Dec. 19, 2008
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) - Nobody can top Cincinnati's quarterbacks when it comes to collecting the hardware. And we're not talking trophies.
Senior Dustin Grutza has two screws bored into his lower right leg. Junior Tony Pike has a plate and six screws securing his broken left forearm. Both have surgical scars that make the 12th-ranked Bearcats' ascent all the more remarkable.
The Bearcats (11-2) won their first Big East title and a berth in the Orange Bowl despite having their top two quarterbacks go through surgery during the season. They've had a lot of uncertainty at the most important position since the weeks leading up to the opener.
They've won in spite of it.
"It is pretty amazing what this team has been able to do even though both of us have gone down at different periods," Grutza said. "I think it shows how good of a team we are, how everybody comes together through adversity and wins."
Since preseason camp, it's been nonstop commotion at the key spot in Cincinnati's no-huddle, spread offense, one that puts a premium on experience and continuity. The Bearcats weren't sure whether Ben Mauk, who ran the offense so smoothly last season, would be back for another year. His appeals for another season of eligibility were still winding their way through the NCAA when camp began.
Mauk lost his appeals and a court case, leaving the job to Grutza. He held it for less than two games.
During a 52-26 loss at Oklahoma, Grutza broke the lower part of his right fibula and severely sprained his ankle when he was sacked. Pike took over while Grutza spent a lot of time getting the injury treated in hopes he could be back before the end of the season.
Two games later, Grutza had company in the trainer's room.
Pike broke his non-passing forearm when he was hit while throwing a pass. The Bearcats' only experienced quarterbacks were now spending their time comparing scars and doctor stories.
"We were just there for each other," Grutza said. "We're good friends. So we talk about it and discuss things. We were always in the rehab room together, trying to build each other up. We tried to make the best of it and have fun, but it was tough knowing we were both hurt and knowing the situation the team had been put in. But I enjoyed being there with this guy."
It's not an act.
The two of them stood side-by-side for an interview after a practice this week, small pellets of ice tapping the tops of their heads on a wintery afternoon. Grutza is stockier at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds; Pike has lanky limbs and towers over him at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds. Their friendship is readily apparent in how they defer to one another, hoping not to hog the spotlight.
"We balance each other out," Pike said. "At summer camp, Dustin was named the starter and that was great because you see what he does for the team. When he goes down, for him to still be there and show his face around here and support everybody meant a lot."
A pair of redshirt freshmen ran a severely scaled-back offense for two-plus games, keeping the Bearcats winning. Pike returned after missing only two games, but his left hand went numb at halftime of a game against Connecticut on Oct. 30. The Bearcats had to scramble and wound up losing a lead and the game 40-16.
They haven't lost since.
Pike's arm got better week by week. So did Grutza's leg. When Pike got knocked out of a game against Louisville by a hard hit on Nov. 14, Grutza went in and led the winning touchdown drive. With a metal plate and eight screws holding the two of them together, the duo has helped Cincinnati run off six straight wins.
It's unclear whether both of them will play in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech (9-4) on New Year's Day.
"We'll continue to work both of them," coach Brian Kelly said. "They'll get a lot of work, but I really haven't made that decision yet."
Kelly and his coaching staff had a lot to do with pulling the Bearcats through the turmoil. Kelly blames himself for the loss at UConn, when the Bearcats led 13-10 at halftime but Pike's hand went numb, forcing freshman Chazz Anderson into the game unexpectedly. Running a game plan set up for Pike, the freshman threw two interceptions in the second half, helping UConn pull away.
"We had set our game plan for Tony," Kelly said. "I did not do a good enough job of shifting our game plan to Chazz when he went in for the second half."
Kelly learned from the mistake, preparing different game plans as contingencies for future games. From that point on, the offense was fine no matter who was running it.
"Our coaches have been able to adapt to each player's strengths and if there are any weaknesses, they hide them," Pike said.
The strategy has worked, allowing a team with battered quarterbacks to reach its first BCS bowl.
"It is remarkable," Pike said.