Tonight is the night, the third trophy game of the season, and the first of three games that will decide the Big East race this year. The Bearcats loss last weekend to Toledo cost UC their national ranking, and this rivalry of its first contest between ranked foes. But there is a lot left to play for.
Run The Ball
I am going to beat this damn horse into the ground before the end of the year. But that is what this team has to do to win. It is not in the best interests of the offense to put the ball up 30 times. I don't particularly care if that is what the Cardinals set up to make Munchie Legaux do. The Bearcats have to run the ball, Munchie has to run the ball for this team to get the win.
In a lot of ways the Louisville defense is similar to the Bearcats in that they are bent on pressuring the offense at the line of scrimmage with blitzes and stunts up front. It is very effective at creating disruptions, but it comes with a risk. Maintaining gap discipline in the midst of chaos can be difficult, and gaps can appear and be exploited, Bearcats know that all too well.
Generally, it is possible to break big runs on this Cardinals team, and that doesn't even take into account what is likely to be a stacked box. The Cardinals are almost certainly going to throw 8 in the box on standard downs all night long. That isn't a great recipe for big yards play to play, but there is always the chance for a big play if the offensive line can get UC's cadre of talented backs to the second level. I am not saying that Bilal Powell's series long run will be broken, but it wouldn't be that shocking.
Contain Teddy Bridgewater
One of the most disheartening things about the Toledo game was how often, particularly in the second half, that Rockets QB Terrence Owens was able to elude the rush, escape the pocket and pick up first downs on the ground. Four different times Owens did that. It was not because Owens is a great runner. He is decent, but you stop well short of RGIII comparisons.
Bridgegwater is very similar. He is mobile in the pocket, but its to buy time not to get yards with his feet. To wit Bridgewater has 42 carries on the year, and 12 of those carries were sacks. He is mobile, but he sticks in the pocket to makes plays down field as long as possible.
Owens had his runs because the Bearcats made the conscious decision to play cover two for the majority of the game to stop Owens from beating the secondary over the top. It worked brilliantly against the Rockets and Owens had by far his weakest outing as a passer this season. But the price was a defense so committed to stopping the pass that no one was paying attention to Owens, and he picked up big first downs time and again.
I expect a similar approach from John Jancek tonight. But for the plan to work to perfection the Bearcats will have to get pressure on Bridgewater, while at the same time keeping rush lane discipline, thereby shutting down the seams in the pass rush that Owens exploited so well.
Win With Special Teams
Last Saturday was a good special teams performance from the Bearcats at large, but it was marred by a series of breakdowns in kickoff coverage that wound up providing the margin of victory for Toledo. On paper the Bearcats have a sizable edge in special teams. Pat O'Donnell is the best punter in the conference, by a wide margin; Tony Miliano is having an All Big East type season, the two headed monster of Danny Milligan and Anthony McClung have averaged almost 15 yards per punt return; and then there is Ralph David Abernathy IV.
RDA4 is, for my entirely biased money, the most dangerous return man in the Big East, all due respect to Nick Williams. Better yet the Cardinals don't have a kicker that is capible of erasing him from the game. The Cardinals have used two different guys on the season for kickoffs, John Wallace and Joshua Appleby, neither has really given them what they need. Between the two of them they have three touch backs on 44 kickoffs. The Cardinals are OK in terms of coverage, but they aren't world beaters either. RDA4 will get a couple cracks at making a big play in the kicking game, and the Bearcats will need it.