SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Zach Collaros makes a practice of practicing his quarterback scrambles in practice. You know what they say about practice.
Collaros threw four touchdown passes, three off broken plays, the Cincinnati defense forced two critical turnovers and the No. 5 Bearcats remained perfect with a 28-7 victory over Syracuse on Saturday.
“We do a scrambling drill every day,” Collaros said after just his second start in place of injured quarterback Tony Pike. “We have good chemistry with the receivers.
“All I know is I like to improvise a little bit.”
To the dismay of the Orange (3-5, 0-3 Big East), who registered eight tackles for loss but only one sack.
“It’s hard to run around and get someone open to make a big play,” first-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. “You have to have great vision. You have to keep the play going. We didn’t finish.”
Collaros was 22 of 28 for 295 yards and no turnovers. Always a threat to run, he managed just 22 yards on nine carries, preferring to use his strong right arm to inflict the damage.
Collaros is a remarkable 47 of 63 (75 percent) for 749 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception this season and has rushed for 213 yards and two more scores.
“He’s definitely a kid that understands what’s going on out there,” Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said.
Collaros hit Armon Binns on scoring passes of 81 and 13 yards off scrambles, Kazeem Alli for 16 yards off a botched field goal, and Adrien Robinson for 4 yards as Cincinnati (8-0, 4-0 Big East) won its 14th straight regular-season game to remain in contention for the BCS national championship.
“He’s not a drop-your-eyes scrambler,” Kelly said. “He’s going to keep his eyes downfield. Syracuse is pretty good up front. There were too many times where he was flushed out of the pocket. We would have liked to have managed the game a little bit better from the pocket, but Zach is really good outside on the perimeter.
“We got our job done, and we want to get the heck out of here.”
Cincinnati is one win off the best start in school history — the 1951 team won nine straight to begin the season. Its mistake-free offense — the Bearcats did not have a turnover and remain the only team in the nation not to lose a fumble this season — and opportunistic defense made the difference.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Cincinnati linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. “We’re right where we want to be.”
The turnovers cost the Orange dearly. Drew Frey intercepted Greg Paulus’s pass in the back of the end zone late in the second quarter and defensive tackle Derek Wolfe recovered a fumble on a first-and-goal carry from the Cincinnati 7 by Delone Carter late in the third.
“They were driving on us,” Frey said. “We definitely needed some type of spark. When they get down in the red zone, our defense usually steps up, and we were fortunate enough to make a play. I read the quarterback’s eyes, and it said No. 1.”
That would be standout Syracuse wideout Mike Williams, who along with Cincinnati star Mardy Gilyard were hardly noticed. Gilyard finished with six catches for 62 yards, while Williams caught four passes for 34 yards in his return from a one-game suspension. They entered the game 1-2 in the Big East in receiving, Williams with 118.7 yards per game and Gilyard with 96.3.
“He’s a leaper. He makes big plays,” Frey said. “One of the focal points of the game was to stop No. 1 in particular. For the most part, I think we did that. Communication was the main point, knowing where he was on the field at all times.”
Collaros had three TD passes and only two incompletions in his first college start a week ago, a 41-10 victory over Louisville, and was able to scramble away from trouble and find wide open receivers most of the afternoon against the Orange.
Even when his receivers were covered, it didn’t matter. Facing a second-and-9 and leading 14-7 early in the third quarter, Collaros rolled right and, just when he seemed out of time, hit Binns in the corner of the end zone despite solid coverage by Da’Mon Merkerson.
Paulus was 12 of 17 for 85 yards with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Cody Catalina and his 11th interception of the season, and heard a round of boos after his errant throw.
“We got all the way down there and executed exactly the way we wanted to,” Paulus said. “We just have to close the deal.”
Cincinnati didn’t waste time getting on the board. Two plays after a holding call nullified a 50-yard reception by D.J. Woods, Collaros scrambled and hit Binns all alone in the right flat, and he raced 81 yards to give the Bearcats a 7-0 lead after four plays from scrimmage.