Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Bearcats survive offensive adversity

MIAMI -- The first thing he did was pray. Please, don't let it be serious.

But once Dustin Grutza realized it was serious, he became incredulous.

"Unbelievable!" he thought, and few would disagree. The quarterback situation at Cincinnati had indeed become a circus. Here was Grutza -- the former starter up in the press box, already sidelined with a broken leg -- watching the backup QB, an out-of-nowhere success, snap his arm on a play against Akron.

"It's been pretty crazy," Grutza said Monday, more than three months after seeing Tony Pike break his arm. "You don't go into a season expecting your starting quarterback and your backup quarterback to both get injured.

"It's been some crazy circumstances, but I think the team has showed maturity in how we've handled adversity."

Handling adversity. The theme of the Orange Bowl, no? Here's Virginia Tech, after overcoming youth and inexperience to win the ACC championship, suddenly facing the loss of three key players. Nick Marshman. Jason Worilds. Brett Warren. All of them out for the game unexpectedly, forcing newcomers to step in.

That's a daunting situation. But don't bother whining to the Bearcats, who've staffed the most important position on the field with no fewer than five players this season.

Here's the quarterback roll call for Cincinnati in 2008: Grutza, Pike, Zach Collaros, Chazz Anderson, Demetrius Jones. All five have taken snaps, and somehow the result was a Big East championship and an 11-2 record.

"We're the best line in program history, I can guarantee you that," Bearcats offensive guard Trevor Canfield said. "I guess we're pretty good if we block for five quarterbacks and still get to a BCS bowl."

Canfield was smiling when he said that, but he's got a point. There has to be a support system when so many are sent to intensive care. And the Hokies will need similar buttresses if they're to win this game against a defiant opponent.

Pike will start on Thursday. He's 6-foot-6, mobile and confident. But just four months ago, he was nobody, not even a blip on the Bearcats radar.

"It's been crazy," Pike said. "Coming into the first week of camp this year, I didn't take a single rep. I'm sitting fourth string. Coach came up to me after the first week and said basically with two freshmen under me, if I didn't show something the second week of camp, this might be my last year, my [redshirt] junior year with me graduating and everything. He basically told me it's now or never."

Well, it's now.

Pike played well enough to move up to second string for the season opener. Then Grutza got hurt against Oklahoma, forcing Pike to take the first significant snaps of his career.

"It's probably indescribable," Pike said of getting in a big-time game. But he fared well, despite the team's loss. He led the Bearcats on a scoring drive. And he gained the trust of his teammates and his coaches.

Pike's broken arm against Akron forced two redshirt freshman quarterbacks into action. Both games, the Bearcats won.

"It's a tribute to the players, it's a tribute to the system, trying to make sure that it's still very much user-friendly," UC offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn said of the unusual deployment of quarterbacks. "So if you do have a next man in come in, those kids can come in and deliver and perform at a high level without any hesitations."

Pike -- a second-team All-Big East pick -- is back now, after a month of rehabilitation. Grutza, who started against the Hokies in 2006, is also available in a reserve role.

Both are dangerous, according to Tech defensive lineman Nekos Brown.

"That says a lot for an offense to shuffle quarterbacks like that and still have success," Brown said.

Brown will start Thursday for only the second time in his career, as a replacement for the injured Worilds.

Attrition? You've got it in the Orange Bowl. Everywhere you look.

Prayers are fine. But no whining allowed.

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