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Four starters on offense questionable

Facing what Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly has dubbed an elimination game Saturday, the Bulls may be shorthanded.

Both teams are 1-2 in conference play, and a third loss will likely eliminate any hopes of winning the Big East championship.

“Is it a big game? It’s big, there’s no doubt about that,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “Could it be an elimination-type game? Could be … if you don’t win, by all rights you’re probably out of the deal. You may not be in it anyway; you don’t really know.”

For the second consecutive week, two offensive starters left the game early, leaving USF unable to complete a comeback attempt on the game’s final possession.

Running back Mike Ford, who shares the team lead with six rushing touchdowns, was taken to the hospital with a rib injury following Saturday’s loss at Connecticut.

Three days later, the freshman returned to practice, and Leavitt said he may be available for the homecoming game against the Bearcats.

Wide receiver Amarri Jackson, Ford’s cousin, injured his right knee and remained on crutches Monday. The senior has missed the last two practices, and his status is uncertain as the team awaits MRI results.

Freshman Carlton Mitchell will start if Jackson is unable to play.

Taurus Johnson, who shares the team lead with 22 receptions, sat out against the Huskies with an ankle injury. He will likely be out Saturday as he wore a brace on his leg and didn’t participate during practice.

Losing starters on offense is especially devastating when facing the Bearcats, the same team that held Grothe to 69 yards of total offense last season in Cincinnati. The Bulls fell 23-6 and the loss knocked them out of title contention.

“They did a pretty good job last year of not allowing us to do anything,” Grothe said. “I’ve been looking forward to this game for a year. Not too many times I’ve been shut down as an entire offense like I was shut down last year, and I’m hoping to change that.”

Along with producing the lowest yardage output of his career, Grothe threw an interception and failed to lead USF to any points.

He was benched in favor of Pat Julmiste, who connected with Amp Hill for the team’s only score.

Much like the Bulls, Cincinnati won its first six contests of the season and has dropped its last two. Before their loss against Louisville, the Bearcats were ranked No. 15 in the AP poll and considered the biggest threat to the Bulls for the conference championship.

Cincinnati is no longer ranked and begins the toughest three-game stretch of its season: first at USF and then home for Connecticut and West Virginia.

After winning six straight to open the year, the Bulls realize how easily a great season can slip away. Two weeks after being ranked No. 2 in the country, USF is now tied for last in the conference.

“We were 6-0 and we got complacent and it caught up with us … It was a gut check when we lost to Rutgers, and we really shocked a lot of people when we lost against UConn too,” Grothe said. “We’re all human and we can be beat just like anyone else.”