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2011 Liberty Bowl Recap

Cincinnati Bearcats vs Vanderbilt Commodores - Cincinnati 31, Vanderbilt 24

The Cincinnati Bearcats hoped in late November that they would have enough juice to make the Orange Bowl in Miami against the champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. They never got that far because Zach Collaros got injured at the worst possible time. Saturday afternoon in the 2011 Liberty Bowl, Collaros wasn’t at his best, but the simple presence of a senior leader enabled the Bearcats to overcome the Vanderbilt Commodores and win their tenth game of the season in the process.

This was a redemptive and highly satisfying moment for Cincinnati football in so many ways. The Bearcats wanted to prove that they could win a game against an SEC team after losing to the Tennessee Volunteers by 22 points (45-23) in September. That loss to a team from the state of Tennessee cut deep in the UC locker room. As the Bearcats prepared to face yet another team from the Volunteer state – and in the city of Memphis, no less – there was a strong sense that a loss would cast a long shadow over an otherwise excellent season marked by overachievement.

The painful aspect of the 2011 campaign for Cincinnati is that if Collaros, its number one quarterback, had not suffered a broken ankle against West Virginia (the eventual Big East champion) on November 12, the Bearcats almost certainly would have reached the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Collaros made Cincinnati a lethally effective offensive team, but when he went down, the Bearcats lost two conference games, just enough to take them out of the top spot and allow West Virginia to win the Big East.

Getting Collaros back for the Liberty Bowl marked a major “second chance” moment for the Bearcats and second-year coach Butch Jones; UC missed a bowl game in Jones’s first season at the helm in the Queen City. The program bounced back in 2011, reassuring the Cincinnati fan base that Jones was up to the job. However, a loss to Vanderbilt would have brought some fresh doubts back into the picture. There was more pressure on Cincy to win this game than Vanderbilt; the Commodores’ future as an up-and-comer in the SEC seems set under coach James Franklin, one of the rising young stars in the coaching profession. Cincinnati was playing with Collaros and teammate Isaiah Pead, two high-impact seniors who desperately wanted to punctuate their careers with a triumphant moment. Prestige, reputation, and redemptive glory were all on the table for Cincinnati.

The Bearcats were able to deliver the goods. They owe most of their good fortune not just to the grit of Collaros – who played while being far from fully healthy – but Pead, their meal-ticket running back.

Pead is going to collect an NFL paycheck. The durable and talented running back undressed Vandy defenders for much of the day and then overpowered the Commodores with tough, between-the-tackles running in the fourth quarter. Pead ran for 149 yards on 28 carries while Cincinnati’s offensive line wore down Vandy’s defensive front at crunch time. Cincinnati’s offense wasn’t always efficient due to Collaros’s accumulated rust, but a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by UC’s Ralph Abernathy gave the Bearcats a 24-21 lead with 13:51 left in regulation. Once Cincinnati gained that cushion, Pead closed the sale down the stretch, and the Bearcats backed up their strong regular season with the bowl win they so fully longed for.

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

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