PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 05: Head coach Butch Jones of the Cincinnati Bearcats watches his team play against the Pittsburgh Panthers on November 5, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
By the time you read this it will be a little less than four hours away from gametime and the official point where we leave the doldrums behind for the windy sky's of the season. I am excited but I am apprehensive as well. I always am before the first game of the season. There are a ton of unknowns on this team. Not just at the quarterback position but across the board. UC had two phenomenal heart and soul leaders last year in Zach Collaros and J.K. Schaffer, this year they are being replaced and I have no idea how those voids get filled. I think Munchie Legaux has the talent to thrive if an offense is built to accentuate his strengths, his height in the pocket, big arm and general athletic ability. But I have no clue what that offense will look like. I could go on listing question marks for the next three hours, more than likely so could you, but that serves little purpose. Instead I have three areas of the game that will wind up determining the outcome of the game.
Control The Pace
Butch Jones said this the day he was hired.
Wide open spread offense, fast paced, great ball security. Our goal will be to lead the country in ball security and scoring points and doing whatever necessary to secure a win. We have been fortunate to be able to do that in the last three years in our offense.
Through two years he has gone two for three on his big ideas. The one miss has been pace, and its something that has really bothered me for the last couple of years. For one quickening the pace makes everything easier for the offense. If a defense barely has time to line up they can't disguise coverages at all. At this level having your coverage laid bare is bad bad news.
For the past two years the Cincinnati offense has really been hamstrung by depth issues in general, but at receiver and offensive line in particular. When your receiver rotation is 4 guys* (as it was last season) its impossible to run the offense at the pace Bajakian and Jones were accustomed to in Mount Pleasant. This year its better with three of the top four returning, Jordan Luallen is an interesting weapon, redshirt freshman Chris Moore and Shaq Washington have both had good camps. And true Freshmen Jeremy Graves and Nate Cole will both see action tonight. In short there is more talent to go around and fashioning a rotation that goes 9 or 10 deep won't be a problem.
The same could be said about the offensive line which returns three starters and has found two good guys to step into starting roles with Sam Longo and Dan Sprauge. More to the point there is some good depth at tackle with Cory Keebler, Andre Cureton and Parker Ehringer. Keebler and Cureton both had good playing time this year and Ehringer just missed out on the starting RG spot.
This is a team that has the depth up front and at receiver to really push the pace offensively. It is probably the best tactic that they can exercise early in the year to make things simpler for Munchie. I would look for them to do just that tonight against a Pitt defense which is thin and looked bad, very bad against Youngstown State.
Exploit Open Space
The biggest reason Pitt lost to Youngstown State comes down to the most elemental action in Football. They couldn't tackle in general and they defiantly could not make tackles in open spaces. Andre Stubbs a 5'6" 160 pound receiver (and high school teammate of Shaq Washington) ran 6 times for 71 yards and a score and he caught 4 passes for 61 yards and another score. He didn't do it by making plays down the field, Stubbs did his damage by stretching the defense horizontally and forcing Pitt's big, bulky linebackers and to make plays on him in the flats. The Panthers simply couldn't answer that call. That is something that the Bearcats can exploit with the seemingly endless array of diminutive slot players from McClung to Ralph Abernathy IV.
With all the talk swirling around the Bearcats focused, almost exclusively, on Munchie Legaux and the offense an overlooked topic has been what the defense will do under new DC John Jancek. The Cats are undersized up front, particularly at defensive tackle, though having big Greg Blair standing behind them makes that less of a concern, but it doesn't erase it. For this defense to have success they have to be in attack mode from the outset.
UC basically went to a 4-2-5 for long stretches of the season last year. Its the defense that TCU and Boise State have made a ton of hay with over the years, especially against teams that spread it out. The challenge for that look will be apparent right away. Pitt has a massive offensive line and a damn fine stable of backs between Ray Graham, Issac Bennett and the newly reinstated Rushel Shell. While Pitts offensive line may be massive they aren't, in my estimation, good. Look for Jancek to try to exploit that with a variety of blitzes to disrupt the line. Keep in mind that the Bearcats have a ton of depth and ability at corner back to take some risks with exotic blitzes and looks. UC has had nine months to prepare for this game. Expect to see some new things defensively.