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'Bionic' quarterback leading surging Bearcats


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[b]'Bionic' quarterback leading surging Bearcats[/b]
By Joe Starkey
Special to ESPN.com

Updated: November 6, 2007, 5:28 PM ET
Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk isn't afraid to admit it: He pulled back at the last second while attempting to recover a fumble in last weekend's victory at South Florida.

What's remarkable is that he made any effort at all.

See, the last time Mauk dove after a fumble, his world collapsed. It happened late in the third quarter of last year's season-opener against Syracuse. Mauk played for Wake Forest at the time.

After handing off to a running back, Mauk turned and saw the ball rolling on the ground. He lunged for it, but his right arm buckled under the weight of two Syracuse players.

Goodbye, season. Maybe career.

Mauk had no idea how badly he was hurt -- he'd sustained a fractured upper right arm, a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum -- or that doctors would have to rebuild his arm and shoulder.

Some people call him The Bionic Man.

"I have a titanium plate with eight screws in my upper arm," Mauk says. "I also have three anchors in my shoulder, so, yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on in there."

Now you know why Mauk hesitated on that fumble last weekend, which South Florida recovered.

"I dove out, and you could see I didn't put out my arm all the way; it was like an alligator arm," he said. "I kind of had a flashback there. I tried to tip it to somebody, but I was really hesitant. That's the only time I've really felt hesitant this season."

Mauk made up for it, throwing for three touchdowns in a 38-33 upset win. He has sparked the Bearcats to a surprising season, one that could still net them at least a share of the Big East championship.

The Bearcats (7-2 overall, 2-2 Big East) will take a large step toward a league title Saturday if they knock off No. 13 Connecticut (8-1, 4-0) in a must-win game at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Mauk, an Ohio native, is enrolled in graduate studies at Cincinnati, where he capitalized on a since-rescinded NCAA rule that allowed graduate students with eligibility to transfer and play immediately. He figured he'd have a chance to succeed in new coach Brian Kelly's no-huddle spread offense, similar to the one Mauk ran in high school.

Kelly wasn't sure if Mauk would be capable of executing a forward pass.

"Our medical team called down to where [Mauk's] doctor did the surgery, and we had him take a physical," Kelly said. "I don't want to say we jumped into it blindly. We did some preliminary work, but you never know with that kind of injury. What we did know was, worst-case scenario, we'd have an experienced quarterback to mentor some of our guys who weren't familiar with the spread no-huddle."

It's a best-case scenario so far. Mauk is fourth in the Big East in total offense (252.9 yards per game) and third in passing efficiency. He has completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,757 yards with 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also has ripped off runs of 55 and 34 yards.

"He's a veteran," said UConn coach Randy Edsall. "He's been around the block and has played in a lot of games. He's very competitive. You can see he understands exactly what they want to do."

Both teams are wading in uncharted waters these days. Cincinnati has started the season 7-2 for the first time since 1976. Connecticut is 8-1 for the first time in its 109-year football history. The Huskies will confront Mauk with a defense that has allowed the second-fewest touchdowns (13) in the country.

Who would have thought the Week 11 Cincinnati-UConn game would be every bit as integral to the Big East race as the Louisville-West Virginia game?

"I think it speaks to the type of year we're having in college football, period," said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team entertains Louisville on Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET). "It's been kind of a crazy year."

Mauk, 22, will vouch for that. He had mixed feelings watching Wake Forest make its Cinderella run to the Orange Bowl without him last season.

Now, he is helping to author what might become a similar story at Cincinnati.

"I've thought about that a little bit," he said. "There are a lot of similarities. The team chemistry with last year's team at Wake Forest and this year's team is very similar. We all get along off the field and on the field. You can't win without good team chemistry."

Speaking of which, Bearcats backup quarterback Dustin Grutza -- who started most of the past two seasons -- showed no resentment toward Mauk upon his arrival. In fact, the two have become fast friends and roommates on the road.

"It's easy to be a nice guy when you're the starter," Kelly said. "It's the No. 2 guy that makes it work, and Dustin Grutza is just an incredible young man, He's got all the team qualities that allow that kind of a relationship to work."

Grutza flourished in two starts earlier this season, when Mauk was experiencing fatigue in his shoulder and arm. Grutza completed 39 of 55 passes for 432 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over Miami (Ohio) and Marshall. Mauk played some in the latter game.

"It's hard to lose a job," Grutza says. "I miss being out there, but that's nothing to be mad at him for. I love the Bearcats. I want to win, and I got his back any time he needs me."

Mauk rates his arm strength still at only 80 percent. But that's during the week. Something happens on game days.

"On Saturdays, it feels very close to 100 percent," he said. "With the adrenaline going and when the lights come on, it feels a lot better."

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pissburgh Tribune-Review.

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