Cincinnati QB Pike expected back against Illinois -

Cincinnati QB Pike expected back against Illinois

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Tony Pike to Mardy Gilyard. One of the nation's top passing tandems is on the mend.

The strong-armed senior quarterback is expected to run Cincinnati's offense on Friday when the fifth-ranked Bearcats (10-0) play their final home game against Illinois (3-7). That could mean another big day for his elusive senior receiver.

They have something good together.

"The connection hasn't gone anywhere," said Gilyard, the Big East's leading receiver. "All week we've been clicking. We've got our timing back. My man's back again. He's fully loaded and ready to throw."

Pike's return will be the most intriguing element of an out-of-conference game for teams at the opposite ends of their leagues.

The Bearcats had one of the nation's top offenses when Pike got hurt at South Florida on Oct. 15. A helmet hit damaged a protective plate in his non-passing forearm, which had been broken last year. Pike had to have the plate replaced.

Sophomore backup Zach Collaros took over and kept the offense rolling for the next four games. The only thing he lacked: that connection with Gilyard. The receiver caught a touchdown pass in each of the first five games with Pike, a total of seven in all. Since then, he's caught only one.

Pike returned during a 24-21 win over West Virginia on Nov. 13, taking four snaps and throwing two touchdown passes. He spent the last two weeks -- Cincinnati had a bye -- running the offense and getting back into the flow with a protective cast on the left forearm.

Everyone on Cincinnati's side is waiting to see what happens the first time he gets hit.

"He tells me every day his arm feels good," said Gilyard, whose 22 career touchdown catches match the school record. "My main concern is how he's going to feel when he gets hit and falls. He's like, 'Buddy, don't worry about it. We're good. We're going to go out here on senior day and take care of business."'

Pike has thrown for 1,649 yards and 17 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Coach Brian Kelly said he looked close to form during practice this week.

"I felt like (Monday) was the first day really where there was a smooth continuity with Tony back out there," Kelly said. "You could see the little things coming back to where he was before he got injured."

Pike is still limited -- he can't take a direct snap from center, for instance, so the Bearcats will work out of the shotgun while he's in there. Kelly expects Collaros to get into the game in some running situations, which best suit his style.

"He's more situational because he can do a little bit more in the running game for us and provide us with some things we may need to call on," Kelly said. "If we don't need him at all, beautiful."

The Illini are counting on seeing both of them.

"They have -- I don't want to say two different offenses, but there are two different mindsets," coach Ron Zook said. "We have to be very, very aware of who is in the game.

"Our defense has to understand we're not going to shut these guys out. We're going to have to contain them."

Illinois also expects to have its starting quarterback. Senior Juice Williams hurt his left ankle during a 35-32 win over Minnesota on Nov. 7 and sat out a 21-16 loss to Northwestern. He's expected to start on Friday after looking good in practice during the week.

Williams is 22 yards shy of becoming the sixth player in Big Ten history to have 10,000 total yards in his career.

"Juice is fine," Zook said. "I think what we did in not playing him in the last game has probably turned out to be the right thing to do."

After its first-ever game against Cincinnati, Illinois finishes its season against Fresno State. For the Bearcats, the game on Friday is a chance to stay in the conversation about national title contenders -- one of only six unbeaten teams -- and get Pike ready for a Big East showdown.

Cincinnati plays at Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, a game that will likely determine the league champion. Cincinnati won it for the first time last season.

First, the seniors want to go out with a perfect home record. Cincinnati has won its last 16 regular-season games, including 11 straight at Nippert Stadium.

"We're trying to end it with a bang," Gilyard said. "We're trying to end undefeated at the Nip. The last time we lost at the Nip was '07. We haven't looked back since, and we plan not to look back. The Nip is our palace, and we intend to keep it as clean as possible. By that I mean: No losses."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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