CINCINNATI - The race for the Big East title and subsequent BCS bowl bid is on the verge of becoming a jumbled mess.
No one feels worse about that than Zach Collaros.
Collaros, Cincinnati's senior quarterback and unquestioned leader, went down in the second quarter vs. West Virginia on Saturday with an ankle injury. The extent of the injury is still unknown, but it knocked Collaros out of the game and on to crutches. The injury didn't look good, and it knocked the collective wind out of the Bearcats and a crowd of more than 48,000.
It was enough to cancel the Bearcats' plan to use Saturday's game at Paul Brown Stadium to basically clinch the Big East title and start at least loosely making plans for Miami and the Orange Bowl.
Instead, Cincinnati is still hanging on to first place, but barely. And everything from the Beacrats rallying around Collaros' injury to completing a 4-8 to BCS turnaround to spending early January in Birmingham is still in play.
West Virginia was far from perfect Saturday, but the Mountaineers blocked a field goal on the final play to seal a game they took over as soon as Collaros got hurt, fumbled the ball, which was recovered by by West Virginia's Julian Miller for a touchdown in the second quarter.
The score was 17-7 then. And West Virginia held on for a 24-21 win, potentially saving the season, even if it was devoid of style points.
The Mountaineers (7-3) become one of five teams tied for second in the Big East with a conference mark of 3-2, a half-game behind Cincinnati, which is 7-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference. UConn, which is 4-5 on the year, is 2-2 in conference and plays Rutgers next week in a game that suddenly even behind six degrees of separation and scenarios could have BCS bowl implications.
The BCS. The Bearcats were so close. The Mountaineers have the look of a team that belongs there, even as they're still trying to get it. They held the ball for 36 minutes Saturday despite rushing for just 32 yards on 32 carries. Sometimes, you just have to win ugly.
Pitt, Louisville, Rutgers and UConn are still alive in the Big East race, too. Unbelievable and sad, in many ways but true.
Cincinnati coach Butch Jones called West Virginia "the most talented team we've played all year" after the game, as he'd done earlier in the week. The Mountaineers should have never lost at Syracuse and to Louisville at home last week, but winning in Cincinnati, and Pitt knocking off Louisville keeps WVU's league title hopes alive.
Saturday's game started as a track meet. Cincinnati needed just three plays to score as Isaiah Pead zigged and zagged for 51 yards and the first of his two touchdowns on the day. West Virginia came right back with a 59-yard touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey, one of a few Mountaineers who flat-out fly. But the Mountaineers ultimately won the game with defense, even as Cincinnati backup quarterback Munchie Legaux gained confidence and tried to keep his team in the game. Pead was unstoppable early and looks like the Big East's most explosive player, but West Virginia held him to 113 rushing yards.
In doing so, the Mountaineers put a stop to Cincinnati's party plans. Collaros was stopped inches short of the goal line early in the game. Freshman kicker Tony Miliano, who made four field goals last week, missed one and had his final attempt blocked. The Bearcats also had two defensive starters leave the game due to injury.
"We went through just about every adversity you could go through in a football game," Jones said.
Even with the franchise player leaving on a cart and West Virginia celebrating at midfield at game's end, Cincinnati controls its own Big East destiny. What Legaux showed once he settled down bodes well for the future, but Collaros, Pead and J.K. Schaffer just have this year. Collaros, sadly, might not even have that. The celebration must wait, but it still can happen.
"As soon as we leave here, it's all focus on Rutgers next week," Jones said. "We have three games to go win a conference championship."