know where he is going to be at on the field. I know what kind of balls he likes, what kind of routes he runs, his depth, we have a good feel for each other."

Legaux owns a good feel for freshman Alex Chisum, as well. Chisum replicated his leaping grab at South Florida with an acrobatic 21-yard touchdown reception for the home crowd. It placed an exclamation point on one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2011 season.

Then there was 13th-year junior Drew Frey jumping a UConn pass for a pick-6. Junior Walter Stewart accepted a handoff from Huskies quarterback Johnny McEntee in the end zone for the best single-play stat line in college football this season: 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown.

The full circle of the day remained that the seniors couldn't have accomplished their championship exit without the rise of the underclassmen. For a group who so religiously focused on moving the program along by leading the younger players, that may have been more gratifying than making the big plays themselves.

"We are a family," Schaffer said. "As a senior class we get so excited watching the younger guys play well and do well. We helped them become who they are."

They are Big East champions.

Derek Wolfe talked about sitting around last December watching bowl games with Zach Collaros and fuming that the Bearcats weren't a part of it. That day in that room, the first step toward this final goal began.

"We were just miserable," Wolfe said. "We were so mad. We made a pact and started as soon as that Pitt game ended, we started training harder and harder, our offseason was incredible."

In a room of their own across campus, Legaux and McClung describe similar conversations over the past month. They talk about the future. The future is now. As was demonstrated Saturday afternoon, the torch has passed.  

"We talk a lot about the offseason," McClung said. "Putting in a lot of work because we can't take any days off. With a lot of other players, we are the faces of the program now."

On this day, those faces were smiling big.

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