MORGANTOWN - If a challenge is what the West Virginia Mountaineers wanted, it's a challenge they've gotten.
In traveling to No. 5 Cincinnati on Friday night, the Mountaineers are playing their highest-ranked opponent since No. 3 Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
The game will kick off at 8 p.m. and be televised by ESPN2 at Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats have won 10 straight games.
''We are anticipating a tough football game,'' West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. ''We have played each other pretty tough over the years.''
Sure, just last season West Virginia rallied by scoring 13 points in the final 1:11 to force overtime in a ratings-maker for ESPN, but was ultimately defeated when tight end Alli Kazeem caught a 2-yard pass from Tony Pike to close out a 26-23 victory.
Pike, of course, is the Bearcats' one-time Heisman hopeful quarterback who has been injured and missed the last three games while backup Zach Collaros has stormed onto the stage in a big way. For the season, including three starts, Collaros has thrown for 1,229 yards, 10 touchdowns. He also has run for 311 yards and four touchdowns.
Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, who is 31-6 at the school, said early in the week Collaros would make a fourth consecutive start, but the plan was to put in a package of plays to ease Pike back into the swing of things. And, he said, when Pike's 100-percent, he's the guy. No question.
''They're both tough,'' said WVU defensive lineman Chris Neild, who appears to be sufficiently healthy to play more snaps this week. ''Pike has a little more experience than Collaros. Whoever is in there, we're going to have to do our best job because they both have different abilities.''
Stewart compared Collaros to his own quarterback, Jarrett Brown.
''Both young men are great competitors and great winners,'' he said. ''These guys that have running ability, when all their sensors go off, these guys just tuck it and go. These guys are great athletes that are playing quarterback.''
The game is a must-win for the Mountaineers if they plan to keep their goals of a Big East championship and a BCS bowl intact.
''This is definitely a big opportunity for us,'' Neild said. ''Coming off the year that we had last year and facing a team like we have this week - we don't normally face that many undefeated teams this late in the year - so coming into a game like this, it's definitely going to pump us up.''
The Bearcats (9-0 overall, 5-0 Big East) have the same path in front of them.
''Huge game,'' Kelly said. ''It's your West Virginia team you've seen last 5-6 years.''
Cincinnati has posted some ridiculous numbers nationally thus far. It boasts the nation's No. 5 scoring offense, No. 6 passing offense, No. 3 total offense, the Bearcats lead the nation in pass efficiency, are third in turnover margin, third in sacks by, and first in tackles for loss.
Keep in mind, the Bearcats lost 10 defensive starters from last season's Big East championship team.
''Cincinnati capitalizes off people's mistakes,'' WVU safety Robert Sands said. ''If you limit mistakes, it will be a good game. It's always about mistakes. About those mental mistakes that mess teams up.''
Cincinnati is also first in the Big East in scoring offense (40.0 points per game), scoring defense (16.4), and leads the league in punt (14.7) and kick return yard averages (26.0).
''Watching them (Cincinnati's receivers), with Jeff (Casteel) on Sunday night, they come and there are no wideouts. They have a quick throw, and it is second-and-2. Next play there is one running back, and they get a first down. Next play, no wideouts, they get a 6-yard pass, break a tackle and they get a 30-yard gain. That is what is so tough, they get rid of the ball.''