West Virginia-Cincinnati Preview
By MATT BEARDMORE
(AP) -- Cincinnati coach Butch Jones is proud of how his first-place team has been able to deliver three consecutive comeback wins.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen knows his squad will have to improve in the final 30 minutes if it's going to stay in the hunt for the Big East title.
The 23rd-ranked Bearcats continue their push for the league's BCS berth Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium, where they'll try to extend their longest winning streak in two seasons to seven.
Trailing by at least nine points in the second half of all of its league games, Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0) has finished strong each time thanks to what Jones calls the team's ability to "snap and clear."
"You play one snap and you remove it from your mind," Jones said Saturday after the Bearcats rallied from 10 down late in the third quarter to win 26-23 at Pittsburgh. "You don't look up to the scoreboard until the end. Our team has tremendous confidence in each other and belief."
Cincinnati, which finished the regular season 12-0 two years ago before going 4-8 in 2010, began league play by outscoring Louisville and South Florida by a combined 45-24 in the second half.
"There's not a whole lot of quit in (Cincinnati)," said Holgorsen, whose team lost 38-35 to Louisville on Saturday - West Virginia's second defeat in three games after a 5-1 start.
"We were tied at halftime (against the Cardinals), and it looked to me in the locker room like we were losing. That's being addressed this week."
The Mountaineers (6-3, 2-2) also need to improve their special teams play after Tyler Bitancurt missed one short field goal attempt and had another blocked in the fourth quarter that was returned 82 yards for a score.
"Not a very hard one to figure out," Holgorsen said. "You lose the turnover battle, you go 0-for-2 on field goals, that gets you beat."
Geno Smith continues to put up big numbers - he threw for 410 yards with three TDs Saturday - and the Mountaineers' offense ranks among the nation's best in scoring (13th with 38.2 points per game) and yards (12th with 487.8). But West Virginia has been outscored 45-28 in the second half of its last two losses.
The Mountaineers went scoreless in the third quarter for the first time this season against Louisville.
"We're definitely not doing what it takes to win," said Smith, the league's offensive player of the week.
West Virginia will have to do a better job protecting its junior quarterback, who has been sacked nine times in the last three games.
The Bearcats have 23 sacks during their winning streak and are eighth in the FBS in that category with 3.13 per game. Cincinnati's defense also has 10 of its 12 interceptions in the last six contests.
Quarterback Zach Collaros - who was picked off twice and sacked five times in a 37-10 loss in Morgantown last season - has eight INTs in his last five games, but he's rushed for two scores in each of the last two and eight total since a 45-23 loss at Tennessee on Sept. 10.
The Mountaineers, who have surrendered seven rushing TDs and 150.0 yards per game on the ground in their last three contests, will also need to slow down senior Isaiah Pead, whose 6.0 yards per carry is second in the Big East to West Virginia's Dustin Garrison (6.1).
The Mountaineer freshman, though, will face the Bearcats' fifth-ranked rushing defense, which has yielded 61.2 yards per game - 24.8 fewer than its season average - in the last five contests.
The Mountaineers rushed for 245 yards and Smith equaled a career high by throwing four TD passes - all in the first half - in last season's matchup as West Virginia improved to 15-3-1 all-time versus Cincinnati.
The Bearcats had won the previous two against the Mountaineers by a combined six points.
Updated November 8, 2011