When Butch Jones arrived at Cincinnati in 2010, the Bearcats had reached four consecutive bowl games, won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons and won back-to-back Big East titles.
Former coaches Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly had put the program on an upward trajectory. Jones took over a team in 2010 expected to at least contend in the Big East. Instead, the Bearcats finished 4-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big East.
During the season, Jones referred repeatedly to building a foundation for the program. For a team that had risen from Conference USA to Big East champions, the statements seemed puzzling. But whatever Jones has done this season, it has worked: Cincinnati leads the Big East at 3-0 and is 7-1 overall.
"When people hear the term that 'you're laying a foundation,' I think it's a negative connotation," Jones said. "I think there's something to be said for laying a foundation."
Cincinnati has much of the same personnel as it did last season, including quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and most of the defense. The results, though, have been different.
Last season, the Bearcats lost five of their last six games, including four by double figures. The "foundation" Jones has laid at Cincinnati apparently includes more mental toughness.
Cincinnati has yet to play a Big East game at its Nippert Stadium. That continues this week when the Bearcats face West Virginia at the Cincinnati Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati hasn't played at Nippert since a Sept. 22 win over N.C. State and won't play there again until the Dec. 3 regular-season finale against Connecticut. The span has included six road games and two games at Paul Brown.
The Bearcats also have needed three second-half comebacks in Big East play. Cincinnati trailed by nine in the third quarter against Louisville but won 25-16. The Bearcats trailed by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter in road games against USF and Pittsburgh. No problem. Cincinnati defeated USF 37-34 and Pitt 26-23.
"The thing I like about our football team is the way we've handled our business - snap and clear," Jones said. "It's a mindset of 'just keep playing.' "
Best matchup: West Virginia QB Geno Smith vs. Cincinnati's pass defense. West Virginia's passing attack is the best thing going for the Mountaineers right now - and arguably the only thing going for them right now. Cincinnati's defense hasn't been as effective against the pass as it has against the run. The Bearcats rank seventh in the Big East in pass efficiency defense, but they have intercepted 12 passes this year. Helping Cincinnati's pass defense will be DT Derek Wolfe (seven sacks) against a vulnerable WVU offensive line.
Players on the spot: West Virginia's front six. The Mountaineers are continuing to look for answers on defense. Najee Goode has been the Mountaineers' most consistent linebacker, but he's needed to play every linebacker position this season. Bruce Irvin, the nation's returning leader in sacks after last season, moved from starting end back to his pass-rush specialist role in the past four games, and has 3.5 sacks since the move. WVU faces a tough test this week. Cincinnati TB Isaiah Pead and QB Zach Collaros have rushed for a combined 1,066 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Keep an eye on: Rutgers' backfield. The Scarlet Knights have some sort of development in their quarterback/running back rotation seemingly every week. At quarterback, coach Greg Schiano is going back to sophomore Chas Dodd, who started the first four games of the season. Dodd entered the game against USF last week and presided over the fourth-quarter comeback. Rutgers' struggling rushing attack took when freshman Savon Huggins suffered a knee injury against the Bulls. WR Jeremy Deering, who has rushed for 68 yards on 22 carries this season, could see more action at tailback.
Numbers game: USF has been outscored 81-38 in the second half and overtime of its four Big East losses. USF led in the fourth quarter against Rutgers and Cincinnati and in the third quarter against Connecticut but is 0-4 in the Big East. It is the first four-game losing streak in program history.
Quotes of the week
"I don't know that I've ever been this close and this frustrated because we're close, but we haven't be able to close the door. There's not a secret pep talk you can give them or juice or a pill, and now we're going to do all the little things the right way." - USF coach Skip Holtz
"We know we rode that emotional win at Kentucky, as much as we tried not to, and let it get to our heads too much. I think you can already see the demeanor on our team. We're focused and able to put that win behind us. It was a great win for the team and for the program, but the season goes on. I think everybody is coming out ready to work this week." - Louisville DE Greg Scruggs, to CardinalSports.com
"I wish it were a stroke of genius. It was really out of necessity. We didn't feel we had a guy who could play [the position]. We knew an undersized guy could go in there and do a good job. We had Eric Foster here a couple of years ago. Eric Foster wasn't the biggest guy in the world, but he sure was successful. We thought J-Fran had the same qualities." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, on moving Justin Francis from end to tackle. Francis leads Rutgers in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (6.5)
"Everybody needs to be in it together. We may go to Cincinnati with 55 guys, I don't know. But the 55 guys are going that want to play together and want to win together." - West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen
Poll watch: Cincinnati is the Big East's only ranked team in any poll, checking in at No. 23 in the BCS standings. The Bearcats are 18th in the coaches' poll, 22nd in the Harris Interactive poll and at an average of 24th in the computer rankings. West Virginia, ranked 24th in the BCS last week, dropped out after its loss to Louisville.
Etc.: USF RB Darrell Scott is day to day with a wrist injury and concussion-like symptoms. Connecticut made extensive use of backup QB Scott McCummings in the second-half comeback against Syracuse. McCummings had season-highs with 13 carries, 59 yards and two touchdowns. Connecticut coach Paul Pasqualoni says McCummings will continue to be a specialist. Syracuse DE Chandler Jones has four sacks and 17 tackles in the three games since returning from injury. Rutgers leads the nation in red zone defense, with opponents scoring on just 64.3 percent of red zone opportunities. Opponents have scored 13 touchdowns and five field goals on 28 trips inside the red zone against Rutgers. Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene's 17 tackles last week against USF was the most for a Big East player this season. Louisville has allowed one first-quarter touchdown in the past five games. Connecticut RB Lyle McCombs has rushed for at least 124 yards in each of the past three games. His third-quarter touchdown against Syracuse was his first since he scored four touchdowns in the opener against Fordham. Pitt DE Aaron Donald leads the Big East with seven sacks, but he has started only one game this season. Two Big East teams are playing at non-college venues this week, with Cincinnati playing at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium and Rutgers facing Army at Yankee Stadium.