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No. 19 UC-Miami (Ohio) preview

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The offense has changed for UC's basketball team. It's no longer about finding a way to get guard Deonta Vaughn a shot. It's no longer about wanting one guy - the only player who could score on a consistent basis - to take as many shots as possible.

 

Instead, Mick Cronin wants a free-flowing ball-movement style of play where any of the five players on the floor can take a shot - and make it. It's a change of pace for the Bearcats, and it's partially why the UC offense has struggled for much of this season. The Bearcats are simply trying to find a new way to score points, and it's taking plenty of time for them to learn how.

 

"That type of offense takes some time to develop," said Cronin, whose squad takes the U.S. Bank Arena floor at 8:30 tonight to face Miami (Ohio). "It's easier to say, 'You're going to pass it, you're going to screen, you're going to shoot.' We were that way in the past with Deonta because we had other guys who were struggling to score. Now, we're trying to be a well-balanced team.

 

"When we get to a point where we're playing this way offensively, we'll be much harder to deal with because we won't be predictable. We'll have five guys that can score and three guys out there that can beat their man. We're going to reap the benefits of it as the season goes on, but we haven't looked fluid because we've got guys who are being asked to make plays that are freshmen."

 

The defense is the reason UC enters tonight's game with a 5-1 record. Yes, the Bearcats average 75 points per game, but if you throw out last week's 94-57 domination of a bad Texas Southern squad and the 92-68 decision against a completely overmatched Toledo team, that number drops to 66 points per game. Don't expect a waterfall of points tonight either. For one, RedHawks coach Charlie Coles' squad will do its best to slow down the ball as much as possible and keep the game in the 50s. For two, UC, Cronin said, is still a month away from playing as fluidly as he wants.

 

"But," he said, "it's going to help us in the long run."

 

For now, the easiest way for UC to score points is from the foul line. The Bearcats haven't spent much time there this season. In the three games in Maui, they took an average of 13.7 free throws per game, while their opponent shot 29.7. That ended up being a difference of nearly 11 points per game. If the UC defense hadn't been so good in the Maui Invitational, that disparity could have been an absolute killer.

 

"We're trying to become a team that gets to the foul line," Cronin said. "We're not there yet. We have to let our big guys catch it deeper and get fouled more. We have to get our perimeter guys on wing-to-rim drives and get themselves to the free throw line. True scorers get layups and free throws. If you're going to be a high-scoring team, you'll probably have to get 15-17 layups and 20-30 free throws. If you can get 45-50 points on layups and free throws, you can be a high-scoring team. We don't just live on jump shots. When we do, we struggle offensively."

 

Junior wing Rashad Bishop knows this, though. He likes this offense better than the one before.

 

"It's more of a fast-paced offense," he said. "It's not the half-court things we did last year. We have enough people who can get out and run a full 40 minutes. It's a lot more fun. It's just fun getting up and down the court, running and showing our athleticism. In the past, it had to be more structured, but now that we have more talent, there's more freedom. He lets us do what we can do."

 

--Freshman guard Lance Stephenson is averaging 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, but Cronin says you haven't seen anything yet.

 

"He has not played well offensively," Cronin said. "He plays unselfish offensively. He has not played like he plays in practice. There are days in practices he never misses a shot. It's scary how hard he is to defend. He hasn't had that kind of game. But to his credit, all he's worried about is playing defense, playing hard and winning."

Comedian Wilks trying to make an impact

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Darnell Wilks is a funny guy. Last week, when he was summoned to talk to the media, he let his personality shine through. He went into his Allen Iverson impersonation: "Practice?!? We're talking about practice?!?" and when I pointed out that he needed a new shtick, Wilks thought for a moment and said, "Homework?!? We're talking about homework?!?

 

More requests poured in. Come on Darnell, do your Cashmere Wright impression. Suddenly the junior wing transformed his voice into a high-pitched squeak and said, "Hey man, I'm a point guard, man."

 

Cracked us up. Told about Wilks' exploits, Mick Cronin said, "That's good. Another comedian out of work."

 

But there's been nothing funny about the work Wilks has put in the past year to transform himself from an afterthought - a guy who could dunk with the best of them but didn't get to show off his skills until the garbage time of a UC win - into a player who could have a real impact for this year's Bearcats squad.

 

"Because of our situation (the past three years), we had a lot of guys being asked to play that probably weren't ready to play," said Cronin, whose squad will face Miami University at U.S. Bank Arena at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. "In normal programs, normal freshmen, it takes them a year or two to figure out what it takes to be a good player at this level. Darnell is no different. He fits into that category, and I'd say that's 80-90 percent of all freshmen. He's a junior and he understands his strengths and how to accentuate them. He's worked on his weakness. He still has improving to do, but he's really worked on his ability to make open shots. We're trying to turn him into a great offensive rebounder."

 

In the first five UC games, that mindset wasn't evident. True, he only averaged 6.8 minutes per game to go with 2.4 points (for his career, he averaged 7.0 and 1.7, respectively, coming into this season), but Cronin didn't like the fact he only procured two offensive rebounds in those five contests. Cronin told Wilks he wanted more.

 

Against Texas Southern, he listened. During UC's 94-57 win last week, Wilks played 22 minutes and recorded 12 points and six rebounds (four of which were offensive boards). Perhaps, he's turned a corner. He's gone from being a comedian to being a legit impact player.

 

"I always wanted to play," Wilks said. "Coming into this year, I saw who we were bringing in, and I was thinking that I didn't want to be that guy that you see on a lot of teams that's a junior or a senior and not playing. I wanted to work on defense, which I still need to work on, And just making a difference in rebounding. Scoring isn't what they really need me to do, even though I can do it when I'm given the opportunity. If I can step up on defense and get rebounds, I'll probably play more.

 

"When I'm in practice I try not to come out to show them I can play for long periods of time and showing them they can trust me on defense and rebounding the ball. That's something they tell me I need to do."

 

He's also tried to alter his shooting form. Coming into this season, he had shot 37 percent from the 3-point line, but so far this season, he's made 3 of 6.

 

"I thought I always shot good; I just didn't shoot," Wilks said with a big smile on his face. "Nah, it was work in the summer. When I was in high school and I used to shoot, I would jump too high. I would over-jump. When I got here, they told me not to jump as high. They told me to work on my footwork and keeping it the same and having a high arc. I've been trying to perfect it."

 

In doing so, he's showing his teammates his desire to improve.

 

"He's finally starting to understand that he has to play hard and smart," junior wing Rashad Bishop said. "You can't just go out and play hard. You have to play smart. He's probably the most athletic player on the team. But he just didn't have the fundamentals."

UC going to Sugar Bowl to play Florida

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With the scoreboard at Fifth Third Arena showing the BCS bowl selection show, the crowd of about 1,000 got to do its fair share of booing. Boo TCU. Boo Boise State. Boo the words that came out of analyst Charles Davis' mouth when he mentioned the Brian Kelly to Notre Dame rumors.

 

But when the screen showed that UC was going to face Florida in the Sugar Bowl, the place went crazy. Players hugged, fans cheered, and offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn couldn't stop shaking hands.

 

This, the team realizes, is a huge opportunity. National TV with a chance to play -and beat - perhaps the most-respected squad in the nation.

 

"'I'm licking my lips," senior receiver Mardy Gilyard said. "I can't wait to get in film. I'm going into film tomorrow now that we know who the opponent is. I'm anxious to get to the film. Nobody is going to pick us to win this game. We understand that. But we know that if we play Bearcats football, we'll be all right."

 

Said senior quarterback Tony Pike: "It's an opportunity we've been looking for. Last year we came up short on the national stage, and that's something we worked hard at. We'll get another shot this year."

 

Brian Kelly thinks about the Sugar Bowl, and he ponders something else - the pageantry of this particular game.

 

"The one thing about the Sugar Bowl is the tradition and history," he said. "The great Alabama-Penn State games and what it conjures up. It's college football. When you're in the Sugar Bowl, it's real. Then the opponent. Come on. Who's a more recognized program in the past five years than Florida? You're playing probably the most recognizable program in the country in the Sugar Bowl."

 

--I asked Pike, Gilyard and Kelly if they thought UC should be playing for the national title. Pike danced around the question, Kelly never really answered, and then there was Gilyard. Of course, he gave me an unequivocal yes. I asked him if he was disappointed the Bearcats weren't playing in it. He said no.

 

"We all wanted to play in the big show," he said. "But we know a couple things had to pan out. On paper, we pan out good. But we're so happy we're in the Sugar Bowl. This is our national championship."

 

After the team returned from Pittsburgh on Saturday, Kelly walked into the suite he owns at 5/3 and turned on the TV to watch the Big 12 championship game, the game that could have landed the Bearcats a shot at the national title.

 

"It was very difficult," Kelly said. "I'm not a big sit-down-and-watch-the-college-game (kind of guy), but after the trip, I came over to the basketball suite and sat there and watched the game. It was the closest proximity to a TV. Obviously, it was a tough one at the end.

 

"We were within one second of playing for a national championship. It's not crazy (for UC) to play for a national championship."

 

--Don't know if you remember, but two spring practices ago, Florida coach Urban Meyer visited a Bearcats practice. Gilyard remembers one specific comment. And it offended him.

 

"The one thing I can remember is him saying this used to be a rinky-dink program. That's the only thing I remember," Gilyard said. "The team knew we weren't a rinky-dink program. That just kind of fueled me."

 

After last season, Kelly traveled to Gainesville and met with Meyer to share some coaching insights.

 

"We shared some ideas about some things," Kelly said. "That's the fraternity of the coaching business. We certainly weren't looking at a matchup with Florida on our regular schedule. We run some similar things offensively. We share some similar ideas in terms of practice. Tim Hinton is very closer to Urban. There will be some close ties. But that won't mean much when the game gets started."

 

For Meyer, though, he came away impressed.

 

"Watching practice, I walked away saying that this was an SEC-caliber team," he said.

 

--If you were wondering which coach gave the Bearcats his No. 1 vote, it was Kelly. He voted UC No. 1. Then Alabama, Texas, TCU and Florida.

 

"Hey, 12-0. show me why we can't be No. 1," Kelly said. "We won all of our games. We can only play the games they scheduled. After watching Nebraska-Texas last night, we're as good as anybody."

UC-Pitt thoughts

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What an unreal game for the Bearcats, who win their second-straight Big East championship. Here were my thoughts:

 

First half

 

I don't see how the snow doesn't bother UC's offense, and on the first series, that seems pretty apparent. The Bearcats don't look exactly comfortable. Meanwhile, Pitt looks very comfortable. The first 15 plays of the game go to Dion Lewis (14 rushes, one pass reception), and the Panthers, facing a fourth and 1 on the UC 23, Lewis gains four yards (though Dominique Battle had a chance to tackle him behind the line of scrimmage). Then, the four-yard TD run. At this point, UC looks in trouble. No offense + no defense = no Big East title.

 

Tony Pike to Ben Guidugli is the new Pike to Mardy Gilyard. Then, Isaiah Pead shows he does, in fact, want to play in this game. Snow apparently doesn't slow down his speed. Two-straight TD passes in the red zone, and Pead and D.J. Woods drop one apiece. The pass interference helps. Finally, four plays (five if you count the penalty) after UC gets to the 6-yard line, the Bearcats score to tie the game at 7-7.

 

Finally, Dion Lewis comes out of the ballgame. Probably due to exhaustion. Another fourth down converted by the Panthers, via Lewis. 2-for-2 so far today. Incomplete to Baldwin, but the officials will review. Yeah, his foot is clearly in bounds for the TD. That should be 6. Yep, TD, and a 14-7 lead for Pitt.

 

Well, the game has set up perfectly for Pitt so far. The Panthers are keeping the ball away from UC's offense, and except for that long run by Pead, UC's offense has been pretty ineffective. We'll see if the Bearcats can improve. Wow, just a great catch by Armon Binns. Just throw it up, and he'll likely come down with the ball. I was wondering if the refs were going to throw the flag on DeCicco for blasting D.J. Woods. Yeah, he went helmet to helmet. That's the right call. The next call, the pass interference call, was not the right call. Man, Pike was lucky he wasn't intercepted there on third and goal from the 2. Jake Rogers has to kick the 20-yard FG to cut the lead to 14-10.

 

That flea flicker didn't seem to fool anybody, but Stull finds Baldwin in the middle of double coverage and comes down with the 40-yard TD catch. Actually, on further review, the safeties were fooled. But Drew Frey had a chance to make a play on the ball, but he couldn't. Pitt leading 21-10.

 

Oh boy. A Pike interception gives Pitt possession in UC territory.

 

On third and two, Battle misses another tackle on Lewis behind the line of scrimmage. I guess you have to be at the point where if the Bearcats allow only a FG, their fans should consider that a victory. 24-10, Pitt.

 

Zach Collaros who? Pike runs for the first down on third and five.

 

I'll tell you what. Pittsburgh is just beating up UC. And then the blocked punt. Oy vey.

 

31-10, Pitt. Yeah, I'd say UC is in some trouble here.

 

Well, how about Mardy Gilyard with the 99-yard kickoff return? That was ridiculous. He just made some great moves. 31-17, Pitt.

 

Man, another fumble by Lewis. But it goes out of bounds yet again. That would have been a huge recovery by UC on the Pitt 11. On Lewis' 29th carry of the half - are you kidding me with that? - the Bearcats stuff him and will get the ball back with 44 seconds left in the half. Then, the Bearcats are helped from a personal foul. Well, so much for that. Another interception by Pike. And the answer from Aaron Webster, getting the pick against Stull. Jake Rogers misses the long field goal.

 

Well, UC has some work to do. But it could have been so much worse.

 

Second half

 

That's a nice opening half stop by UC's defense. J.K. Schaffer with the big tackle on Lewis on third down to force the punt. And an ugly opening series for UC as well. Pike sacked twice.

 

Back to back three-and-outs by Pitt. And Kerry Coombs is excited about the developments.

 

For all this talk from ABC about Collaros possibly coming in to replace the starter, Pike is back out to take snaps. For the record, I didn't think he would. Wow, Mardy Gilyard again. A 68-yard TD from Pike. He's having a great final regular-season game of his career.

 

Aside from that blocked punt, how bad has Pitt's special teams been? You've had shanked punts, slips on kickoff returns, fumbles out of bounds on kickoff returns. Man, nobody touched Schaffer on the sack. That's a big play - third and 24. Pitt has to punt again.

 

Pike is starting to heat up. And soon as I wrote that, Pike is picked again.

 

It has become a battle of the interceptions. Heck of a route run by Dominique Battle to pick off Stull. Seriously, where was Stull going with that ball?

 

A three and out for UC.

 

Not a good punt by Rogers. And BK is talking to Mike Elston about it. And Dion Lewis strikes again, giving Pitt a two-touchdown lead with 12:26 to play.

 

Gilyard again with the kickoff return. Geez. It leads to a quick score, a short TD pass from Pike to Woods. And Jake Rogers doinks the PAT. Collaros looked to have a tough time putting the snap on the ground. I wonder how big that will be.

 

Huge sack of Stull by Derek Wolfe, but give Alex Daniels plenty of credit. He forced Stull to move up in the pocket and into Wolfe's arms.

 

Haven't seen much of Jake Ramsey today - other than his touchdown. It's been mostly Pead. And another 15-yard penalty by Pitt. And yeah, it was a late hit. No matter how much the crowd didn't like it. Well, Binns' foot might have broken the plane of the goal line. But the ball didn't appear to do it. Collaros in for the first and goal from the 1. He's short of the goal line. On second down, he and Pead collide, and again, he doesn't get it. But an offsides penalty on Pitt. Repeat second down. And Pead scores to cut the lead to 2. Pike back in the game for the 2-point conversion. Pike to Gilyard in the end zone. Tie ball game. 38-38.

 

It is officially a shoot-out.

 

Pitt has done next to nothing on offense in the second half. You have to wonder if Lewis, who had a ton of carries in the first half, is worn out. Huge 15-yard penalty on Walter Stewart for hands to the face. Bearcats might have gotten lucky that the facemask penalty on Matthews was picked up by the officials. Stull with a big play to Baldwin, catching UC in zone coverage. And then a Lewis 6-yard TD. And the holder loses the ball on the PAT, and Pitt can't convert. The Panthers lead 44-38 with 1:36 to play.

 

Another nice return by Gilyard, and UC starts the drive at the 39. Pike to Woods for the first down. This is exciting, no? Ball on the Pitt 44. Pike scrambles, and Gilyard comes back to catch the ball for the first down. Timeout UC. The ball is on the Pitt 29. Oh, and an amazing TD catch from Pike to Binns for the 29-yard TD. An unreal play with so much on the line. And the Rogers PAT is good.


Pitt takes over with 28 seconds to play. Three-straight incompletions from Stull, who is then sacked on fourth down, and the Big East championship - and the BCS bowl game that comes with it - is UC's. Heck of a game.

UC-Pitt preview

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The UC football team can talk all it wants about taking the season one game at a time, about not looking past any opponent to the onrushing landscape up ahead. And for the most part, that's probably true. A team caught overlooking an opponent oftentimes finds itself trying to pick itself up off the canvas.

 

But after the Bearcats football schedule was released, it was hard for them not to look toward the final game of the season. They saw Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, and they saw the potential of an unofficial Big East championship game on the turf of Heinz Field.

 

"This began in January after the Orange Bowl," junior tight end Ben Guidugli said. "It's been at spring football, training camp, the regular season. We knew the Big East championship was going through Pittsburgh. We're ready to go. We've put our work in. Pittsburgh was the team to beat to win the championship when we saw that at the end of the schedule."

 

The wish came true. That's exactly what Saturday's noon game will mean. If Pitt wins, the Panthers and the Bearcats will share the conference crown, but the Panthers would take the BCS bowl berth. If UC wins, it wins the league title outright, and the Bearcats, for the second straight year would head south to a big-time bowl game (unless they go west).

 

"They didn't come this far not to win a championship," Brian Kelly said. "It comes down to one week and one game."

 

For the Bearcats to win, they'll have to stop senior quarterback Bill Stull, who leads the Big East in pass efficiency (10th nationally) and total pass yards (2,294). And they'll have to slow down freshman running back Dion Lewis, a national freshman of the year candidate who ranks fourth nationally in rushing (131.45 yards per game).

 

"(Lewis) is a special player," Kelly said. "As a freshman, with his balance and vision, you can't get a hard hit on him. He's bigger than Jacquizz Rodgers. He's an outstanding football player. He's emerged as a star. We have our work cut out for us."

 

Said senior linebacker Andre Revels: "They have the heart of the team, which is the offensive line. The running back is doing great things, but the offensive line looks mean on film. They come off the ball aggressive. It's almost reminiscent of the Steelers and the Bengals when they play together. It will be a hard-hitting game. It will be one team's will against the other."

 

The Bearcats offense also will face some concerns.

 

The Panthers pass rush has paid huge dividends for the squad this year. Pitt averages 3.82 sacks per game, good enough to lead the nation, and its 42 sacks are the most since 1988. Defensive end Greg Romeus is the one UC will have to watch the most - he leads the squad with eight sacks - but the entire front four (which also includes defensive end Jabaal Sheard, defensive tackle Mick Williams and nose tackle Gus Mustakas) will be a concern for the Bearcats.

 

--So, what happens if UC loses? Well, as unfair as it might seem to Bearcats fans, the squad probably will fall to the Meineke Car Care Bowl (do you remember how much people wanted to go to that bowl in 2007 and how unfair people thought the PapaJohn's Bowl game was?).

 

Not that Kelly has pondered the possibilities.

 

"That has not even gone into my thought process," he said. "I haven't looked at all those. The people upstairs who work in marketing and promotions are working on it. I don't even know what the other options are."

 

And as for possibly sharing the Big East title: "We're not playing for co-championships. I'm sure it will go in the media guide that way, but we would be extremely disappointed."

 

--Prediction: I haven't picked the Bearcats to lose this year, and I'm undefeated in my selections. So, why should I change now? I think this game might be a shootout, but I'm not sure Pitt can outscore UC.

 

Say, UC 38, Pittsburgh 30

What to do about the defense

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So, at what point do the Bearcats start to worry? At what point does it become a problem? I ask, because, at this point in time, they don't seem to be concerned with the defense.

 

Now, before we get into our talk about the defense and how it's struggled, let's get this out of the way. In the grand scheme, the defense hasn't cost UC any victories. The Bearcats, of course, are undefeated and continue to have a slim chance to play for a national title. And for much of the season, the defense has been just fine (15 points to Rutgers, 3 to SEMO, 13 to Miami, 10 to Louisville and 7 to Syracuse).

 

But what about now? What about a Bearcats squad that allowed 45 points to Connecticut on Nov. 7 and 36 points to Illinois last week? Shouldn't that be worrisome to a team that's set to play an opponent in Pitt that ranks 11th in the country in passing efficiency and 22nd in scoring offense (its 32.2 points a game rank fourth all-time in school history)?*

 

*Just to get the other side of the story: Pitt is 32nd in rush offense, 56th in pass offense and 46th in total offense.

 

What do you think about it, senior linebacker Andre Revels?

 

"We're winning, and that's what really matters," he said. "We're 11-0. I can't complain about anything."

 

Yeah, but hasn't the defense been a bit of a problem?

 

"I don't feel like you can have problems if you're winning," Revels said

 

Maybe the Bearcats will feel differently when they face a balanced Pittsburgh attack this Saturday that features a quarterback in Bill Stull who's playing the best football of his career and a freshman running back in Dion Lewis who needed just eight games to reach 1,000 yards during his rookie campaign.**

 

**Lewis had 1,029 yards after his eighth game, compared to Tony Dorsett who had 1,142 in his first eight appearances. LeSean McCoy needed nine games during his freshman season to reach 1,000 yards. So, I guess you could say that Lewis is better as a freshman than McCoy and almost as good as the legendary Dorsett. Right now, he's 1,446 yards.

 

"The only thing we're concerned about is throwing up 'W's,'" Revels said. Right now, we're doing a good job of it."

 

Still, the trend is a bit disturbing. Especially when UConn gains 462 yards - the most since UC allowed Fresno State 443 - and then gives up a season-high 476 vs. Illinois.

 

"They're battling," Kelly said. "All I can tell you is it's tough to stop people, especially when you have dynamic players - like Illinois and like West Virginia - and when you have a physical team like Connecticut. It's a difficult chore. We're battling the best we can. We certainly don't help them in the style of offense we play. But I'd rather put more points on the board at the end of the game. We're close to last in the country in time of possession."

 

That's something UC has struggled with all season. Since the offense is so quick-strike, the defense finds itself on the field more often that it would like. But after the Illinois game, Kelly said that while he could slow down the offense to give the defense more rest, he wasn't inclined to do so. Why bother buying a Ferrari if you're only going to go 35 mph in it?

 

That attitude could turn the Pitt game into a high-scoring affair.

 

"They're called on to a lot more than they should in these circumstances," Kelly said. "I have a great deal of confidence in our defense. We've given up some points, but I'm confident we can compete and keep the score to where it doesn't have to be a shootout."

Kelly doesn't see any distractions

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There was only one direct question about the Brian-Kelly-to-Notre-Dame rumors at today's weekly news conference. It was: are you saying you won't talk to Notre Dame about its open position?

 

 "No," Kelly said. "We're focused on Pittsburgh 100 percent."

 

Kelly, like Florida's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, was given the chance today to stand before a Bob Goin team meeting room filled with media and pledge his allegiance to the Bearcats. Not surprisingly - and I think it was the right move - he didn't go that route. He said Notre Dame wasn't an issue this week and that there were other times to talk about matters like that.

 

Later, he told Bill Koch of the Enquirer that he hasn't been contacted by Notre Dame.

 

"It's irrelevant," Kelly said during the presser. "We are in lockdown mode. This is what we've been working for. We haven't been working for anything else. If you guys want to stay busy on that topic, go right ahead. We are focused on Pittsburgh. All that stuff will have to wait for another time. It's been hard to get here. We were unranked coming into the season. We have fought our way back. Everybody associated with this program is 100 percent focused on Pittsburgh."

 

Yeah, but it seems like it'd be easy for the Bearcats to become distracted. You can't turn on a TV sports channel or sports talk radio or Twitter or Facebook or whatever without hearing somebody blaring on about the BK to ND rumors. If you're a sports fan, it's hard to ignore it. Hell, I did a 15-minute interview on Bill Cunningham's radio show Monday on just this very topic. I'm doing a radio interview today with a station in Gainesville, Fla.Gainesville, Fla.?!? - who wants to know about the issue. Fans around the country have become insatiable.

 

And if it's not a conversation about Kelly, it's Bob Stoops of Gary Patterson or Tony Dungy or whoever to ND.

 

So, how does this team not see the distractions?

 

"It doesn't bother them," Kelly said. "They want to play football. They want to win a championship. Last week, that was a distraction. You get around here when 16 seniors are trying to find tickets for Senior Day when the NCAA ONLY GIVES YOU FOUR TICKETS (his emphasis). That's a nightmare. That's distraction. Sending them home for Thanksgiving and worrying about getting them back, that's a distraction. They don't care about his stuff, I'm telling you."

 

Perhaps, but junior tight end Ben Guidugli told reporters today that he wouldn't mind having Kelly address the team regarding the rumors.

 

"When they go out on that practice field, they're not thinking about anything else," Kelly said in response. "They better do it right, or I'm going to be all over them. That's what they're going to be thinking about it.

 

"They'll be all right. I'll have them ready. We've done it 17 times in a row. We're going to be OK. We're going to stay focused. We'll put them in a great position to win on Saturday. I hope that makes your day a little bit better."

 

We also asked senior linebacker Andre Revels about the distraction or lack thereof. Seems like all he cares about is focusing on winning Saturday's game against Pittsburgh.

 

"We don't think about it, because it's not going to help us win any games," he said. "That's the main goal. We're not worried about what the TV is talking about. We're worried about what Pittsburgh is going to do. We're not watching TV right now. We should be inside the film room studying. It's a real hush subject. That has no concern for us."

 

--Kelly said redshirt freshman safety Drew Frey - who left last Friday's game with a concussion - passed a neurological test today and that he would practice today. He also said he expected senior running back Jake Ramsey - who's missed the past two games with a foot injury - to be part of Saturday's gameplan.

UC bball enters top-25

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Freshman guard Cashmere Wright wasn't aware of the news before he took the dais for Monday's media availability. So, when the question came - how does it feel to be ranked No. 22 in the nation? - he was confused.

 

"Who's ranked?" he asked.

 

You are.

 

Big smile across his face: "Oh. Well." And then, his voice squeaked: "It feels good."

 

It surely must. Especially for a guy like senior guard Deonta Vaughn, who's been a member of some struggling Bearcats squads and is the one player who's been here all four years of the Mick Cronin era as the coach has tried to rebuild the program.

 

"What can I say?" Vaughn said. "We earned it, showing we can play with some of the top teams in the nation. It's good we're getting some respect. It took four years to do it."

 

He said he was surprised it happened this week, particularly after losing the Maui Invitational finals to Gonzaga, then unranked and now No. 17. But the strength of UC's victories against Vanderbilt and Maryland were enough to impress the AP voters.

 

"I'm very happy for the guys," said Cronin, whose squad will play host to Texas Southern on Tuesday at 5/3. "Being in the top-25 gets your highlights on ESPN and helps with recruiting and ticket sales. But you're a loss away from dropping out of the top-25. This needs to be commonplace for us."

 

You also probably don't have to worry about this going to the collective head of the Bearcats. Rashad Bishop knows Cronin won't let that happen.

 

"It's still early in the season," Bishop said. "We still want to get to the NCAA tournament. Winning four games isn't going to do it."

 

--Former UC cornerback Mike Mickens was signed to the Bengals practice squad today. He was drafted by Dallas, and Tampa Bay then signed him to its 53-man roster Nov. 4. He was inactive for three games before the Bucs released him last Wednesday. Now, he'll have his chance with the Cincinnati.

 

--Got a Bearcats Rising book signing Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Westchester. Come on out. Hang with me. We'll chill.

UC-Illinois Rock 'N Roll Party

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Before the final game of his career at Nippert Stadium, UC senior receiver Mardy Gilyard thought back to the past five years - the loss of his scholarship, the weeks he was homeless and had to sleep in his car, the scholarship he earned back, the ups and downs of learning how to play his position.

 

He thought about all the people who had helped make the journey possible. And he thanked them.

 

"It was all going through my head," said Gilyard, who finished with 102 yards and two touchdowns (and another on a kickoff return) on seven catches while setting the school record with his 24th career scoring reception. "I just watched myself over the years grow into the man and player I am now. I was just thinking about all that. I went to my mom and told her thank you. I went to the seniors and told them thank you for the best five years of my life."

He couldn't have done it today without the contributions of Tony Pike, who showed again why, if he hadn't been injured, he would have been a legit Heisman Trophy candidate. How special was it to Pike to throw a school-record six touchdown passes (surpassing Gino Guidugli's five tosses) on Senior Day?

 

"It's indescribable, just because of the journey the seniors have been on," Pike said. "To come out the last game at Nippert and to throw six touchdowns and get this guy (Gilyard) over 100 yards and get him involved early, it's amazing. Words can't describe how amazing this feels, to be able to share this with the team."

 

He wasn't at a loss for words, though, when he looked to his right and saw Ben Guidugli (seven catches, 149 yards, two touchdowns) at the postgame presser.

 

"I thought it was nice that Ben helped me take (the record) from his brother," Pike said to laughter.

 

Pike, with his first significant playing time since reinjuring his left arm in the South Florida game, said he was mentally prepared - not just physically ready - to play today. It showed.

 

"Awesome to be back," Pike said. "It makes it a little easier when you have a guy like Zach (Collaros) step in for us and be able to know mentally that you're all right. The way he played helped out a ton. When you have weapons like we do on offense, it makes it a little easier. ... Sitting for so long, you just want to go out there and start playing. You know getting hit is one of the things that come with it. (The arm) feels great right now."

 

--Yeah, the defense allowed 476 yards (307 passing and 169 rushing), surrendered 36 points and continued to give UC critics ammunition. Brian Kelly will tell you that because the offense is so quick-strike, the defense has to be on the field for so much longer, and he's right.

 

But every week, the defensive players talk about it just being a matter of missing some assignments or just a few broken plays. I'm not sure I buy it.

 

"They are who they are," Kelly said. "They battle. We have a lot of inexperienced players, and losing Drew Frey today (a concussion though Kelly guesses he'll be back next week) didn't help us. We're playing as hard as we can play. We don't help our defense very much on offense. If I wanted to put lipstick on it, I could make it look a little bit better, but we just want to win. We have an offense. Let them go. It doesn't paint a great picture when we try to win that way."

 

Said J.K. Shaffer, who recorded a career-high 14 tackles today and extended to four games his streak of consecutive eight-plus tackle performances: "For the most part, we did a pretty good job, especially on third down and on sudden change on the short field. The thing that really hurt us the most was a couple broken plays that ended up resulting in big gains for them. We knew coming in that they had a ton of very skilled offensive weapons. We know they would get some, but I felt we did a pretty good job aside from the missed assignments and broken plays."

 

--Sophomore Isaiah Pead, who just two weeks ago recorded 175 rushing yards, got only four carries and finished with minus-5 yards rushing. He dropped a third-down pass, and you didn't see him much in the second half.

 

"Yeah, he's OK," Kelly said. "He's been a little nicked up, and I just didn't get a good feel for him today. I just didn't get that connection today. (John) Goebel is really assignment correct in terms of pass protection with Jake (Ramsey) being out. It just wasn't Pead's kind of game. It just didn't materialize that way."

 

Although the Bearcats rushed for only 21 yards on 15 carries, they got two first-down runs late in the game to seal it. Besides, the gameplan coming in was to throw the ball.

 

"Historically, you think about a Big Ten team, and it's going to be a power running conference," Pike said. "We knew Illinois is a team that's built to stop the run. We felt we could exploit some things in the passing game and use that to open up our running game. The way things were going, we had to stick with the pass."

 

--I asked Kelly if he was resigned to the thought that, assuming Texas wins the Big 12 title and Florida and Alabama met in next week's SEC championship game with undefeated records, the Bearcats would be left out of the national title game.

 

"Yes," he said.

 

So, there's nothing you can do about that?

 

"I think Nebraska is going to beat Texas and we're going to beat Pittsburgh. That's just the way I'm wired."

 

UC-Illinois LIVE blog

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Well, it's cold and overcast and a little bit gray. It's a pretty good day to watch football.

According to Tommy G. (and confirmed by KatzontheCats), running back Darrin Williams is wearing No. 10 today. It's his third number of the season. Why? No idea.

Senior Day: Nice to see Alex Daniels showcasing the freshly-saved mohawk. He didn't have that three days ago.

Captains are special team specialists long snapper Mike Windt and Charley Howard.

First Quarter

Illinois wins the toss and defers to the second half. UC to start with the ball.

The Illini kick to Darrin Williams, and he makes them pay. Darrin Williams returns it to the Illinois 49. First play of the game, Gilyard with the straight drop. Pike hits Binns to bring up third and 3. Hand off to Pead and he loses five yards. Three and out after obtaining such nice field postion. An uninspired start.

Juice Williams with the eight-yard run and then he completes a pass to Arrelious Benn for the first down. I expect to see plenty of running from Illinois, but its last two attempts have gained a combined two yards. Third and 8 from the Illinois 31. And that's the problem Juice represents. He takes the ball up the middle for a 17-yard gain. A nice block by OL Jon Asamoah on LB Dorian Davis. The Illini are really getting some nice downfield blocks that's allowing them to spring for long gains. First and 10 from the UC 18. Two runs knock back Illinois a combined three yards. Third and 13 from the UC 21. And a nice throw from Juice Williams to Fred Sykes on a corner route for the 21-yard TD pass. Illinois' running backs didn't do much that drive, but Juice Williams certainly did.

Illinois 7, UC 0 (7:38 to go)

I suppose that's why Illinois didn't want to kick to Mardy Gilyard in the first place. He takes the kick off 90 yards for the touchdown. That's the third return TD in his career. Just an electric run by Gilyard. I'm not too impressed with Illinois' kickoff coverage so far.

UC 7, Illinois 7 (7:25 to go)

Nice job by Dominique Battle smacking the ball out of Benn's hands to bring up third and 11 from the Illinois 19. Juice to Chris Duvalt but he's hammered short of the first down marker. Illinois to punt.

UC starts with good field position, on its own 41. Well, you don't get a whole lot more wide open than that. Pike scrambles and finds Ben Guidugli running by himself. They connect for the 59-yard TD. Two plays = 14 points. Yes, Pike still has a strong, strong throwing arm.

UC 14, Illinois 7 (5:56 to go)

Juice is incomplete to bring up third down, but Illinois is called for a chopblock. The Illini move back to the 12. Second and 19. Juice tries to scramble but Curtis Young says, "No sir." Loss of one. Third and 20 form the 11. Juice overthrows Jack Ramsey (the longlost brother of Jake Ramsey) by about five yards. Illinois to punt.

More good field position for UC, starting on its own 42. Two quick passes by Pike bring up third and 1 from the Illinois 49. Interesting call there. The shovel pass to Guidugli. UC doesn't run the shovel pass to its tight ends. Usually to a wide receiver or running back. Pead misses a block on Clay Nurse, and Pike takes his first hit of the game. The play was incomplete to Binns. Well, they're reviewing it now. Looks like his left foot landed before his right foot went out of bounds. Looks like it'll be a first down for UC. Yep, it is. Incompletion is overturned. Ball is on the Illinois 18. Sam Griffin called for the false start. Then, D.J. Woods. First and 20 now. Perhaps the Illini should think about covering Guidugli. A 22-yard pass to him makes it first and goal from the 6. That's four catches for 102 yards. After the pump fake, Pike finds Woods in the back of the end zone for the 6-yard TD pass. Or not. Under review. The play happened right in front of the backjudge. Hard to tell if he was bobbling it. It's confirmed. TD is good.

UC 21, Illinois 7 (1:50 to go)

On third and eight, Juice tries the option keeper. It doesn't fool Demetrius Jones who tackles him after a one-yard gain. Three and out.

UC will start at the Illini 47. More good field position. Third false start of the quarter. This time, it's Guidugli. That shouldn't be happening for a home game.

Second Quarter

In the first quarter, the Bearcats ran the ball exactly once. Just one time for minus-5 yards. Interesting.

This is unbelievable. First Pike hits Guidugli for a 40-yard gain to bring it to the 2-yard line. Then, on the play-action, he finds Guidugli in the back of the end zone for the 2-yard TD pass. Ridiculous.

UC 28, Illinois 7 (14:28 to go)

Wow, really nice catch by Benn. He turned around, the ball was in his face and he caught it for a 43-yard gain. Ball on the UC 24. A couple runs brings up third and five on the 19. Juice to Duvalt for the 19-yard TD. The problem there was that Dominique Battle came off the edge on a corner blitz, and he let Duvalt go by. Aaron Webster was supposed to pick him up, but he didn't get there in time. Nice pass from Juice to a wide-open Duvalt, and Battle never got near either.

UC 28, Illinois 14 (11:21 to go)

Another strong kickoff return by Mardy Gilyard. He takes it 41 yards and UC will start on its 46. UC tries its second run of the day, and Pead is knocked back for no gain. Maybe Guidugli should run the ball. It'll be third and five from the Illinois 49. PIke to Gilyard but he's short by a few inches. Shotgun, Pike scrambles and finds Pead, who promptly drops the ball. Turnover on downs.

Illinois to start on its own 44. Benn on the reverse runs a long way to gain five yards to the 50. On the last two plays, the Illini have gone outside the tackles and gained a total of 13 yards. Better success there than running between the tackles. Drew Frey is down. Looks like he went helmet to helmet with Eddie McGee and got the worst of it. And now Daniel Dufrene runs up the middle for 15 yards. After Juice hits Duvalt for the first down, Benn is called for the personal foul. Ball is back to the UC 23. It'll be third and nine from the 22. Juice has a little too much, uh, juice on his pass to Duvalt. Incomplete. Derek Dimke on for the 39-yard FG, and it's good. Still, as Marvin Lewis would say, Benn's selfish penalty cost the Illini.

UC 28, Illinois 17 (6:01 to go)

UC starts at the 46. The Bearcats still haven't begun a drive inside their 40-yard line. Gilyard almost made a fantastic catch on a Pike pass but, at the last second, LB Ian Thomas breaks it up. Pike looks for Guidugli again, but the pass is out of his reach. Pike to John Goebel, and it'll be fourth and 1. UC will go for it, and Pead is not in the game. Pike hits Gilyard for the first down. Pike to Woods for 18-yard gain. Ball is on the Illinois 11. That looked pretty easy. Pike to Gilyard for 11-yard TD. Zach who?

UC 35, Illinois 17 (4:04 to go)

Without Drew Frey in the game, Wes Richardson is at the free safety spot. After a Juice rush, it'll be third and three from the UC 49. Juice on a late-breaking option play pitches to Justin Green who's met at the first-down marker by Richardson. Officials will measure. About a link or two short. Illini, of course, will go for it. Ford doesn't gain much, but it's enough. Now, it'll be third and 13 from the UC 48. 58 seconds to go and Illinois takes a timeout. Juice to Mikel Leshoure for the seven-yard gain. Fourth and 6 from the 41, but the clock is still running. Again, Juice to Leshoure for the first. Five seconds to go and the ball at the 31. Dimke will attempt a 48-yard FG as the clock expires. And. It. Just. Sneaks. Over. The. Goal. Post.

UC 35, Illinois 20 (half)

BTW, Mardy Gilyard, with that last score, breaks the school record for career TD catches.

According to Tommy G., Drew Frey is done for the day with a head injury.

After a first down, Leshoure is crushed for a four-yard loss. After a holding call, it'll be second and 24 from the Illinois 21. Incomplete pass. Juice scrambles, but he'll be well short of the first down. Illinois to punt.

UC with its worst staring position of the day. At its own 25. Third and 2 from the 33. Handoff to Pead loses a yard and somebody boos. Are you kidding me?

Yikes, Duvalt was wide open (and when I say wide open, there was nobody within 10 yards of him) for what could have been a 73-yard TD catch. But Duvalt can't handle the pass. It'll be third and nine at the Illinois 28. Big pressure by Dan Giordano and Juice is complete. The Illini to punt.

Pike nearly intercepted by Tavon Wilson on that one. Then a drop by Binns makes it third and 10 from the 36. Pike to Binns will be a few yards short, and UC will punt again. In less than four minutes, there have been four different drives.

Suddenly, everybody is conservative on offense. Two runs for Illinois and it'll be third and six from the 16. Andre Revels breaks up a juice pass, and the Illini will have to punt. In the last 4:07, there have been five changes of possession with four 3-and-outs. Scintillating stuff.

And there's some excitement. Pike to Gilyard for a 45-yard gain. Great job by Gilyard who never gave an indication to the CB that the ball was coming his way. First and goal from the 5. Coming off the timeout, Binns forgot to come out on the field. Pike has to wati. Incomplete because of pressure from DB Garrett Edwards. Two incompletions from Pike. Third and goal. Trickeration. Pike to Woods, who laterals it to Goebel. It gains a yard, but the Illini are hit with a late hit penalty. First and goal from the 2. Colin Lozier - a redshirt freshman FB - is called for the false start. Pike to Woods loses two yards. It'll be third and goal from the 9. Pike threads the needle and hits Binns for the 10-yard TD. That's five on the day for Pike and ties a school record for TDs in a game with Gino Guidugli.

UC 42, Illinois 20 (4:43 to go)

Leshoure takes the carry, and he stays on the ground. He's lying next to Alex Daniels. His right leg is being flexed by trainer Bob Mangine. He's up, and he runs off the field. It'll be third and six from the UC 47. A run, and Illinois will punt. Mardy Gilyard muffs the punt, and Illinois recovers on the UC 12 yard line. Illinois runs up the middle twice, and it loses them a combined a 1-yard line. Nice defense by the Bearcats. Juice is incomplete. Dimke to attempt a 30-yard FG, and it's good. Wasted opportunity for Illinois to really cut into this lead.

UC 42, Illinois 23 (1:38 to go)

Pike nearly picked again. Looked like it should be reviewed, and it will be. To the naked eye, it looked like Terry Hawthorne intercepted it. We shall see. OK, review confirms it was incomplete. Third and 10 from the 35. Pike's pass is complete to Woods, but he's about a yard short. UC will punt.

As Juice completes a 12-yard pass to Duvalt, the third quarter ends.

The official attendance is 35,106 - another school record. I'm convinced we've seen larger crowds, though.

Fourth Quarter

A 19-yard run by Juice. On third and two, the Illini hand off to Green, and John Hughes makes him lose two yards. Option pitch to Green gains nine yards. Juice to Jarred Fayson for the first down. First and 10 from the 21. Juice incomplete to Fayson, but Battle is called for pass interference. I actually think that might have been a TD catch. Instead, it's first and goal from the 6. Dufrene gains a yard. Dufrene again, and he gains three yards to the 2. Juice with the option keeper sneaks into the end zone for a 2-yard TD. Illinois just keeps hanging around.

UC 42, Illinois 30 (10:03 to go)

UC struggling with kick returns. Darrin Williams just muffed one, and UC starts at the 19. Guiugli absolutely tagged by Tavon Wilson on his five-yard catch. A run by Goebel brings up third and 1 from the 28. Pike to Binns for the first down. UC gets into positive rushing yards, and the crowd cheers. Pike drops the snap and he has to fall on it. Back to minus-1 rushing. Pike to Woods on the inside screen for the first down. The ball at the Illinois 46. Pike to Kazeem Alli for the first down. Goebel gains two, and UC is back to positive yardage. Crowd cheers. Pike for a short gain, and it'll be third and 5 from the 30. Pike, on the inside screen, gets a first down. Sure, just make a one-hand catch. That's what Gilyard just did on a 21-yard post route TD. He couldn't have looked any more casual doing that. OK, under review. Looks like this might come back. Not sure he had control. Apparently, that's not what the replay officials saw. TD is good. That's a new record for passing TDs in a game with six. Pike is 32 of 46 for 399 yards and six TDs.

UC 49, Illinois 30 (4:19 to go)

Juice to Fayson for a 55-yard completion. Ball is at the UC 25. 14 yards to Duvalt brings the ball to the 11. Juice, under pressure, throws incomplete. Third and six from the 7. Juice throws it between Revels' hands and into Sykes' grasp for the 7-yard TD. Two-point conversion fails.The Illini are still alive, though.

UC 49, Illinois 36 (2:54 to go)

Onside kick hits Marcus Barnett, but Brad Jones recovers it. UC ball on the Illinois 40. Zach Collaros in the game. He immediately rushes for three yards. Goebel takes the pitch and gains seven yards for the first down. This game is just about over. Collaros with the eight-yard gain for the first down. With the Illini out of timeouts, this game, I feel safe in saying, is done. Victory formation. Pike comes back in to kneel for the final time at Nippert Stadium.

UC 49, Illinois 36 (final)