Cincinnati-Vanderbilt Preview

Zach Collaros was on the sidelines earlier this month when
Cincinnati finished as co-Big East champions. However, after
recovering quicker than expected from a broken ankle, he’s hoping
to be ready as the Bearcats try for their first bowl victory in
four years.

Cincinnati will take on Vanderbilt at the Liberty Bowl in
Memphis on Saturday.

After going 4-8 in 2010, the Bearcats turned things around,
going 9-3 in coach Butch Jones’ second season.

Claiming a share of the Big East title may have seemed out of
reach when Collaros broke his right ankle in a 24-21 loss to West
Virginia on Nov. 12. The Bearcats lost their next game as well, but
rebounded with two wins to close the regular season with sophomore
Munchie Legaux under center.

In the four games he played after Collaros got hurt, Legaux
mostly struggled as he completed 45.9 percent of his passes for 688
yards. However, he set career highs with 217 yards and three
touchdowns in a 35-27 win over Connecticut on Dec. 3 to help
Cincinnati earn a share of the conference championship.

The Bearcats no doubt would prefer to have Collaros starting,
and they may get their wish. He recently returned to full practices
and is optimistic he’ll be ready by the bowl game.

“I didn’t feel I was going to be able to heal this fast,”
Collaros said. “There’s still a long way to go … so there’s time
for it to heal (more). I’m definitely ahead of schedule and excited
about it.”

Collaros, the Big East leader in passing yards and touchdowns
last season, finished as the conference’s second-rated passer for a
second straight year. He completed 63.4 percent of his throws for
1,860 yards, 14 TDs and eight interceptions. Collaros also ran for
eight scores.

“We’re glad to see him out there,” said Isaiah Pead, who ran for
1,110 yards and 11 TDs. “Anytime you’ve got a fifth-year senior at
any position on offense, it’s a comfortable feeling. We’re very
happy to have him back.”

While Collaros has keyed Cincinnati’s strong season, the defense
may be a bigger reason for the turnaround. The Bearcats allowed an
average of 20.0 points in 2011 – down from 28.0 last season – and
led the nation with 3.6 sacks and 8.9 tackles for loss per
game.

Senior defensive tackle Derek Wolfe ranks sixth nationally with
19 1/2 tackles for loss and has 9 1/2 sacks.

Wolfe now looks to help Cincinnati avoid a third straight bowl
loss. The Bearcats’ last postseason victory was a 31-21 win over
Southern Mississippi in the PapaJohns.com Bowl in 2007.

The Commodores (6-6) are playing in the fifth bowl game in
school history and second in four years following back-to-back 2-10
seasons.

Things seemed to get off to a rough start for first-year coach
James Franklin when running back Warren Norman, the SEC freshman of
the year in 2009, failed to recover from a knee injury that kept
him from the final four games of last season.

However, junior Zac Stacy proved more than capable of carrying
the offense. After running for a combined 809 yards in 2009 and
’10, he broke Vanderbilt’s single-season rushing record with 1,136
yards after averaging 125.8 over the final six games.

“He’s just steady Eddie,” Franklin said of Stacy, who ran for 13
TDs. “He comes to work every single day. … We were able to do
these things this year without what some people would consider our
best player. So a great credit to Zac.”

Stacy could have trouble putting up big numbers against a
Cincinnati run defense which ranked seventh in the country, giving
up 92.6 yards per game.

Vanderbilt opened the season with three straight wins, including
a victory in its SEC opener, but lost its next five conference
games – three against teams in the top 15 at the time. The
Commodores came back to win two of their final three games to
become bowl eligible, surrendering 15 points in those
victories.

Defense has been critical all season for Vanderbilt. It’s tied
for 19th in the FBS, giving up 324.6 yards per game, and is 27th in
points allowed at 20.8 per game.

The Commodores are looking to win their second straight
postseason game after defeating Boston College 16-14 in the 2008
Music City Bowl. Prior to that, their last bowl game was in
1982.

Vanderbilt leads the all-time series against Cincinnati 4-3,
with the last meeting coming in 1994. The teams have two common
opponents, with both defeating UConn at home while losing to
Tennessee on the road.