Pike was sharp in his second game back since he broke his non-passing arm, which is held together by a plate and six screws. A black wrap covered the removable cast that hides a 4-inch scar from the operation and softens the blows. He took several rattling hits and hung in there until the middle of the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1 Big East) looked back to normal with an experienced quarterback running the no-huddle, spread offense again. Facing one of the conference's toughest defenses, Pike was 20-of-28 for 281 yards and two touchdowns, including a 1-yard pass to Connor Barwin that put the Bearcats up 24-10 early in the fourth quarter.
South Florida (6-3, 1-3) was the last Big East team ranked in the Top 25, a measure of the conference's struggles so far. The Bulls readily acknowledged that if they didn't win this one, they likely would have no chance for the league title.
Not even a steady quarterback could pull them through.
Junior Matt Grothe came into the game on a surge, throwing at least two touchdown passes in each of the last three games. He had only five interceptions all season, a sign of his dependability. But against the Bearcats, Grothe threw three - two of them deflected - against a defense that pressured him steadily.
His toughest play was a tackle, pulling down Mike Mickens after a 58-yard interception return. The senior cornerback's 13th career interception set a Cincinnati record and set up its first touchdown.
Grothe was 13-of-31 for 174 yards, but couldn't connect on his two most important throws. He misfired on a fourth-and-goal pass from the 5-yard line with 7:56 left, then had a fourth-down pass batted down in the end zone on the next possession, essentially ending it.
Cincinnati's biggest problems have been at quarterback, where no one can stay healthy. Senior Dustin Grutza broke his right leg in the second game of the season. Pike, his junior backup, broke his forearm two games later, forcing redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson to start a couple of games.
Pike returned on Saturday against Connecticut, but had to leave at halftime because his left hand went numb. He did fine in warmups Thursday and started the game.
In the latest medical twist, Anderson was dropped from backup to emergency status because he was bothered by a sprained knee suffered earlier in the season. Zach Collaros, another redshirt freshman, took over for Pike midway through the fourth quarter and finished it off with running plays.
The pell-mell changes at quarterback bogged down Cincinnati's offense, which failed to convert any of its 25 third-down chances in the last two games. Mardy Gilyard turned a short pass from Pike into a 26-yard touchdown in the second quarter, leaving Cincinnati up 17-7 at halftime. Maikon Bonani's 47-yard field goal cut it to 17-10 in the third quarter.