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.