Cincinnati's comeback wins have lifted the Bearcats to a 7-1 record. They own a six-game win streak and suddenly control the Big East Conference.
Quarterback Zach Collaros, someone you might call the heart and soul of the Bearcats, is most responsible for that. A two-way threat, his best quality seems to be making those around him better.
Collaros and the Bearcats will pose a critical test for West Virginia at noon today at Paul Brown Stadium. The Mountaineers (6-3 overall) are on the verge of elimination from the Big East title race with a 2-2 conference record.
"He's the guy that makes the thing go for them," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. "He's willing his team to be able to get victories. He's determined. He's been there for a long time, and you can tell that he gets people around him to play better."
• Matchup: West Virginia (6-3, 2-2 Big East) vs. Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0), noon today, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio. Bearcats favored by 31/2.
• TV, radio: WTAE-DT; Mountaineer Sports Network, Sirius 128.
• West Virginia: A must-win to stay in contention for Big East title. ... Coming off an upset loss to Louisville, 38-35. ... QB Geno Smith threw for 410 yards, completing 31 of 44 passes. ... Offense ranks first in Big East with 487.8 yards per game, scoring defense ranks last (27.4).
• Cincinnati: Coming off a come-from-behind win at Pitt. ... Have won six games in a row. ... QB Zach Collaros has thrown for 1,790 yards this season and 14 touchdowns. ... Ranked 11th in Division I-A in scoring offense, (39.3 points per game) and No. 6 in rushing defense (87.6).
• Hidden stat: West Virginia has gained at least 500 yards in two of its three losses this season.
Collaros has thrown for 1,790 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He has led his team to consecutive fourth-quarter rallies that resulted in wins.
That's exactly what Holgorsen is looking for from his team.
He threatened to take only 55 players to Cincinnati -- which is 15 to 20 players shy of a usual travel roster -- to ensure he has players who will unite as a team. He also called on his teams leaders to step up.
"The leaders pinpoint guys who aren't buying in, and they slap them around to the point that they get them bought in," said Holgorsen. "They know who they are. That's something that we talk about in our room. They know who they are. Is it happening consistently? No, it's not."
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said players first need to be accountable to themselves, then turn to their teammate.
"Right now, we're in a vulnerable spot. It can go up or go down. I believe in my team and coaches. I believe we're fighters," Smith said.
For much of this season, Cincinnati's defense was its strong suit. The Bearcats give up just 19.5 points per game, have the top-ranked rushing defense in the Big East (86.1 yards per game) and 26 sacks.
"They're physical. Their defensive line is very physical," said Holgorsen of the Bearcats. "Their linebackers are physical. They play the run well, they play with effort and they're pretty good at it."
There is a weakness, though.
If there is a matchup favorable to West Virginia, it's the Mountaineers passing attack against the Bearcats pass defense.
Cincinnati has yielded 277 passing yards per game and ranks 105th in Division I-A. West Virginia ranks seventh in Division I-A and leads the Big East with 361.2 passing yards per game.
Collaros has thrown for 223.8 yards per game, hands off to Isaiah Pead, who logs 102 rushing yards per game, and ranks just behind Smith in pass efficiency.
WVU defensive tackle Julian Miller played with Collaros in an all-star game after high school and has kept in touch.
"He's a winner. He was a winner in high school," said Miller. "You talk about senior leadership. That's the kind of guy you want to resemble."
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said Collaros will be a concern.
"Zach is a guy who is able to extend plays, able to create a lot of things sometimes when there's nothing there," he said. "We have a lot of respect for him. ... He's a competitor. That shows in the way he plays."
NOTE -- West Virginia will be without wide receiver Brad Starks, who had an unspecified injury last week.
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com .