CINCINNATI -- Broken arm and all, Tony Pike led No. 19 Cincinnati to a place it's never been.
Fans stormed the field prematurely -- understandable, since they have such little practice at it in Cincinnati -- after Pike threw three touchdown passes Saturday night in a 28-21 victory over 20th-ranked Pittsburgh that left the Bearcats in control of the Big East.
With a win at home next Saturday over Syracuse, the Bearcats (9-2, 5-1) would clinch their first Big East football title. Their fans are already celebrating.
"You saw it," said defensive end Connor Barwin, who had three of Cincinnati's season-high seven sacks. "It was crazy. I was surrounded by fans asking to take my picture, shaking my hand. I couldn't get back to the locker room."
More than anyone, Pike was responsible for the bedlam.
He led the Bearcats to the pinnacle of a season in which they went through four quarterbacks because of injury. For Pike, a junior playing with a broken left (non-passing) forearm, it was the best yet.
He matched his career high for touchdown passes and ran Cincinnati's no-huddle, spread offense almost flawlessly against the conference's best road team. Pike completed a career-high 26 passes in 32 attempts for 309 yards, and ran several draw plays that exposed his arm to hits.
"It definitely felt smooth out there tonight," Pike said. "We had a game plan for anything they were going to throw at us."
It worked because Pike pulled it off with impressive calm for such a big game.
"We could not make a play on that quarterback," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He was incredible. I give him credit. We couldn't get him down, and not just running. He made some great throws."
His steadiness put Cincinnati in position to clinch a BCS bowl appearance with a victory next Saturday over 3-8 Syracuse, which will be coming off its 24-23 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.
Down by 21 points, Pittsburgh (7-3, 3-2) made a late comeback that came up short, wasting a chance to scramble the conference race. The Panthers had won their four previous road games with the league's highest-scoring offense and a middle-of-the-road defense.
This time, the combination didn't work.
Bill Stull's 41-yard touchdown pass to Dorin Dickerson cut it to 28-21 with 1:22 to go, but Cincinnati recovered the onside kick and ran the clock down to 18 seconds before turning it over on downs at the 32-yard line. Fans then stormed the field prematurely -- a defensive penalty extended the game by 4 seconds following Barwin's sack.
They retreated, then started onto the field prematurely again while Pitt ran a multiple-lateral play. Cincinnati recovered a loose ball to end it, bringing another swarm of fans onto the field.
"I just didn't want to see the band on the field," said Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, alluding to the Stanford band coming into play in a famous 1982 loss to California.
The Bearcats had a lot of things working for them in a game Kelly called the biggest in school history. They had their first capacity crowd in five games this season, their special red jerseys for the first time in five years, and a defense that has been impeccable in four straight wins.
They didn't have premier cornerback Mike Mickens, who sprained his left knee in practice two days earlier. Mickens holds the school record with 14 career interceptions.
Didn't matter. The senior-laden defense kept it up, and Pike had the best game yet in his amazing comeback.
The junior quarterback took over when senior Dustin Grutza broke his leg in the second game of the season. Two games later, Pike broke his forearm, which is held together by a plate and six screws. With the arm covered, he has started the last five games and gotten a little better in each one.
"Pike was tough," Pitt linebacker Scott McKillop said. "You could see on films that he can feel the pocket collapse and is able to get out of there. Their receivers are good and keep working to get open."
Pike led Cincinnati on a 16-play, 99-yard drive the first time it got the ball. He was 8-of-9 for 84 yards on the tone-setting drive, his only incompletion on a throwaway. He found Marcus Barnett running uncovered down the middle of the field for a 20-yard score.
The Bearcats neutralized Pitt's hard-charging defensive front by running quick slants, shovel passes and quarterback draws. Also, Pike rolled away from the pressure and made accurate throws, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to Dominick Goodman at the back of the end zone that made it 14-7 just before halftime. It was Goodman's 22nd career touchdown catch, topping former NFL kicker and receiver Jim O'Brien's school record.
Pike's 39-yard touchdown pass to Mardy Gilyard, who got behind the secondary, pushed the lead to 21-7 early in the third quarter and left the Panthers' defense walking around with heads down. It was 28-7 early in the fourth quarter after Jacob Ramsey's 2-yard run.
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