Illinois running back Jason Ford (21) runs against Cincinnati defensive lineman Walter Stewart (54) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 27, 2009, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/David Kohl) By David Kohl
Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly, right, walks with quarterback Tony Pike, left, after Cincinnati beat Illinois 49-36 in an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/David Kohl) By David Kohl
Illinois head coach Ron Zook reacts in the second quarter against Cincinnati in an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 27, 2009, in Cincinnati. Cincinnati won 49-36. (AP Photo/David Kohl) By David Kohl
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Tony Pike returned from an injury to his non-throwing arm and had a record day Friday, passing for six touchdowns in a 49-36 victory over Illinois that left fifth-ranked Cincinnati unbeaten and back to full strength.
The senior quarterback started for the first time since Oct. 15 and broke the school record for touchdown passes. Two of them went to Mardy Gilyard, who also ran back a kickoff for a score.
Cincinnati (11-0) remained one of six unbeaten Bowl Subdivision teams. The Bearcats finish their regular season next weekend in Pittsburgh, aiming for their second consecutive Big East title.
The Illini (3-8) couldn't handle a spread offense that's different from anything they'd see in the Big Ten. Cincinnati had 35 points in the first half alone -- as many as the Illini allowed in any full Big Ten game.
Right from the start, Cincinnati's playmakers had their way.
Gilyard, the Big East's top receiver, ran back a kickoff 90 yards for Cincinnati's first score -- the third kickoff return of his career. He also had seven catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns, in including a one-hand catch at the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Pike answered all the questions about his comeback in one sensational half. He didn't start the last four games because he had a plate replaced in his left forearm, injured on Oct. 15 at South Florida. Would he be sharp in his return? Could he take a hit?
Yes, and yes.
Pike threw a career-high four touchdowns in the first half alone while leading the Bearcats to a 35-20 lead. He was knocked to the ground twice, the second time when he stayed in the pocket long enough to get off an 11-yard touchdown pass to Gilyard.
The Bearcats were a more balanced team when sophomore backup Zach Collaros ran the offense. They abandoned any pretense of the run Friday, handing off only four times in the first three quarters.
Pike finished 32 of 46 for 399 yards. On the season, he has thrown 23 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
The Illini had particular problems covering tight end Ben Guidugli, who is primarily a blocker in Cincinnati's spread offense. He repeatedly ran uncovered through the secondary, catching a career-high six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone.
Pike's fifth touchdown pass put Cincinnati up 42-20 in the third quarter and tied the school record set by Gino Guidugli -- the older brother of the tight end.
Illinois also got its starting quarterback back from injury. Juice Williams missed most of the last two games with an injured left ankle. He threw for three touchdowns and ran for another, but couldn't match Cincinnati's breakneck scoring pace. Williams also became only the sixth player in Big Ten history to top 10,000 career combined yards.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)