Donovan McNabb finished his last interview Saturday night, grabbed his coat and mumbled, "time to eat." Syracuse's star quarterback must have had a memory lapse because he had just finished feasting on winless Cincinnati.
McNabb threw four touchdown passes in the first half, two to Kevin Johnson, as No. 24 Syracuse (3-2) rebounded from a costly 38-17 loss to North Carolina State 10 days earlier and beat the Bearcats 63-21.
"We prepared well, suffering through the adversity that we went through against N.C. State and then bouncing back," said McNabb, who was 15-of-18 for 255 yards. "We came in with confidence that anything we would possibly run was going to be effective."
Who wouldn't be confident against Cincinnati? The Bearcats, with the worst defense in the nation, had lost their first five games by an average score of 47-20 and were allowing 542 yards per game.
Syracuse gained 637 yards, but at least it was an improvement for the injury-riddled Bearcats, who were without defensive captains Kevin Ward and Tinker Keck. In a 62-19 loss last week at Louisville, they gave up a school-record 742 yards, including 460 through the air.
Syracuse scored on its first five possessions to build a 35-7 halftime lead, and that, essentially, was it. The Orangemen did not suffer a turnover and never punted, failing to score only when they got the ball with 10 seconds remaining in the first half.
That left Cincinnati coach Rick Minter with few kind words for his team.
"We're not very good right now," Minter said. "We don't stop anybody on defense. It's absolutely the worst defense I've ever been associated with in all my life. Our team doesn't give us a chance. We're always playing catchup from the second quarter on."
Try the first quarter. With the Cincinnati secondary playing far off Syracuse's talented rceivers, McNabb easily padded his season statistics until he departed late in the third quarter along with many of the starters. McNabb had scoring passes of 31 yards to tight end Stephen Brominski and 27 yards to Johnson for a 14-0 lead.
And that was good news and that was good news for Syracuse's secondary, which was in disarray before the game. Defensive back Ian McIntosh was suspended indefinitely Wednesday for violating team rules, safety Phil Nash hurt his back in a car accident on Thursday night and did not play, and Will Allen was still hobbling with a knee injury.
That pressed freshmen Willie Ford, Quentin Harris, and Charles Burton into starting roles for the first time, and they played well despite short notice. The coaching staff didn't decide on the defenders until Saturday morning.
"Everybody held their own and when the game was on the line early on didn't give up any big plays," said Jason Poles, who switched to cornerback from his safety position and nabbed an interception. "We know we can put in our younger guys now and play defense."
As usual, Johnson was McNabb's favorite target, catching seven passes for 91 yards. For at least one day, the recent past was forgotten.
"The N.C. State game did haunt us, and we had a chip on our shoulder," said Johnson, who also scored in the second quarter on a 27-yard pass. "But we were able to get rid of that chip tonight."
The Bearcats managed just six first downs in the first half. Fortunately for them, half came in the final 79 seconds and led to their first touchdown.
Quarterback Deontey Kenner, recovering from a separated shoulder, keyed an eight-play, 71 yard-drive to make it 35-7 at the half. He hit Chad Plummer with passes of 21 and 24 yards and threw a 20-yarder to Cornelius Bonner on a fourth-and-5 play to set up a 1-yard TD pass to Ashley Hunt with 10 seconds left. Kenner was 21-of-37 for 348 yards but had two interceptions.
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