Bearcats, Broncos rise as others fall
BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- The buses were loaded and waiting outside Doyt Perry Stadium on Saturday night, but there was one man missing.
Before the Boise State Broncos could depart after their 49-14 demolition of Bowling Green, they had to wait on team physician George Wade. He was standing at an ice cream truck that had rolled through the tailgate area with its cheesy music tinkling in the mild Midwestern air. The siren song lured Wade like an overgrown kid; he bought his postgame dessert and hustled to the bus, and seconds later Boise was gone.
Less than 50 feet away at that very time, the Broncos were getting the real cherry atop their September sundae. On a flat-screen TV outside a Bowling Green fan's RV, Iowa was finishing off No. 5-ranked Penn State. The Nittany Lions were the last of four top-10 teams to lose this past weekend, as this 2009 season spins even further off script.
Fourth-ranked Mississippi lost to unranked South Carolina on Thursday. Then sixth-ranked California was humiliated by unranked Oregon on Saturday afternoon. Simultaneously, ninth-ranked Miami was being blown out at Virginia Tech. The Nittany Lions completed the carnage as No. 8 Boise was disappearing into the night.
By sheer attrition, Boise State will keep rising in the rankings for another week.
At the other end of the same state, No. 14 Cincinnati was doing the same thing Saturday -- minus the ice cream. Specifically, the Bearcats were taking care of business while those around them blew up.
Seven hours earlier, Cincinnati beat Fresno State 28-20 to go 4-0, clearing the way for another significant move up the rankings and intensifying talk that a relative outsider has a puncher's chance at a national title in the most exclusionary of sports.
On this final Saturday of the season's first month, Ohio was the place to be to see stealth candidates for a title. Why watch just one when, with a little hustle, you can see two?
So I did.
First stop was the state's southern tip to see Cincinnati, representing the disrespected Big East. Then I was off to the north to watch Boise State, kingpin of the disregarded Western Athletic Conference.
Between them, 180 miles of cornfields and Interstate 75.
And after this past Saturday, less and less between them and the highest echelon of the Top 25.
Are you ready, America? Because as long as Cincy and Boise are winning while so many others are losing, the debate will be raging about their Bowl Championship Series worthiness.
Cincinnati wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, a loquacious burner with shells in his braided hair, gave me his take on what the nation thinks of the Bearcats: "They are a nice team, but not powerful enough to compete with those SEC schools, Big Ten schools, Big 12 schools, Pac-10 schools. That cloud has been over us. But that cloud is starting to clear up. The sunlight is starting to shine on our team."
Same could be said for Boise State, which long ago gained respect but has never been this highly ranked in the regular season.
The two teams have much in common: lightning-strike offenses, brilliantly creative coaches, stellar quarterbacks, explosive skill-position players, and a body of work that demands attention as other teams wobble and fall. They made their mark the opening week with emphatic victories on national television and have done nothing since then to lose ground.
Check this week's Sagarin ELO-CHESS ratings, one of the computer components of the BCS formula. Boise is No. 2. Cincinnati is No. 13. Both stand a good chance of being favored in every remaining game.
Yet while the excitement grows around them, the players on both teams try to remain grounded. Or at least try to sound grounded.
"We've got to go inch by inch," Gilyard said. "Every game is that national championship game. Every game is that BCS bowl game. Every game is that Big East championship for us. As long as we stay humble and close to the ground, and don't go floating up to that hype, we'll be OK."
Said Boise sophomore receiver Tyler Shoemaker: "You hear about [the BCS buzz] and think about it, but you try not to let it consume anything. ... That's kind of the Bronco way."
On paper, Boise is a year away -- the Broncos are among the youngest teams in the country. And on paper, Cincinnati is light-years away after replacing 10 defensive starters from last year's Orange Bowl team.
On grass (real or plastic), they're right here, right now.
The Bearcats are benefiting from the Big East's respectable start. The league has gone 5-6 against fellow big-six conferences, with eight of those 11 games on the road. And it didn't take Cincy long to establish itself at the head of the Big East class.
The Bearcats crushed Rutgers on the road to open the season, then backed that up with a credibility-enhancing victory at Oregon State on Sept. 19. That was followed by an oddly intriguing home win over Fresno State on Saturday, in which Cincy had the football for just 16 minutes, ran half as many plays as the Bulldogs and was outrushed by 233 yards -- yet never trailed.
None of Cincinnati's scoring drives covered fewer than 71 yards, but none lasted even three minutes. Quarterback Tony Pike, directing the Bearcats' no-huddle spread offense with aplomb, disemboweled Fresno's secondary so rapidly that the Cincy defense barely had time to catch its breath.
Then the Bearcats would rope-a-dope against the powerful Fresno running game, led by the nation's No. 1 rusher, Ryan Mathews. Cincy repeatedly failed to get off the field on third down but refused to give up big plays.
That was in large part because coach Brian Kelly clung to a conservative game plan with his mix-and-match defense. One of Cincy's starting cornerbacks Saturday was wide receiver Marcus Barnett, one of the many creative ways Kelly has plugged holes on that side of the ball. Because of inexperience at corner, the Bearcats played Cover 2 all day to provide safety help, thus limiting the number of players they could push into the box to confront the Fresno running attack.
"We are really banged up at the back end of our defense," Kelly said. "We played equal numbers in the box. I knew it was going to be a grind. ... Every time we touched the ball, we knew we would have to do something because there wasn't much margin of error."
Barnett is one of six former offensive players who have seen time on defense this season. That includes both starting outside linebackers: Demetrius Jones, who in 2007 started the season-opener at quarterback at Notre Dame, and Craig Carey.
It was Carey who made the play of the day, dropping into coverage when he was supposed to blitz and intercepting a Fresno pass on fourth-and-1 from the Cincinnati 5. Credit the former quarterback for reading the fullback's body language and anticipating a pass into the flat.
"I looked the quarterback in the eyes and he just threw it to me," Carey said.
This is the Bearcats way. They're now a plus-seven in turnovers this season and a plus-14 during Kelly's 32-game tenure.
"We had to find a way to take one away," Kelly said.
Cincinnati fans are justifiably concerned that someone will try to take Kelly away after this season. That's one reason the school is pushing hard for facility upgrades, though in these economic times the progress might be too late to prevent poaching by a program with all the trappings (Notre Dame springs immediately to mind, should Charlie Weis falter).
Those concerns are fewer at Boise State, despite the excellence of coach Chris Petersen. He's watched his two predecessors leave Boise for misery, with Dirk Koetter being fired at Arizona State and Dan Hawkins under pressure in his fourth year at Colorado.
So Petersen seems content to churn out winners in Idaho, improving his head coaching record to a silly 39-4. The biggest of those 39 was the epic 2007 Fiesta Bowl, of course, but starting this season by dominating Oregon might be the second biggest.
Certainly, that victory has only grown in stature with each passing week as the Ducks regroup. Their 42-3 mauling of California on Saturday was as much a victory for Boise's prestige as it was for Oregon's.
Problem is, there won't be much left for the Broncos to hang their hat on the rest of the way. None of their remaining nine opponents currently ranks in the Sagarin top 60.
But good luck getting them to talk about the big picture.
"What is it, Week 4 or something?" asked quarterback Kellen Moore, when the inevitable BCS questions came up. "Lot of work to do."
Said Petersen: "We're just trying to get through these games. Our goal is not to win every game. If that's the focus, we're not going to be our best."
Whatever Boise's current focus is, it's working. The Broncos faced another in a growing string of packed stadiums and psyched opponents Saturday at Bowling Green and barely blinked.
After a scoreless first quarter, Boise blew up for 22 points in 2½ minutes. Moore said the Broncos put in 30 to 40 new personnel groups and formations for every game, and they unleashed the bag of tricks in that span.
They hit bewildered Bowling Green with a barrage of big plays, going for 18 yards, 28, 16, 34 and 25 on their first five snaps of the quarter. In fact, none of Boise's first six scoring drives took more than four plays.
"That's what they do," said an admiring Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson. "If you go back and look at what Boise has done, when they have 500 yards of offense, it'll always be 10-12 plays where they get half their yards.
"They're fundamentally sound with everything they do. They formation you to death. They have tremendous skill players, an accurate quarterback, a big target at wideout and a burner, and an excellent collection of fullbacks and tight ends that allow them to be so multiple."
Basically, they have everything you need to score 100 points in successive road games. And to win their remaining games by about a thousand points.
That's why everyone around the Broncos -- and the Bearcats -- is thinking big these days. While the rest of the college football hierarchy was besieged by upheaval, their successful Saturday in Ohio fueled dreams of just desserts in January.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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