TAMPA — For 10 days, both sides of Thursday's showdown between No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 21 USF had behaved, keeping the opposing bulletin boards largely clutter-free.
Despite a juicy story line — USF defensive coordinator Joe Tresey going up against the defense he ran for two years and the coach, Brian Kelly, who fired him in February — the public statements were polite offerings of mutual admiration.
Then came Tuesday afternoon, and Bearcats receiver Mardy Gilyard, who had plenty to say to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"The coaches, they're all licking their chops," Gilyard, the senior from Bunnell, told the Enquirer. "They can't wait to play Coach Tresey down there. (Receivers) coach (Charley) Molnar, I've never seen that look in his eyes like he has this week. Coach Kelly as well. Those guys are really, really ready to get us going for this game.''
Gilyard's comments took Tresey by surprise, if only because of the way Kelly had benignly answered questions from the media as both teams went through a bye week after 5-0 starts.
"I really don't have anything to say," Tresey said after Tuesday's practice. "We just need to play. The players have had bye weeks, and they need to play."
Tresey said this week's awkward reunion is a first for him.
"You go the NFL, it occurs all the time. In the NFL, they recycle people," Tresey said. "Somebody called me the other day and said, 'You're just like the NFL now, going against a former employer, and you're familiar with their personnel and what they do.' It's very much like that."
With Tresey running its defense, Cincinnati won a Big East crown last year. He coached under Kelly for two seasons with the Bearcats and in 2006 at Central Michigan.
"The nice thing is I am familiar with personnel. I am familiar with some of the things they do, there's no question," said Tresey, 51. "This is a big game. We haven't beaten them the last three seasons. … I'm really focused on our defense and football team, not what occurred at Cincinnati."
To be recycled, something has to be first thrown away. Tresey (pronounced "Tracy") was fired by Kelly five weeks after the season ended. Kelly publicly cited a desire to shift to the 3-4 defense the Bearcats now run, but the move might also have been prompted by Tresey interviewing for the same job at Miami.
The Hurricanes, like Cincinnati, went in another direction, allowing Tresey to come to USF, knowing he'd face Kelly and his old team. Tresey hasn't had the first bad word to say about Kelly, other than to admit he was surprised when he was fired. Kelly, too, has played nice when asked about the reunion.
"Joe does a great job," Kelly said last week. "He'll have that defense ready and raring to go. It's not about Joe Tresey or Brian Kelly. It's about our players and how they play."
Tresey's defense was a big part of Cincinnati's last two wins against USF — the Bearcats forced eight turnovers the last time they played in Tampa in 2007, and stopped the Bulls twice inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter of last year's 24-10 win in Cincinnati.
USF is showing that same ball-hawking style, forcing four fumbles in a win at Florida State Sept. 26 and seven turnovers at Syracuse a week later. Tresey knows Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike well. The redshirt senior has the Bearcats scoring 42 points per game. Gilyard leads the team in receptions with 38, is second in the Big East in receiving yards per game (103.4) and leads the league in scoring with 54 points.
Though Cincinnati has 10 new starters on defense, Tresey was able to brief USF offensive coordinator Mike Canales and his players on the Bearcats.
As for being just another game, with no revenge factor, his players at USF already know him well enough to suspect otherwise.
"He always says he's not worried, but I think in the back of his mind, he's like, 'I get a chance at my old team,' " defensive end George Selvie said. "Just playing Cincinnati, going against his old head coach, I think it's a big game for him. I think he really wants it."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.