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December 31, 2008

On the Mark: 2008 Football Awards

It has been a pretty amazing season of Cincinnati Bearcat football. The Cats won a school record 11 games, once again beat multiple top 25 teams, won an outright BCS championship and a shot. The Bearcats have won more games against top 25 teams in Brian Kelly's first two seasons than in the entire 100+ year history of the program. That is absolutely amazing. This week I am going to celebrate this amazing season with an "On the Mark" exclusive, the inaugural "Bearcatmark's Football Awards." I'll cover everything from best game, MVP, to best opposing fan base. I hope you all enjoy. (Obviously all of these awards are prior to the Orange Bowl game where we will undoubtedly see many great moments and performances on the way to a big time Bearcat victory)

The Antwan Peek Award- This award goes to the player who was consistently the most disruptive, hardest to block and impossible to game plan against player on the Bearcat roster There are many Bearcats who had great years. Connor Barwin led the league in sacks, Lamonte Nelms came on strong late in the season, but there is only one Bearcat I watch who no opponents really have an answer for play after play… that is...

Terrill Byrd. His numbers are not as strong as they were last year, but he continually is driving opposing lineman into the backfield and disrupting up the middle. I felt like he was the only player who was not having trouble against the great Oklahoma offensive line. There are two plays that specifically stand out to me this season. First, the sack of Pat White in overtime against West Virginia showed both his drive and pure athleticism to run down White from behind forcing the Mountaineers into a field goal. The other play that sticks out was the safety against Hawaii. There were many Bearcats involved in that play, but what struck me was the immediacy of Byrd getting in the backfield before the ball even got to the running back. Hawaii had no hope as soon as that ball was snapped. Both of these plays were game changers and exemplified what Byrd has been since coming to Cincinnati.

The Jason Mammarelli Crazy Airplane Award- This is an award dedicated to the Cincinnati's moment of the year. It is named after the amazing performance of Jason after his game winner against Syracuse. Yea the near 50 yard field goal (the first of his career after missing 4 field goals prior) was pretty impressive, but it was the running around like an airplane before being mobbed by players and fans still is fresh in my mind. This year we had so many amazing moments and not just on the football field in play. I have my top 5 in reverse order:

5. The On Field Celebration of the Big East title- This occurred after the Syracuse game, passionate players, fans and coaches surrounding the Big East Championship trophy. It was pure jubilation.

4. The Jacob Ramsey run that put Cincinnati up 28-7 against Pittsburgh. The Pitt game was the most fun game I have ever attended as a Bearcat football fan and this was the point where everyone was pretty sure we were going to do it. It was just a simple run, off tackle left, but the crowd was completely in the game. The electricity at Nippert that night was unreal.

3. Mardy Gilyard runs over a kid- This was a special moment because a national TV audience got to see the human side of a great Bearcat player. What a reaction from Mardy, with no hesitation giving the kid a big hug, making sure to comfort him after a scary play. This was a play that makes you proud to be a Bearcat an in a different kind of way.

2. The celebration in the Louisville concourses- As far as fan moments go this is the one that will in all likelihood stand out to me for many years. Thousands of Cincinnati fans made the trip to Louisville sitting through a rain storm to watch as the Bearcats took back the Keg of Nails. After the game I stood in the concourse with hundreds of these fans screaming and hollering. After a Bearcat chant would die down everyone would jump all over each other giving out man hugs and high fives. It was tremendous. Just a special feeling, a moment I certainly will not forget.

Winner: Tony Pike, to Kazeem Alli…touchdown…Bearcats win in West Virginia. What made this even more incredible was every fan there was so sure the Bearcats had wrapped the game up only to have it all come to a crushing halt as a series of near impossible events (safety, touchdown, onside kick, 52 yard field goal in under 2 minutes) allowed WVU to force overtime. Of course all of this and the Mountaineer fans piling back in the stadium had the UC section at a baffled low and then the touchdown and everything was right with the world. What a game…what a moment. That's your Jason Mammarelli Crazy Airplane Award winner.

Jonathan Ruffin's Dress Slipper- This award is dedicated to players who prove incredibly important on special teams. Mardy Gilyard had two TD's for touchdowns including one that set the stage for the UC vs. WVU win, but undoubtedly this award has to go to Kevin Huber. Huber once again led the nation in net punting while having a mere two touchbacks. The Rutgers and Hawaii games in particularly could not have been won without his great punting.

The Anti-Miami Redhawk Fanbase Award- We all know that year after year the Miami Redhawks have the worst fans in college football. Yager stadium is one of the worst places to watch a football game in the country. Their fans know little about football and do not treat you particularly well when you are there. Plus all the J Crew gear at football games just does not cut it. By contrast the winner of this award is the best opposing fan base of the year… the Oklahoma Sooners. Their fans were incredibly kind to all of us Bearcats. Arriving in Norman, Oklahoma many of us were decked out in Bearcat fan. Nearly every Sooner fan I ran into would thank us for coming and talk about what a challenge this would be for their football team. They had a knowledge of Bearcat football I would hardly expect from a non-conference team, much less one in the top ten who has never played us. They invited us to their tailgates and asked us about the status of Grutza after the game. Just a fabulous experience.

I do want to note that I ran into way better fans in West Virginia than I ever expected. It was cold and a group of WVU fans invited to their tailgate with a fire pit. They also gave me a set of black gloves I have been using since. West Virginia fans get a bad name, but my experience there was excellent.

The God-awful national media actually getting it right award- This award goes to CBSsportsline for being the first of the National Projections to predict the Bearcats to go to the Orange Bowl. The national media as a whole put way to much stock in the loss of Ben Mauk and not nearly enough stock in all the brilliant offensive and defensive players that have brought this program along the last few years. So many people predicted the Bearcats to finish around 5th in the Big East. CBSsportsline was the first to predict the Bearcats to make the Orange Bull and for that I say "better late than never." (For anyone who checked out my blog before the season I had the Bearcats going 11-2 (6-1)…even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while)

The Andy Duphrane Award- This award named after Shawshank Prison's most famous escape goes to the player whose key performance won the Bearcats an important game. I give this to Jake Rogers. Rogers has had some tough times in his two years at Cincinnati, but he undoubtedly has an amazing leg. This award specifically goes to him for his game winning field goal against Akron. The game looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but a nice scramble by Collaros put UC in Jake Rodgers range and Jake drilled the game winning field. I think this was the game where the Bearcats really started to get it together on their march for a Big East title.

The Paul Daugherty Award- This award is dedicated to bad journalism or announcing. It is marked by media people who clearly have an agenda and do not give any fair insight, but merely look to inflict their own biases on the general product. This year the worst cases of this were consistently in the Big East bashing and I have to give the award to Rod Gilmore and the other dude whose name is not even worth looking up for their constant Cincinnati Bashing during the UC vs. Hawaii game. It was pathetic. They get the Paul Daugherty Award.

Damone's Premature "Celebration" Award- This is dedicated to Damone's premature moment in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and goes out to all the Bearcat fans who charged the field too early multiple times against Pittsburgh. The worst part about this award was that two weeks earlier Bearcat fans had seen that no game is over until the end. Charging the field is way cooler when everyone does it correctly. That being said Pittsburgh fans should shut up about it.

The Ultimate Bearcat- You cannot talk about this season of Bearcat football without giving special recognition to the amazing senior class that made everything possible. Many of these players have been seeing significant playing time for four years. They were on a team that last 44-16 to Miami Ohio, 46-22 to Louisville, 38-0 to West Virginia and closed out the season losing 44-9 to Rutgers. The next year the Bearcats would play 4 top 10 teams on the road, always hanging around, but never breaking through. Then at the Nippert on a Saturday night they got their 5th chance to beat a top ten team and took advantage taking an unbeaten Rutgers team behind the woodshed. Two weeks later they would lose their coach, but they stuck with the program and are now being rewarded with a BCS bowl. Every one of these seniors has been a Bearcat in every sense of the word. This team came so far and they really grew in the heat of intense, top notch competition.

All that being said I am picking one Ultimate Bearcat and this one goes to Conner Barwin. He has done everything asked of him and more during his time at the University of Cincinnati. He's played on special teams, played tight end and defensive end. He guarded seven foot centers in the Big East and has been a class act off the football field. When Brian Kelly suggested he try defensive end he not only fulfilled expectations he exceeded them. Like all the seniors it has been a pleasure to watch Conner Barwin the last four years. He is truly the ultimate Bearcat.

Well it is off to the beach for some cocktails. See everyone in Miami for an Orange Bowl extravaganza.



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