CINCINNATI (AP) — A few days after saying he's given no thought to switching quarterbacks, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones did just that, benching Munchie Legaux. The Bearcats then pulled one out behind their dependable running back.
George Winn ran for a career-high three touchdowns and passed for another off a trick play on Saturday, setting up a 35-24 victory over Syracuse that included a change at quarterback for the Bearcats.
Legaux was benched after nearly throwing an interception in the third quarter. Senior backup Brendon Kay took over and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass that put the Bearcats (6-2, 2-1 Big East) ahead to stay.
"I just felt we needed a spark," Jones said. "Brendon Kay has been working hard and I thought he deserved an opportunity. So we'll go back, evaluate the film, see where we're at and we'll let those two battle it out (for the job) in practice.
"But I thought Brendon did provide the spark."
Cincinnati was coming off back-to-back losses that featured five interceptions by Legaux. He threw one in the first half Saturday and was repeatedly booed by the crowd of 26,180, the smallest for a game at Nippert Stadium this season.
Legaux finished 11 of 22 for 124 yards with one interception.
The Orange (4-5, 3-2) were coming off the biggest comeback in school history, overcoming a 20-point halftime deficit to beat South Florida. Syracuse couldn't recover after Winn's 2-yard run made it 35-24.
It was a sloppy game all-around. Cincinnati had two fumbles and Legaux's interception that led to 17 Orange points in the first half. Syracuse set up a pair of touchdowns by fumbling twice deep in its territory, including on the opening kickoff.
The Orange also missed a field goal, had another blocked, and got penalized 12 times for 104 yards.
"We felt like we let this one slip away," quarterback Ryan Nassib said. "At halftime, we were leading (17-14). We were trying not to get over-hyped. We just wanted to come out and keep playing, but the turnovers and the penalties were the most frustrating."
Nassib's fumble off a blind-side hit gave Cincinnati the ball at the Syracuse 15-yard line late in the third quarter. Kay replaced Legaux and completed two passes for the go-ahead score. Kay went 3 for 3 overall for 32 yards.
"He's been telling me the last few weeks, 'Just be ready, your number could get called at any time,'" Kay said. "When the backup quarterback goes in, it's different than any other position. All eyes are on you."
Winn carried 30 times for 165 yards — both career highs — and scored on runs of 5, 1 and 2 yards. He also got a touchdown off his first career pass, taking a handoff on fourth-and-2 from the Syracuse 37-yard line in the second quarter and lobbing a left-handed throw to wide-open tight end Travis Kelce.
The Bearcats added the play — called "Commando" — during spring workouts and run it during practice about once a week, but had never used it in a game. With Syracuse's safeties concentrating on the run, the Bearcats thought it was the perfect for it.
"We've practiced it every Thursday since the season started, but I never thought we'd use it in a game," Winn said.
Good reason: The running back doesn't have much of an arm.
"Heck, if you've ever seen George throw the football just playing catch, you wouldn't think coach would have enough confidence to run it in a game," Kelce said. "But we had the confidence to give him the ball 30 times in a game. Why not let him throw it one time?"
Syracuse had won its last two games and was trying to move above .500 for the first time this season. Nassib was 23 of 47 for 286 yards.
The game started badly for Syracuse — Jeremiah Kobena fumbled the opening kickoff at the Orange 28-yard line. Four plays later, Winn ran 5 yards for a touchdown. The Bearcats helped Syracuse even it when Anthony McClung fumbled a punt at the Bearcats 11-yard line, setting up Nassib's touchdown on a 1-yard run.
Cincinnati's Ralph David Abernathy IV fumbled at the Syracuse 11-yard line in the second quarter. The Bearcats' third turnover led to another Orange score. Nassib completed two passes to Alec Lemon — a 42-yarder that got the drive going and a 14-yarder for the touchdown and a 17-14 halftime lead.
They traded touchdown drives to open the second half. Winn scored on a 1-yard run, and Jerome Smith dived in from 1 yard out for a 24-21 Syracuse lead.
Legaux was hit hard after he threw a third-down pass that was nearly intercepted — Brandon Reddish dropped a sideline throw with a clear path to the end zone. When Cincinnati got the ball back on Nassib's fumble at the Orange 15-yard line, Kay took over. Legaux stood on the sideline with his helmet on.