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September 3, 2009

A game of adjustments

A returning starter at quarterback. What a luxury.

Unfortunately, it's something that's been rare at UC of late. Since four-year-man Gino Guidugli walked off the field at Amon Carter Stadium with me as MVP of the Fort Worth Bowl in '04, the Bearcats have usually had yearly QB debates.

For two years, Mark Dantonio recruit Dustin Grutza slung it out with JC transfer Nick Davila. Then just when it looked like Grutza would be sitting pretty, along came Ben Mauk. Last year, Mauk was an NCAA question mark and the tide swung back to Grutza until his unfortunate broken leg at Oklahoma.

That's when Tony Pike stepped in. And he'd been there all along.

In '04, he was a distant "grayshirt" behind Gino Guidugli, sent home after preseason practice. In '05, a redshirt behind Grutza. '06 saw him stand patiently among Grutza and Davila. Finally, he saw the field in '07, but only mopping up for Mauk (if Mauk couldn't start, Grutza got the call). As '08 started, he was told essentially to, "cowboy up or graduate". Then, after initially losing the job to Grutza, he stepped in and (despite a couple games with Chazz Anderson in the interim role) performed as the clear #1, a role he had waited years for.

As the proverbial saying goes, "From the outhouse, to the penthouse," Pike went from getting "garbage time reps" at Camp Higher Ground to this year actually getting time off from throwing.

As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the king!" (History of the World Part I-decent old school rental at your favorite video outlet.)

Ironically, in Pike's first season as the clear-cut #1, he faces a team that (again) he watched from afar last year. When Rutgers came to Nippert in October, Pike was still recovering from the break to his non-throwing arm against Akron. So, the first time the Scarlet Knights will see Tony Pike in person will be Labor Day.

"We have a lot of film on them and we're just kind of in a waiting game," said Pike this week. "We don't know if they're going to play us like they did last year. Obviously, having a whole offseason and whole summer camp to prepare for us, we don't know if they're going to come out with some wrinkles and stuff. It's going to be a whole adjustment on the fly, just looking to the checks and the plays that we know."

It works that way for both teams actually. They haven't seen Pike and didn't see the "Full Monty" of the UC offense under Chazz Anderson. On the other hand, UC didn't see any of their possible quarterbacks last year, and only saw Jabu Lovelace run the ball for a few plays back in '07.

"That's the biggest thing," said Pike. "It's kind of tough coming out and playing a Big East opponent first game. We're kind of used to being able to watch a few games of them on tape. Obviously, opening up at Rutgers, it's going to be kind of a learning curve for both of us."

The biggest learning experience for UC's new players will be the noise level and intensity that Rutgers Stadium will have with all of the hype and hoopla surrounding this nationally-televised matchup. The Knights built and sold-out 11,000 additional student seats in the endzone, so the Bearcats best be prepared for some "salty Jersey language" and the occasional critique of the program.

What it amounts to is..."Welcome to the Big East", same crowd-different stadium.
"Going into Rutgers, we know it's going to be crazy," said Pike. "(It's) Labor Day and the only game on TV as well. We know they're going to be fired up as they've opened up the additional seats in the stadium. We really don't let that affect us. I think with our offense, the noise really is never a factor."

Plus, this year the offense should have a twist or a turn or something that maybe wasn't visible in last year's 13-10 grind-it-out triumph over the Knights.

"It was kind of hard last year with Chazz getting the start-we kind of toned back a little bit," said Pike. "(The) biggest thing is the strides we made during preseason camp and where our offense is now compared to a year or two ago. We're excited about the offense we have got together and we're happy with what we're taking to Rutgers."

For Pike, it can't be much louder than what he experienced at Oklahoma in relief of Grutza, or at Morgantown in that crazy OT win over WVU, or in the Orange Bowl in January. And while he's not played in every Big East stadium, he's seen a little bit of everything. You tend to pick up a little education and maturity in a six-year quest to become a solid, Division I starter and potential NFL draft pick.

"It is like a dream come true, really," said Pike. "I always dreamed about-with me growing up in Cincinnati-playing for Cincinnati. Then, coming out of high school and actually getting the scholarship here, that's already been fulfilling. Then, you wait for your time for a few years, then you get in there and the biggest thing is to be a part of something like we're in right now. You know, years from now I can say, 'I was part of the team that won the Big East championship and went to the Orange Bowl!' We just want to build on the legacy this year and leave the next group of seniors and the next Bearcats coming up something to build on."

While offensively, there's a lot to write about, with Pike and the backs and receivers returning, defensively there are questions. Not so much among the Bearcats, but from those keeping tabs on the team from a distance. Tony Pike has faced these guys all August and he doesn't appear worried.

"I think the defense is just ready to get out there and play," he said. "It's been hard because the past few weeks we've been going against ourselves all of the time. You mix in some 'live situation', but it's hard. I think the defense is just ready to go play. I've heard all offseason how we've lost 10 starters and the defense can't be as good. You know, those people haven't seen what we saw at camp."

As for an unsung hero or a possible surprise to the Bearcats-you'd think a passing quarterback would mention one of his targets at receiver. While not dismissing the wideouts and tight ends, Pike first mentions the backfield.

"I think everyone of our running backs is capable of putting up numbers on any given play in any given game," he said. "With our receiving corps, we have more depth than almost anyone in the country. It's going to be a balanced attack and I think guys are going to step up to their game when they're called upon. It's going to be hard for one defense to take away one weapon and we've got a couple more coming back."

We'll find out how it goes down Monday, when Pike hollers,"hike" for the first time. (If he does, he'll probably get pulled since the proper verbage is "hut" these days.)

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