Collaros will start for Cincy, but Pike will play

BY foxsports • November 10, 2009

Quarterback Zach Collaros will start for fifth-ranked Cincinnati against West Virginia on Friday night, with Tony Pike expected to play as well for the first time since he hurt his non-throwing arm.

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Coach Brian Kelly announced Collaros will be his starter Tuesday. The sophomore backup has played spectacularly and kept the Bearcats (9-0) in the national title conversation while Pike heals from surgery to replace a metal plate in his left forearm.

Collaros threw for 480 yards — the second-highest total in school history — during a 47-45 win over Connecticut on Saturday night. Pike warmed up before the game, but didn't play. Kelly said the senior will run some plays against West Virginia (7-2).

"We're going to try to put a couple different packages in and just go from there," Pike said after practice Tuesday. "Obviously getting back out there and practicing is one thing, but in the game it's a different speed. That's the biggest thing.

"With how well Zach's playing right now, it's going to be a little better for him to be able to mix me in there a little bit and go from there and see how I'm feeling."

The Bearcats have a bye next week, giving Pike a couple more weeks of practice to sharpen his skills after so much missed time. Kelly said the plan is to have Pike start against Illinois on Nov. 27 in Cincinnati.

Pike's injury and Collaros' remarkable job as the fill-in presented a conundrum for Kelly. Pike was one of the nation's top passers before he got hurt, earning mention as a long shot for the Heisman Trophy. Collaros has won his first three collegiate starts, bringing a new element to the spread offense with his mobility.

Now, Kelly has to choose between them with a second straight Big East title on the line. If he goes ahead with his plan to start Pike against Illinois, he'll be benching a backup quarterback who threw for 480 yards in a big game.

"That's new territory for me," Kelly said. "I can't say that in 19 years of being a head coach that I've had that kind of a dilemma, if you will. Again, the nice part about it is that our football team has absolutely no concerns over who's leading them, if it's Zach or Tony. That's a great thing to have.

"Where controversies come in is when your room is split. There is no split. They know they can win and win at a high level with both these guys. That's a very unique circumstance."

Pike is more of a pro-style passer, 6-foot-6 with a strong arm. Collaros is barely 6-feet tall and much more adept at running the ball. Both have flourished in Kelly's no-huddle offense.

Leading receiver Mardy Gilyard said Tuesday that both quarterbacks have done so well the players have equal confidence in them. Gilyard has given both of them nicknames.

"Zach has moves, so I call him the joystick," Gilyard said. "And I call Tony the pistol. I think the names fit. Zach's a little wiggly guy, a little squirty guy back there, sort of like a joystick (in a video game). Of course, Pike has the cannon, so that's why I call him pistol."

Pike broke his left forearm last season, had a plate inserted to help the healing, and returned after missing two games. The plate was damaged on a hit during a 34-17 win over South Florida on Oct. 15, and he had a new one inserted. Pike got a special splint late last week and was able to fully practice again for the first time in nearly three weeks.

Collaros' impressive play has allowed Cincinnati to give Pike more healing time. In his three starts and three other games off the bench, Collaros has completed 76 percent of his passes for 1,229 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. He also has run for 311 yards and four touchdowns.

"Clearly when Zach has come in, he's played at a high level," Kelly said. "It's allowed us now to set that bar a little higher for Tony in the sense that now we don't have to put him back in there until he's 100 percent. But when Tony's back to that level, he's our starter. He's not quite there yet."

Kelly said Pike and his doctors are involved in deciding when he plays because some risk will be involved.

"What we don't want to do is put him in a situation where there's a high risk factor," Kelly said. "Why play him at all? Because we think that the risk has been minimized. He has risk in anything he'll do for the next three months, quite frankly."

When Pike returned after missing only two games last season, he had some numbness in the left hand and had to leave a couple of games early. Pike said with Collaros playing so well, it made sense to give him more healing time this year.

"Last year, we kind of pushed it a little bit too early," Pike said. "This year with how well Zach was doing, there was no need for that."

Kelly said running back Jacob Ramsey has a sprained foot and won't play against West Virginia. Ramsey is second to Isaiah Pead in carries and yards, and Kelly uses both of them in games. John Goebel, who has missed most of the season with an injured hamstring and broken hand, is likely to play more.