Feb. 16, 2009
By Josh Katzowitz
Tony Pike sat on a chair in the losing locker room, trying to keep himself together. His lips would tremble for a second, and his eyes would water. His nose already had turned red. He was emotional, but he was trying not to crack.
He didn't know this, but a golf cart was waiting to transport him from the UC locker room to the Orange Bowl news conference so he could speak about why the Bearcats had lost to Virginia Tech, 20-7.
Over and over, he was asked the same questions: Why did he throw four interceptions? Why was the offense so overmatched against the Hokies? Why were the Virginia Tech defensive backs so successful? What in the heck happened?
"Where's Pike?" somebody asked after the five other requested Bearcats had slipped out of the locker room and had begun their journey to meet the press.
"Huh?" he said, immediately rose, composed himself and prepared to walk into a maze of questions.
Pike, you see, was what the Bearcats needed him to be this year. They needed a quarterback to step into the void created by Dustin Grutza's broken leg, and he was there. They needed somebody to play with a broken arm, and he was there. They needed a team spokesman, and he answered the call each time.
Even later, after his interrogation had ceased, he gave more of his time.
"Um, Tony," a reporter said as his camera crew approached Pike at his locker, "Can we have a second of your time? I know you've already answered these questions."
"It's no problem," he said.
If a reporter needed an extra second, Pike was willing to help out. If anybody needed anything, Pike was going to try to make it happen.
Four months earlier, he wasn't going to be the quarterback who made the Bearcats go. It was either going to be Ben Mauk, if the NCAA only would give him that sixth year of eligibility, or Grutza, who had started the first two seasons of his career and was hungry to reclaim that position in his final year at UC.
Pike was tall and had a good arm. He just had failed to impress. That's why Bearcats coach Brian Kelly
told him he needed to accomplish one of two things that fall: start playing like his scholarship depended on it, or finish his studies and prepare to graduate from the football team.
"During the first week of camp, he really said he wanted to give Zach (Collaros), Demetrius (Jones) and Chazz (Anderson) a chance," Pike said earlier this year. "He wanted to see what they had and would give them some reps. He said coming into the next week, I was going to have my chance, and basically, it was now or never. Going into my senior year if I'm on the same level as two sophomores, you almost want to lean toward the two sophomores. That was really a wake-up call."
He never went back to sleep, and much like Mauk the season before, Pike's play at quarterback helped kick-start the Bearcats into the unprecedented. Mauk, in 2007, led them to only the second 10-win season in UC history. Pike this year led them to a BCS bowl game.
More than any one person, Pike's return to the team next year for his senior season will provide UC stability and confidence. After the loss to Virginia Tech, though, he was having a tough time seeing through the fog of a defeat into the optimism that a next season always brings.
"I have a year coming back, but it's hard seeing guys you've known for four years and not sending them off the way they should be for all they've done," Pike said. "That's the hardest part. It's going to be tough to lose them, but they've shown us how to get here, and that's the work we have to do in the offseason."
For the first time in a few seasons, there won't be a question as to who the starting quarterback will be going into fall camp next year, but Pike doesn't plan to slack. He said he will work even harder to keep the job.
The Bearcats mostly will be solid on offense as well. Although Dominick Goodman, the school's career leader in touchdown catches and receiving yards, graduates, Mardy Gilyard, Marcus Barnett, Charley Howard and a host of young receivers will return. The offensive line loses two important starters, Trevor Canfield and Khalil El-Amin, but a new breed of linemen who are better suited for this high-tempo offense will begin to get more playing time.
The running back corps, including impressive freshman Isaiah Pead, doesn't lose anybody to graduation, and John Goebel said he understands the need for the backfield to improve its ability to gain yards and keep the pressure off Pike.
"We're all coming back next year," Goebel said. "Jake (Ramsey) is going to be a senior, Pead got a lot more work this year as a freshman and a lot of the freshmen that got redshirted are very good, too."
The Bearcat defense, though, will undergo wholesale changes. That doesn't mean UC fans should panic. Yes, 10 of the team's 11 starters will graduate, but remember, four of them weren't really contributors the year before. Defensive end Connor Barwin was a tight end in 2007, defensive end Lamonte Nelms saw limited playing time, safety Brandon Underwood sat out the '07 season after transferring from Ohio State, and linebacker Torry Cornett performed mostly on special teams.
Who's to say next year's starters can't succeed in the same way?
"I feel like we can be anything we want to be," said middle linebacker Andre Revels, who will enter his senior season next year. "We're not the only team in America that's losing seniors. We need to come in during the offseason, start winter workouts, work our butts off and get back to the promised land."
While the Bearcats lose their entire defensive front, a few underclassmen -- such as Alex Daniels, Ricardo Matthews and Curtis Young -- earned significant playing time. Nelms also was impressed with a redshirt freshman.
"We have a lot of guys coming up, like John Hughes," Nelms said. "We've got two defensive ends that are ready to go in, like Curtis Young; he's an amazing football player. If you watch anybody, watch Curtis Young. Everybody under us has learned from what we've been through. They'll be just fine."
The secondary will be hit hard as well. DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens will be gone, but that just leaves room for sophomore Drew Frey and true freshman Dominique Battle to try to make an impact.
"It's going to be a great future," Mickens said. "These young guys behind us, they can play ball, too. They just had a lot of seniors in front of them. You'll see it next year. They're going to fly around. They're not going to miss a beat."
Kelly hopes the rest of the team feels the same way. Although he was disappointed by the loss to the Hokies, he says the foundation the Bearcats have built in the past two years remains strong. One loss on the national stage doesn't change that.
"A loss is a loss. It stinks. It's lousy," Kelly said. "Does the foundation crack in our program? No. Does the expectation change? Absolutely not. So from a big-picture standpoint, the things that we want for this program are in place. We're on a journey; we're not there yet. But if you keep knocking on that door, if you keep putting yourself in that position, we'll finish the deal."
(This story was previously printed in the Bearcat Sports Digest.)