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Brendon Kay played through injuries to nearly every corner of his body and nearly took down Teddy Bridgewater Thursday night in one of the toughest performances by a quarterback you'll see.
CINCINNATI - Brendon Kay lay in the end zone. Face down on the Nippert Stadium turf. Motionless.
The medical staff rushed out to the field moments after referees signaled touchdown and 35,097 roared over the quarterback willing his team to their first lead.
By the time athletic trainers reached Kay, he popped up with assistance from teammates, grimacing, hobbled, shaken.
Figuring out which injury flared up on which play became like a game of Operation. Take your pick. Could be the shoulder he fought since the first weeks of training camp. Could be the ankle that left him limping from play to play for all 60 minutes plus overtime Thursday night. Could be his bruised ribs. Could be the back veraciously speared by 215-pound linebacker James Burgess.
Yet, here was Kay, refusing to throw a fade to the corner on third down in the second quarter of his final home game, because odds say running provides the best chance. Here was Kay -- a quarterback who practices sparingly and throws rarely except on gameday to preserve a body beaten to pulp on a weekly basis - tucking the ball under his arm.
Knowing a slide or juke won't work, Kay dives head first into traffic, exposing a body one hit from being broken in half. Without thought, without hesitation, seemingly without fear, he dives for the touchdown.
Waffle House steak is tough. Completing your MBA is tough. Calling audibles in the shadow of the sprawling, black blanket student section is tough.
Tough doesn't do this senior justice in his Keg of Nails finale. Kay was unbreakable.
"He's a battler," Tommy Tuberville said. "He's the kind you want to go to war with every week."
The final stanza inside what will be known as old Nippert stadium culminated in an effort to top most any played inside the Clifton cutout for the 100-plus years of existence.
Following every rollout, Kay could be seen limping the opposite direction, attempting to hold his team on his back with one foot. A bad ankle grew worse as the game wore on. He continued a tradition of heading to the locker room with one minute left before halftime for treatment. He'd then be the last to exit.
At some point, it looked bad enough curiosity would consider other options at quarterback. Sophomore Bennie Coney wasn't ready. Backup Jordan Luallen separated his shoulder in the second quarter and couldn't throw, according to Tuberville.
No options remained. Kay wouldn't accept others anyway.
"He wasn't about to let us take him out," Tuberville said. "He gave us the best chance."
Not this game. Not this season. Kay missed too many games during four years marred by injuries to keep him from his moment. No bad wheel, throbbing shoulder, aching back, bruised ribs, or any other ailment would take that from him.
All the Bearcats asked of Kay was to repeatedly have an answer for Teddy Bridgewater, the object of affection for nine NFL scouts lining the back row of the soon to be rubble press box and 23 other teams watching from home.
Bridgewater allowed plenty to drool over. He converted a fourth-and-12 Houdini act followed by a scramble that twisted him from east to west, ditching Bearcats then throwing across his body to land 24 yards perfectly into the arms of Damian Copeland.
If Bridgewater held Hesiman hopes, those two plays open his resume tape.
Nippert Stadium sat in stunned amazement of the Bridgewater magic, wondering if the Bearcats could recover. Then Kay hobbled to his own 27-yard line and threw the team on his back again, with one beautiful throw and one bad ankle. His strike to Mekale McKay made the scramble and sling a distant memory. Ralph David Abernathy's 15-yard TD run rendered it insignificant.
The Bridgewater magic returned a second time, but the wobbly No.11 again took the field, this time outrunning free runners for eight yards, scrambling to extend plays and completing a 10-play, 67-yard drive to force overtime.
He'd finish 22 of 40 for 304 yards with two rushing touchdowns. He even pooch punted 40 yards inside the Louisville 15. Unfortunately, victimized by drops and an untimely pass interference, Kay came up one play short in the 31-24 overtime defeat.
"That kid he did it on one leg," Tuberville said. "I mean, his ankle is so bad. He's been wanting to play and push through it. It's been that way for about six weeks. He's a warrior. He competed tonight. As all of them did."
Losing the Keg of Nails to Louisville provided a pain on par with his myriad ailments, but on this night when he stood toe to toe with a potential first-round draft pick quarter one one foot and answered every play, one of the grittiest quarterback performances in UC history deserved a better result.
"You just can't say enough about Brendon, dodging guys, running for his life, throwing sidearm, running," Tuberville said. "He's a battler. I'm proud he was my quarterback for the last nine games."
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In the world of the University of Cincinnati football and athletics, stakes couldn't be higher Thursday night against Louisville.
CINCINNATI - Can we pile any more consequences on top of this game? Do rules of physics even allow it? Or would one more repercussion buckle the edges of Nippert Stadium and send it into early destruction?
Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN.
The last Keg of Nails game for the foreseeable future, hopes of an American conference title, a BCS game possibility, final run in the old Nippert before renovations, growing the fan base, impressing recruits, silencing critics, national perception.
Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville.
Did I leave anything out?
"This is definitely a defining moment," quarterback Jordan Luallen said. "It's pretty cut and dry."
Games with stakes this high leave players who spend every moment of every day consumed with its outcome speechless. At a certain point, so much can be said about a game there's nothing left to.
"This is the game," cornerback Deven Drane said. "Everybody has been waiting for this game. There's not really much you can say about it. It speaks for itself."
Conversation begins with the dangling carrot of the BCS. With a victory against Louisville and UCF loss Saturday at SMU (with Mustangs star quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert questionable) the Bearcats could be booking a trip back to Miami or New Orleans.
All this for a team who looked to be playing out a lost season after falling at USF in October. All this for a team who took down six teams in a row, all followed by a "yeah, but."
No asterisk follows No. 19 Louisville (10-1, 6-1) on the schedule. A win here legitimizes all the previous nine. It would lock down a sixth 10-win season in the last seven years.
The game of perception consumes reality in college football - no more so at Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1) where reflecting strength and superiority to outsiders on and off the field directly effects the future health of the athletic department and conference in which it dwells.
Rarely have the Bearcats owned the national stage, certainly not in the capacity it will Thursday. When was the last time real consequences accompanied national TV exposure? The bowl game at Duke came shrouded in coaching change and the rubble of Butch Jones' departure. The win at Virginia Tech delivered drama, but little more when viewed through the prism of a championship chase.
Closing a season tugging championship possibilities into a rivalry game happens rarely. Doing so at Nippert Stadium at night with a solo national stage might happen a few times a decade - a great decade, at that.
How much will UC own the stage Thursday? They'll be pitted against Texans-Jaguars and Knicks-Nets. Oh, and the Sound of Music Live.
A win could shake the perception of the Bearcats - fair or unfair - as the kid peering outside the candy store in the shifting landscape of FBS football. UC endured only one loss to the Cardinals the last five years, but pushing them off to a new conference would stamp an indelible C-paw on the souls of the Cardinals and minds of the college football onlookers.
Those opportunities are as valuable as they are rare.
"Right now there are probably only 15-18 teams that have a chance to win a national championship," Tommy Tuberville said. "Number one because of national recognition, and number two because of the availability of talent. We want to jump into that market. You do that by recruiting and winning games, but you also need to be noticed while doing it. When you get out on the big stage, and to us,Thursday is a big stage, you have to perform."
Rivalry wins in front of sellout crowds sway recruits. Luallen recalls visiting Indiana as a junior watching the beat Purdue for the first time in six years then asking where he can sign. Tuberville relayed a story from his son Tucker at Auburn this past weekend dancing in the locker room alongside a number of high school players committed to other schools following their win against Alabama.
A win could alter the future as much as spotlight the past.
Winning these games would be no change around Clifton. The Bearcats are 8-0 on Thursday Night Football with their last experiences a 34-10 thrashing of Pittsburgh to open 2012 and 44-14 dismantling of NC State which springboarded the run to a 2011 conference title share.
Many times critics need reminding of these facts.
To imprint an exclamation point on the latest ESPN showcase against a hyped possible top overall draft pick would send reverberations beyond the hills of I-71 in Kentucky but also grab those inside the I-275 belt. A program living a constant drive to absorb more fans and prove the best sports bargain in town must occasionally provide nights fathers and sons retell for years.
Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville.
"Everyone is going to be at the peak of emotions," Drane said.
Perhaps we overrate the implications. Regardless of outcome, the sun will rise Friday. Perhaps pulling back and understanding this is only a football game should be necessary.
Then again, considering the landfill of repercussions, perhaps not.
Inside the football bubble, for those who follow the University of Cincinnati, for those who chanted "Tommy T! Tommy !" last December, for those who instantly know Thursday is the fourth anniversary of Pike to Binns, for those who still grow goosebumps remember UC charging the field at the Orange Bowl, for those who sway to the alma mater win or lose - for those people - football games don't get bigger.
Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN.
Did I leave anything out?
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Everyone turning on ESPN Thursday night will know Teddy Bridgewater, but UC top corner Deven Drane and the rest of the secondary hope they turn off ESPN talking about the Bearcats pass defense.
CINCINNATI -- Listening to the question describing the accolades of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Deven Drane's knowing nod tells the whole story.
The soft bob of the head accompanied by extended blinks can only come from a cornerback whose spent his years at UC hearing echoes of NFL potential of the Cardinals first-round prospect.
The nod suggests he saw Bridgewater ranks fifth in the country and first in the conference in pass efficiency.
The nod means he's seen each of the 48 passes completed by Bridgewater for 20 yards or more, the 71 percent completions, the 25 touchdowns and three interceptions this season.
More than any of those, the nod also moves with a splash of swagger. Drane knows the level of prestige Bridgewater will bring into Nippert Stadium on Thursday night. And he can't wait to knock him down a peg.
"He's a great player," Drane said. "Great athlete. Got great receivers. There's not much I can say to take away what he has done. He's a good player, you got to give credit where credit is due. But, I mean, I think we're a good secondary. So, I think it's going to be a good competition. I am looking forward to it."
The confidence of the secondary and defense are understandable. They enter with the No. 8 ranked overall defense in the country and top 25 in pass defense. Only a 400-yard passing day by Garrett Gilbert of SMU separate a streak of six straight games holding a quarterback below 58 percent completions.
They've intercepted seven passes the last six games, but those opportunities won't fall into the lap of the secondary this week. That's not how Bridgewater operates.
Tommy Tuberville compared Bridgewater to Robert Griffin III on Tuesday. Neither were recruited as superstar quarterbacks coming out of high school. The scouts claimed Bridgewater couldn't push the ball down the field effectively.
"He proved everybody wrong," Tuberville said.
With great players come great opportunity. Though Bridgewater owns rare skills, the preparation in the secondary doesn't alter.
That goes especially for Drane who enters with NFL hopes of his own. He's already picked off three passes for 85 return yards this year and a total of eight in the past three seasons.
Respect exists toward their opponent this week, but don't expect any special treatment.
"I am not going to treat anybody differently because I am not going to put anybody higher than anybody else," Drane said. "Anything can happen on any given day so I am not going to change up what I do for a certain team. I am going to prepare like I been preparing and we are going to go out and hopefully handle business."
Sure, an ESPN spotlight will focus on No. 5 for the Cardinals, but for a Bearcats defense used to flipping the switch of national attention, that's nothing new. In fact, for Drane, it's ideal.
"It's been like that since I have got here," said Drane, who has two interceptions including a pick-6 in his senior season. "It's been like that before I got here. We are always looked at as the underdogs. To be honest, that's cool. I would rather be the underdog and come up victorious. It doesn't matter, we are always counted out then we always tend to shock the world. They want to put them on a higher pedestal then let them do it, it's cool.
If Drane and company do to Bridgewater what they've done to nearly every QB in their path this season, they sap a slice of notoriety and open another opportunity to draw attention to their play in a significant bowl game.
All of that is at the fingertips of finding a way to slow a potential No. 1 overall draft pick. Go ahead and remind Deven Drane. Don't expect fear. He'll offer you the confident nod.
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Justin Jackson brought the same antics everyone has come to expect of him this season, but his latest exhibition in efficiency in Wednesday's win against Campbell showcased how he can change the UC offense.
CINCINNATI - At no spot on the Fifth Third Arena Floor would the basketball be safe from the grasp of Justin Jackson.
No matter the time of the game or margin on the scoreboard, the Jackson trampoline circus could be coming your way - press row included.
With the Bearcats cruising by 18 over the Camels in the final minutes Tuesday, Jackson stepped into a Superman leap into press row harpooning a stage director in the shoulder like a linebacker preventing a first down. He rolled onto the ground and the ball remarkably tossed back into play.
Never has a moment existed Jackson didn't play with this energy. Third grade, middle school, high school - all the same.
"I was the guy that fouled out in the first three minutes," he said.
Joining Mick Cronin's team certainly didn't change his attitude. No lead can be too large and no moment too small to not take out a few lowly scribes in the name of hustle.
"No," he said. "Not being on Mick's team."
This behavior is nothing new for the senior from Cocoa Bearch, Fla. His penchant for blocks and dives, #MeanFace and #SlightlyLessMeanFace, doesn't surprise the masses at home. They only make the crowd cheer louder.
After he sprinted out of the rubble behind press row Wednesday the chant from the student section whipped up one more time.
"Justin Jackson! Justin Jackson!"
All part of a day's work for Mr. Excitement. Perhaps what should elicit chants and cheers more than spiking a basketball off the backboard, should be the efficient post moves he's illustrated through four games this season.
He finished the 81-62 victory with a career high in points (19) and a career low in fouls (1). Only one more rebound would have equaled a double-double. The most impressive number would be his efficiency. Jackson connected on 9 of 12 shots as a key component to the team setting a new Mick Cronin Era record of 63.2 percent shooting.
Jackson used a left-handed baby hook, broke across the lane with the right hand and spun in toward the bucket for two.
Nobody will be drawing comparisons to Karl Malone just yet, but every moment of competence in the post means another step toward developing the inside-out offense that could accelerate this Bearcats team from good to great.
"Like to get to the point we can run a lot of offense through him," Cronin said. "Trust him with the basketball. One of the things I believe in is you can't ask guys to do things they haven't done before. Before we get to a certain point in our season got to get him touches in the post so he can get a comfort level in live action."
When season progresses where the Camels give way to the Cardinals, Jackson's moves won't be met with such little resistance. For now, however, the comfort in his post game offers another offensive option for a team showcasing noticeable improvements in ball movement and shot selection from a year ago.
Even after the best statistical game of Jackson's career, Cronin insisted he should have been better.
"He had a couple lazy plays," Cronin said.
Rarely are Jackson and lazy mentioned in the same sentence, but the entire team drew Cronin's ire in a frustrated postgame session. The talking points stemmed from boxing out to mental lapses to lacking effort.
That's why diving into press row in the middle of a blowout, even if that means jeopardizing health with a win already in the bag will not just be acceptable around here.
"It's expected," Jackson said.
For a guy whose found himself in the front row more than any booster, Jackson also knows what's expected in terms of courtesy. That's why he returned to the court after the game to check on the stage manager he bulldozed into the ground.
"When I fell into the lady and my hand went through the chair (my thumb) got a little jam," he said. "I apologized to her to make sure she was OK."
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In a season besieged by injuries early on, Brendon Kay found a way to not only be one of the most accurate quarterbacks in UC history but in recent history of FBS football.
CINCINNATI - When Brendon Kay finds a rhythm, he knows a run of completions are happening. The tempo moves, the line protects, the passes connect and the ball rarely touches the ground.
Not until the crowd clears and rubber pellets settle after games does the realization of the gaudy numbers strike him.
Though, to refer to these numbers as gaudy, would be a misnomer. The precision of Kay and the passing game - specifically over the last four games - ranks as nearly unparalleled. Not only in UC history, but major college football history.
Over the last four games the UC senior completed 102 of 128 passes for 1,190 yards. That's a completion percentage of 79.7.
For reference, FBS record for completion percentage in a season is 76.8 by Colt McCoy in 2008.
These aren't just dink and dunk numbers boosters. Over this span he's tossed nine touchdowns to three interceptions with a 9.3 average yards per attempt.
How many players this year compiled at least a 9.3 yards per attempt and even better than 70 percent completions? Two. Johnny Manziel (10.5/73) and Teddy Bridgewater (10.2/71).
The importance of these numbers and how they correlate to success on the field certainly not lost on Kay, who spends his time away from the field completing Capstone projects for his Masters in Business Administration.
"Definitely is (a stat that matters)," he said. "That's the way I am evaluated and grade out after games. I'm definitely worried about that. It's always on my mind but at the same time I have to make smart decisions. As long as we are winning that is all that really matters to me. Go out there and win ballgames."
This four-game run accentuates what quietly surfaced as one of the most efficient seasons by a UC quarterback of all time and by any FBS QB in recent years.
On the year he's thrown for 2,008 yards and completed 74 percent of his passes at 8.7 yards per attempt.
Only Kellen Moore in 2011 (74.3 percent) and McCoy in 2008 top his season rate.
The turning point came in the final moments of a loss at South Florida. Opting for a four-wide spread that runs through the eyes and arm of Kay, the offense flourished. Anthony McClung returned healthy to roam the slot along with emerging junior Shaq Washington breaking open on the other side.
Of Kay's 102 completions over the last four weeks, 61 of them have been completed to his dynamic slot receivers.
"You can't double team both of us," said McClung, who battled a hamstring injury early in the season. "It's just overall gameplan. Coach has been calling great plays and Brendon has been throwing great balls."
Consider how much more proficient Kay has been than any other QB in University of Cincinnati history. Looking at only a minimum of 200 passes thrown, the school leader in completion percentage is Zach Collaros at 62.4 percent.
Kay's current career completion percentage is 69.9.
"He usually doesn't force the ball and he is going to get it to the guy that is more open than anybody else," Tommy Tuberville said. "But I'm proud of Brendon, his percentage of completion is outstanding he usually makes all the good reads."
Precision will be necessary if the Bearcats hope to make a push at the American conference title. The next two weeks play to his strength. This weekend Rutgers will boast the No. 11 rushing defense in the country but a passing defense ranked 119 out of 125.
A week later a trip to Houston will mean confronting a defense that ranks 93rd in completion percentage allowed.
The road to setting up a potential showdown with Louisville to challenge conference undefeated UCF rides on the accuracy of Brendon Kay. The Bearcats - or by the numbers almost any team in FBS history - couldn't ask for a better scenario.
The anticipated debut of a highly-regarded freshman class came with the standard nerves as Mick Cronin searches for the best ways to utilize his new toys.
Every season presents a new puzzle for college coaches. Mick Cronin is no different. Only, this year's puzzle comes with three unique freshman pieces. Pieces essential for success. The challenge comes in finding the way Jermaine Lawrence, Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson fit into the Bearcats big picture without truly knowing their shape yet.
One method exists to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and how ready they are to help the 2013-14 edition of the Bearcats: Play them, review tape, repeat.
Hence, the conundrum.
"The key is to get them out there without losing," Cronin said following UC's season-opening 64-51 win against North Carolina Central on Friday.
Easier said than done at times. Nervousness and apprehension on the court come as standard in the freshmen adjustment process as learning where class buildings are located. For these 19-year-olds, pulling the trigger on shots or risky passes came without thought in high school. They were rarely challenged. Cronin fuming with arms crossed didn't await during their free and easy days as the superstar.
When games count and lights flip on inside Fifth Third Arena, the pressure changes.
"There's a great deal of pressure when first coming out," said junior Jermaine Sanders, who scored a career high 13 points Friday. "You have to be ready and focused. I remember being nervous, and not being ready to shoot. Just the adrenaline of the game and the big crowd."
Lawrence, Caupain and Johnson combined for 39 minutes Friday - many of them during tense final stretch as NCC cut a double-digit lead to as little as five. They also combined on 1 of 12 shooting.
Expecting a Dontonio Wingfield debut (30 points, 12 rebounds) would be unrealistic. For Johnson, who grew up dreaming of wearing a Bearcats jersey or Caupain and Lawrence whose high school performance categorizes their debuts as highly anticipated, meshing confidently in an environment filled with seniors and juniors with 60-plus games under their belt will take time.
In Cronin's eyes, all were nervous, all will be fine.
The infusion of these freshmen into the rotation won't happen smoothly in fledgling games of their career, but need to happen fast. North Carolina Central left Friday night, but big brother N.C. State arrives Tuesday in an early impact game on UC's non-conference slate.
Nobody understands the urgency more than senior team leader Sean Kilpatrick, searching for help carrying the offensive load but can only receive assistance from Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker these days via text.
"It's kind of hard to pull them to the senior's levels due to the fact they are new to this," Kilpatrick said. "In order for us to win, we need them to win. There is not a player on this team that we don't need. That's something we actually have to continue to keep working on with these young guys because it's not the exhibition games no more. The running starts now."
Once the rust of the first half chipped away to relaxing, Lawrence found a glimpse of comfort against NCC. After contributing the first freshman points late in the first half he drove with confidence the next play. Thus will be the process in the development. Quality plays grow confidence and another sliver of instinct peels back for all to see.
"When he scored it was a relief because we are not used to seeing that," Kilpatrick said. "When we are able to see when he's not playing like a freshman, playing like an older guy with the rip throughs, that helps us because we need more help on the scoring side."
Caupain tallied 13 minutes in relief of Ge'Lawn Guyn which Cronin dubbed "solid." The coach left happiest with a pull-up jumper he shot in the second half even though it didn't fall, the first show of offensive confidence arrived.
"He's got talent, he's got to play with courage," Cronin said.
Johnson didn't experience such problems. Of the three, he displayed the most confidence. When the Bearcats lead trimmed to single digits late, Johnson caught a pass at the 3-point line and fired off as if a senior on a heat check. For these 19-year-olds feeling the regular season pressure for the first time the moment not being too big for them counts as much as the sound of swish.
Relaxation will develop. Anxiety will fade. For the sake of UC's non-conference success, Cronin hopes sooner rather than later. When it does, these freshmen will be called upon.
"Round here we don't care what grade you are in, that doens't matter," Cronin said."Anybody that's got a jersey, the guys that play the best and give us the most chance to win are going to play the most."
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Quarterback Jordan Luallen emerged as a burst of energy offensively in recent weeks and created a special conclusion to a circuitous college career.
CINCINNATI - Jordan Luallen can easily be spotted on the sideline. Screaming, jumping and trash-talking. Hugging, waving and high-fiving.
His excitement level could only be matched by the mascot, maybe. Coach's attempted to calm him down in the past, but with little effectiveness. Players don't bother.
"I think people try to at first but then realize I am just kind of in my own zone," Luallen said.
After a touchdown run at Memphis Luallen offered a shush to the crowd.
"I don't know what I was thinking," he said. "It just happened."
Luallen's intensity explosion doesn't stem from crushing Five-Hour Energys in the locker room or a last-minute weight-room party pump. Enthusiasm begins the business of affecting the game in any way possible.
"That's just my personality, too," he said. "I want to be very involved in everything. Whether it's me playing or cheering on my teammates I feel a very big part of this team and this program. I put a lot of time and effort into it. Regardless of whether I am going to play or not that's just who I am."
Lately, his sideline persona took on a different feel.
For a player who transferred schools, dropped weight, added weight, evolved as a leader and unselfishly learned five different positions in hopes of an opportunity to help the team win on the field, Luallen treats Saturdays like they have been half a decade of unrecognized labor in the making.
Because that's what they are.
Luallen exited Center Grove High School (Ind.) expecting make an impact as the No. 22 ranked quarterback in the country by ESPN.com. His reputation began with running skills as a quarterback, so he headed to Georgia Tech with their triple-option offense. He'd eventually transfer to UC eventually playing quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, tight end and fullback.
He'd experience brief flashes of opportunity, but for the most part relegated to head cheerleader duty again this year as a tight end/fullback on a spread attack. That is, until the last three weeks.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran inserted a wildcat package into the offense with Luallen at the helm spelling Brendon Kay. Experiment evolved into effectiveness instantaneously. Over the last three games he's rushed 27 times for 151 yards at 5.6 yards per carry. Only Tion Green has rushed for more yards over that span (153).
Luallen also hit 5 of 6 passes for 72 yards. He's contributed a touchdown (one rushing, one passing) in each of the last two games.
"For all the stuff I have gone through, all the position changes, I don't know for everyone else but it means a little bit more to me," Luallen said. "A lot of these guys, some of my teammates, have been able to be successful since Day 1. I've had to work five years to be able to get consistent playing time for three games."
The firebrand off the field assumed the same role on it.
"He's always a spark," linebacker Greg Blair said. "He's always being vocal when we need a spark being a crazy dude on the sideline."
Saturday against SMU Luallen will take the field for Senior Day ceremonies as one of the most under appreciated models of what made Universtiy of Cincinnati football a household name.
The AFCA named Luallen to their 22-member All-Good Works team in September. He was the first Bearcats player to receive the honor. A regular in the community, member of the 2012 Big East All-Academic team and a player whose taken mission trips to Nicaragua and other countries, he's developed a full-circle education beyond football.
You can find Luallen hours before kickoff leading the team prayer at midfield. You'll find him this summer collecting his Masters and - he hopes -- beginning his career as a strength coach. He and his girlfriend even hope to one day adopt a child from Haiti.
There's college athletes who do everything right and then there's Luallen. Only, many role models aren't rewarded with more than a pat on the back and excellence in leadership award. Until three weeks ago Luallen stood in the express lane for the same fate. His time on the field Saturday would end with hugs for his parents following pregame ceremonies.
Instead, Luallen takes on the role of offensive spark in the Bearcats critical final month run toward a possible American title. His path to this moment weaved circuitously and with a pit stop at two schools and five positions but concludes the way he hoped from the beginning: Making plays as a college quarterback.
"It's definitely not anything I expected," Luallen said. "Kind of brought everything full circle, so that has been kind of cool being able to end my career where everything started. It wouldn't feel as good now if I hadn't gone through what I've gone through. Had I done this from the beginning, yeah, it would be cool. But it definitely wouldn't be nearly as satisfying for me to end my football career having some success."
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A run to 6-2 will only be remembered as the appetizer to a meaty four-week main course for the 2013 Bearcats.
CINCINNATI -- Before this season began, little could be predicated about how it would unfurl. New coach, new system, new league, heck, even new turf.
Amid the months of transition and scrambling, one fact could be prognosticated fairly easy. The season would be judged by the month of November.
Non-conference wins against Purdue and Miami were nice for bragging rights and testing who will respond under bright lights. The first four four games of conference play would assure the Bearcats could improve against inferior competition.
The running through the dregs of the new American conference saw the last five games come against teams who currently own a 4-35 record. Only Memphis entered the game with a victory.
Those days are gone.
Beginning Saturday against SMU this final stretch will determine how the 2013 Bearcats are remembered, success or failure. The final four opponents are a combined 22-9 overall and 11-4 in conference.
SMU, Houston, Rutgers and Louisville all hover around the top of the conference standings.
Do the 6-2, 3-1 Bearcats belong alongside them? The record would infer yes, but we really don't know how good the Bearcats are because they've rarely been forced to be.
"I am excited to show the world who we are, what we do," senior Jordan Stepp said. "I feel like the last few weeks we put a few full team games out on the field."
The schedule couldn't break much better for a new year coach installing two new systems and personnel adjusting to them. Eight games in, Tommy Tuberville and his players understand what they do best and learned the hard way twice what they must avoid.
Finding a way to motivate players through a 4-35 proves a challenge. Tuberville can't hide the standings. He can't hide the ESPN bottom line. Kids know the deal, they research the scores. Yet, even a team whose struggled can pull an upset if the energy level doesn't match.
Just ask USF.
"It's going to be tougher," Tuberville said. "I told our team we can't play like we have been playing. We shoot ourselves in the foot we won't win a game the week we do that."
Not against these offenses. Sure, the Bearcats are ranked as the No. 4 defense in the country right now. Those stats can't be argued, but placed against perspective of competition lack bite. Keep in mind, there are only 125 teams in the FBS.
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Three of the final four opponents rank in the Top 25 of national offenses. If the Bearcats defense wants to be recognized as one of the premier groups in the country, the time has come to prove it.
"We always come with that mentality we have to showcase we are the best defense in the nation regardless of what we are ranked," Blair said. "That's why I say that we always have something to prove until we are the No. 1 defense in the nation."
The beauty of this setup, all UC wants is within reach. Conference title, defining win, BCS bowl - a clean sweep of the final four games could likely deliver all three. They'd need only a single loss by UCF to share the title. The Knights still have Houston and SMU on the schedule.
Of course, it would mean a sweep of arguably four of the five best teams in the conference. Turning this closing run into a defining one will assure nobody claims the Bearcats didn't earn the position.
The schedule layout allowed Cincinnati to fade as a forgotten team in this title race, an unfamiliar role for a program who at least shared four of the last five conference titles. All the injuries, upsets and transitions are in the past now.
Time for this season to be judged.
"It's how you finish," Stepp said. "It's one of the strong suits of not only this football team but the players, the teams of the past. It's kind of in our DNA."
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Kenyon Martin was inducted into the UC Hall of Fame Monday. He not only defined an era, but in his induction defines the way Bearcats fans should treat it.
CINCINNATI -- What was the memory for you?
The turnaround jump shot?
The triple-double with 13 blocks against Memphis? Tossing the Bearcats on his back down 10 under four minutes against DePaul?
The absurd 3.5 blocks per game his senior season?
Was it the injury? Witnessing the evolution of a superstar?
Being named consensus National Player of the Year? Selection atop the NBA Draft?
Was it the style?
Was it the shimmy?
Depending on age, appreciation and seat location the specific memory from fan to fan differs dramatically.
For those die-hards who still line the front rows of Fifth Third Arena and refer to it as The Shoe, remembering particular portions of Kenyon Martin fade into a grander picture.
Kenyon Martin more than defined a team, a personality of Bearcats basketball. He defined the Bob Huggins Era. From Corie Blount to Danny Fortson, Bobby Brannen to Pete Mickeal, Steve Logan to Jason Maxiell, many players typified the attitude embodied over a span of 14 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
All follow in line behind Martin.
His rise from raw to revered over a four-year span illustrated the brilliance, effectiveness of hard work and Huggins philosophy. Martin fittingly for those clubs made his name on defense and did so better than any to wear red and black. Despite the anchor of Conference USA, Martin belonged second to none on the national landscape, exactly like the UC program in those days.
"For me to come from where I was my freshman year to being able to develop my game into becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA is a great honor to the work Coach Huggins put into me and the time that he stayed on me academically and athletically," Martin said. "I didn't have a father figure so without him none of this would be possible."
His senior year tournament run tragically never came, but his place as the face of Huggins brand of Cincinnati basketball remains cemented for ever. His induction into the UC Hall of Fame Monday night assured as much.
A deeper reality follows his return to campus and physical re-connection with the university and basketball program, though.
Kenyon not only defined the Huggins Era, but now in his induction defines the way Bearcats fans should treat it.
Too often a line in the sand had been drawn between those days and today's Bearcats. Fans, coaches, boosters, administration needed to take sides and separate the two. Or just separate from it.
That's what Kenyon did. He picked sides and made disparaging remarks about the school in frustration of the dissolution of a brand he represented. That was then, this is now.
"Things (with the university) over the years have been a little rocky," Martin said at his induction. "I made some statements a few years ago that I couldn't take back, but at the time that's how I felt. But I'm still a Bearcat at heart. Thanks for this honor and this is not the last you will see of me."
Everyone made remarks they couldn't take back in the years since. All felt the need to take a stand in their direction of choice.
But here stands Kenyon Martin, back for the first time since 2000, in the middle of a circle of players wearing the C-Paw holding the same aspirations he once did as a lanky, unsure center from Dallas, Texas in 1997.
To deny the ascension of UC basketball under Mick Cronin - the man who helped bring Martin to Cincinnati - would mean living in a past nobody worries about anymore. Not Huggins, who proudly looked on at Martin's ceremony Monday. Not Martin, who admits he's always watching and will always be a Bearcat.
So should all UC fans who stood at Martin's Senior Day and picked up their jaws after every block Martin snatched out of the air like a rebound.
Perhaps asserting Martin's return and induction connects two eras and officially buries any old dissension could be considered overly philosophical and unnecessary. Maybe. The amped atmospheres at Fifth Third the last few years of conference play and success in the NCAA tournament insist as much. Probably.
But the man who stood as the symbol of all considered great about the Huggins Era should stand now as a symbol of all that is great about this one. And the need to embrace it.
Connecting tradition with a blossoming future like Martin did Monday sets an example. One that could allow a new set of signature moments for fans to choose from.
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Sean Kilpatrick spent his summer playing for Team USA at the World University Games, but returned with much more than just a free trip to Kazan, Russia.
CINCINNATI -- Some realities can't be taught in Cincinnati.
On campus Sean Kilpatrick stops for fans saying hello and thank you for returning for one more year. In practice, he plays the role of leader amidst a team ballooning with following underclassmen. In games this past year, he fought double and triple teams by players unfit for one-on-one.
In Kazan, Russia, however, Kilpatrick dribbled a basketball amid a sprawling landscape of great basketball players. There, at the World University Games, he was just another guy. One of hundreds, thousands.
Some realities can only be taught in Russia.
Kilpatrick may be the big man on campus but in a worldwide snapshot of basketball he desires to infiltrate, he's far from where he needs to be. Opening a senior season leading the Bearcats on Saturday, he takes the reins with a newly acquired perspective only sold overseas.
"It really humbled me a lot more," Kilpatrick said. "Due to the fact I know where my game can take me, but also I have a lot more to learn. Being here with coach knowing I'm one of the leaders now on this team, that is a huge step for me. Now I'm just really ready to take what I learned with Team USA and bring it back to the UC Bearcats."
Lessons began with poise and patience. Playing among so many talented players Kilpatrick took away recognition forcing the offensive fire in any game will only rack up missed shots and contested jumpers. Allowing the game to flow to him and involve everyone else becomes more important than how many 3-pointers he can hoist.
Kilpatrick now claims close friendships with players like Doug McDemott of Creighton, who ousted his Bearcats in last year's NCAA tournament, as well Spencer Dinwiddie, of Colorado. Those along with nine more of the country's best made the trek to Russia for the WUG. Only, the collection of Team USA players ended up finishing fifth.
Aspirations for a professional career only need one trip through all those potential competitors for jobs to know how far Kilpatrick needs to develop.
"I tell our guys all the time it's a hard sport to be a professional in because they play our game all over the world and it's competitive," Mick Cronin said. "And his team found that out finishing fifth. You got guys all over the world that aren't in the NBA, it was a bit of an eye-opener for him."
Nobody needs to tell Sean Kilpatrick to work harder. His first-team All-Conference reputation was built as an under-recruited player who outworked everyone to ascend to among the 12 best players capable of representing this country overseas.
Cronin will need to ease his star into practice, fighting his primary concern that SK would wear down having played so many extra games. There may be the occassional practice he rides the bike or substitues as an assistant coach.
Just don't expect Kilpatrick to sit quietly. He works. It's what he does.
He wasted little time putting his lessons to work and starting the journey toward the next level and what he hopes will be hearing his name called next June.
"It really taught me a lot of things that I am able to play with other great players and really stand out with my game," Kilpatrick said. "There was a couple of things in my game that I had to work on. During the summer after Team USA I came and worked on it. Everything is starting to come together."
Starting Saturday, he hopes his experience pays off in the season coming for Team UC. Anyone expecting Kilpatrick to take the floor with a big head won't find one.
"There's great players all over the world," Cronin said. "As good as he is, he's learned he's got to get better."
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