Illini seek redemption for lost season by knocking off red-hot Bearcats
Life is good for No. 5 Cincinnati and coach Brian Kelly.
One of six undefeated football teams in the nation, Cincinnati has won 10 games or more in each of the last three seasons, and the Bearcats are riding a 16-game regular-season winning streak. Cincinnati has won its first 10 games for the first time in school history leading into hosting Illinois in a non-conference game Friday at Nippert Stadium.
While Illinois seeks a win to soothe the pain from a disappointing season and perhaps get some momentum for the offseason, Kelly is a hot property and often mentioned as possibly the next coach at Notre Dame, so the Bearcats must deal with different distractions than Illinois.
"This is the silly season, you know?" Kelly said. "This is where it happens every year. We've been having this conversation for the last two years, so this isn't new ground for our players.
"The truth is, this happens every year. It will continue to happen while I'm at the University of Cincinnati because nobody thinks that Cincinnati is a destination job, so it just happens this way.''
The two-time reigning Big East coach of the Year, Kelly laughs off the speculation about Notre Dame, claiming it's only because he's an Irish Catholic from the East Coast. But he's 32-6 in his third season with the Bearcats, and victories against Illinois and Pittsburgh would put Cincinnati in a BCS bowl game for the second straight season.
"I guess it's better than being on the other side of that,'' Kelly said. "They're talking about, let's see: (Notre Dame coach) Charlie Weis, (Kansas') Mark Mangino, (LSU's) Les Miles. To give due respect to all the coaches that are supposedly on the hot seat – there's like 10 coaches. I don't want to be one of them because that really hurts your recruiting.''
Picked to finish third in the Big East preseason poll, Cincinnati has rolled behind quarterback Tony Pike and backup Zach Collaros.
Pike has thrown for 1,649 yards and 17 touchdowns with only three interceptions, but he missed three games with an injury to his non-throwing arm. Pike returned for limited duty against West Virginia before an open date last week. He's expected to start against Illinois. A capable thrower and more of a running threat than Pike, Collaros stepped in and threw for 1,434 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has 332 yards rushing.
"We think it gives a different dimension they have to defend,'' Kelly said. "We have the ability to run our passing game, but Zach can get in there in certain situations and be troublesome (on the ground) for certain defenses.''
Illinois will start senior quarterback Juice Williams, coach Ron Zook said, because he gives Illinois the best chance to win. Williams missed the game against Northwestern with a sprained ankle. Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest will back up Williams.
Already assured of a seventh losing season in the last eight years, Illinois just wants to get something rolling into the offseason.
"Of course, you want to win,'' Williams said. "We're not going to a bowl this year. The mindset of the seniors is we want to come out and play as hard as we can and get the momentum going for next season. Ending on a good note is always the best.
"It's a chance to go out there and play stress-free. There's still an opportunity for us to go out there and get better for guys looking to go and play somewhere next year. As long as we come out and not think about what's going on around us, we should be fine.''
John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (3-7) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati (10-0)
When: 11 a.m. Friday
Where: Nippert Stadium (35,000), Cincinnati
Series record: First meeting
Radio: Illini Sports Network
Coaches: Ron Zook, 21-37 in fifth year at Illinois, 44-51 in eighth year overall; Brian Kelly, 32-6 in third year at Cincinnati, 169-57-2 in 19th year overall
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 24th, 190.5; passing 101st, 179.3; scoring 104th, 20.2; total 65th, 369.8. Illinois defense -- rushing 79th, 159.9; passing 90th, 240.4; scoring 71st, 26.0; total 89th, 400.3. Cincinnati offense -- rushing 49th, 163.7; passing 7th, 314.3; scoring 6th, 38.4; total 3rd, 478.0. Cincinnati defense -- rushing 49th, 133.0; passing 39th, 202.8; scoring 16th, 16.9; total 38th, 335.8.
Notable: Illinois coach Ron Zook is a Loudonville, Ohio, native who was the Cincinnati defensive coordinator in 1981-82 under coach Mike Gottfried. Illinois defensive line coach Keith Gilmore served in the same capacity with Cincinnati from 2007-08. He also worked under Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1991-93. . . Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman (neck) isn't expected to play. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui will play, Zook said. . . Kelly led Grand Valley State to two NCAA Division II national championships and guided Central Michigan to the Mid-American Conference championship in 2006. . . ABC announcer Chris Spielman, a former Ohio State star linebacker, will work the game despite the death of his wife, Stefanie, from cancer last week.
Quotable: "I don't know if we want to be a spoiler. It's a chance to play an awfully good football team and redeem ourselves a little bit and show we're not as bad as some people think.'' – Illinois coach Ron Zook.
Prediction: Cincinnati 42, Illinois 20