Tony Pike answered all the questions six times over.
The senior quarterback returned from a major injury to his non-throwing arm and had a record day Friday, passing for six touchdowns in a 49-36 victory over Illinois that kept fifth-ranked Cincinnati unbeaten.
And now, back at full strength.
“Words can't describe how amazing this feels,” Pike said.
Cincinnati (11-0) remained one of six unbeaten Bowl Subdivision teams, ranked fifth in the BCS standings. The Bearcats finish their regular season next weekend in Pittsburgh, playing for their second straight Big East championship.
“I wouldn't say it was easy to get to 11-0, but 11-0 is not going to matter if we lose to Pittsburgh, and the guys know this,” said senior Mardy Gilyard, who caught two touchdown passes and ran back a kickoff for a score. “If we take care of business, the rest is up to the voters and the computers whatever else is out there, to figure out what we do with the postseason.”
Pike had the biggest hand in the latest win.
He hadn't played since Oct. 15, when he damaged a protective plate in his left arm. He needed surgery to replace the plate, and didn't start any of the last four games. He got into a 24-21 win over West Virginia for four snaps, and threw for a pair of touchdowns in his very limited role.
Would he be sharp in his return as a starter? Could he take a hit? He answered the questions with one sensational half.
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 by the Illini (3-8), 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 in Pike's absence. They abandoned any pretense of the run Friday, handing off only four times in the first three quarters.
“We knew we had to throw the ball to win today, and that was the plan all week,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We were going to throw it all over the ballpark today.”
Pike finished 32 of 46 for 399 yards. On the season, he has thrown 23 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
He even ran a quarterback draw to show the arm wouldn't hold him back.
“It felt fine today,” Pike said. “It feels great now.”
The Illini couldn't handle a spread offense that's better than 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 this season.
“Historically, you think about a Big Ten team and the Big Ten conference — it's going to be a power running conference,” Pike said. “Obviously we knew Illinois is a team that's built to stop the run. We felt we could exploit some things in the passing game.”
Right from the start, Cincinnati's playmakers had their way.
“You go into a game trying to make them pass,” Illinois defensive coordinator Dan Disch said. “That may be a mistake against them. We gave up too many big plays.”
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, including a one-hand TD catch at the back of the end zone.
The senior became Cincinnati's career leader in touchdown catches. He had only one while Pike — whom he calls “Pistol” for his strong arm — was away.
“I knew that having Pistol back, running and gunning and slinging all over the place, I knew it was going to come eventually,” Gilyard said.
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, who watched from the stands as his record fell.
“He was happy because I was part of it,” Ben Guidugli said. “I don't think he has any bad feelings about it.”
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.
“It's a blessing,” Williams said. “Not too many people have ever done it. There have been a lot of great players that played this game. I will sit back and enjoy that once my career is over.”