Cincinnati No Closer To Finding An Identity In Illinois Loss

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

For as bad as Cincinnati played on defense the questions coming out of the game are all about the offense. Where does Eddie Gran go from here, and how does he begin to find a calling card for an offense that has, for two weeks, tried to do a little bit of everything well, but has done nothing great? The Bearcats obviously have problems, but of what provenience and type?

The joy and the madness of college football is that it is just 12 weeks long. Only 12 weeks to determine the worth and value of a single team within a countless mass of similarly flawed and misshapen teams. The problem arises in the collective need to evaluate every team on a week by week basis. Where every new game is a chance to completely reassess a team based on a single game’s worth of information. Because of that rush to judgement it is oh so common to inflate or deflate the value of a team based on one really good, or really bad outing. Nowhere is that more common than in the first weeks of a season.

The problem lies in differentiating between situational and systemic variables. Is an exceptionally bad or good outing from a team the result of systemic failure or success, or one of variables? This early in the season it is literally too early to make that call.

That's why those who vote in polls rely on the same handful of programs year after year, unless one of them proves with their play on the field that they can not be trusted. In which case they move on to the next safest bet of the bunch. But the obvious problem with that idea is that early in the season, we know next to nothing about the teams involved in any particular game, and results from last season weigh too heavily on the present.

The Cincinnati Bearcats could very well be the picture of that dichotomy right now. Are the Bearcats as good as they looked in smothering Purdue, or as bad as they looked in the first half of the Illinois game? Who are the real Bearcats? Who knows, but that’s the point.

Against Purdue UC flashed a dominating ground game and a salty, aggressive defense that completely erased anything and everything the Boilermakers tried to do. Against Illinois Tim Banks's crew used timely and precise blitzes to blow up the run game before it could start which put the Bearcats behind schedule far too often. Bill Cubit was masterful in using the Bearcats aggression on defense to his own advantage in carving up the Bearcats to the tune of 522 total yards, almost 300 more than Purdue managed.

That is, by any stretch of the imagination, bad. The Illini were ready to go from the start, and the Bearcats were not. That much is clear. Where it gets murky is trying to project what happened today across the balance of the season to come. What has to be asked is are the problems that befell the Bearcats in yesterday’s loss systemic, or situational?

Did the run defense collapse because the linebackers and defensive line are slightly overestimated. Or was it a one game blip, courtesy of Bill Cubit. Cubit cannot be overestimated, that is the best offensive gameplan I have seen against a UC team since UConn in 2008. Cubit called a phenomenal game that kept the Bearcats ultra aggressive linebackers off balance all game long. He used their aggression against them.

The Bearcats didn't get any consistent pressure on the passer yesterday. Is that because the competency of the defensive line is slightly overrated? Or does that go back to Cubit again for limiting the number of 5 and 7 step drops Scheelhaase had to take, which neutralized the pass rush to some extent? The Illini passing game was all about very quick three step drops, rolled pockets and play action looks. All of which put the Bearcats permanently behind the 8 ball. On the rare occasions where UC stopped the Illini on the first two downs a third down conversion was sure to come, no matter the distance.

On the day Illinois converted 9 of 15 attempts on third down, going 2 of 5 on third and long. Including the backbreaking third and 19 conversion to Steve Hull. On offense UC managed to convert on just 3 of 13 attempts. Most of those failed conversions came in the first half, when the Bearcats dug their 21-0 hole. In going from 0-0 to 21-0 Illini the Bearcats ran 13 plays to the Illini's 26.

A lot of UC fans have jumped right to 2010 and Fresno State in breaking this game down. The similarities lend themselves to that analysis. The first road game of the year with a new head coach, a very odd kickoff time. A team most pundits thought UC would beat handily. Then there was the completely lifeless performance from a team that has, of late, always played with a ton of energy.

But the similarities between 2010 and 2013 end there for me, at least for now. The 2010 team had systemic problems that showed up from game one. In 2010 UC couldn't field five competent offensive linemen, and the offense suffered. There was no depth to speak of in the front 7, Wolfe, Hughes, Walt, Schaffer & Co. played ungodly numbers of snaps. It was clear from the start that the Bearcats were in trouble in 2010 because they didn't have enough bodies.

That is not the case now. If anything UC has the opposite problem in 2013, UC has too many bodies, quite a few of them young, but most of them capable. Against the Illini the Bearcats played 52 guys. A few played special teams only, but I would estimate that around 40 played meaningful first team reps. Playing that many guys adds new and, arguably, needless complications to the already wildly complicated process of developing a team identity. That is hard enough to do for a team with a brand new coaching staff. Remember that unlike the Dantonio to BK, and BK to Butch transitions no one stayed behind.* Everyone either went out with Butch Jones to Tennessee or struck out on their own.

*Tim Hinton stayed over from the Dantonio staff with Kelly, and Kerry Coombs did the same from BK to Butch.

Part of the problem, arguably the largest part, for the Bearcats in developing an identity to this point of the season has been the decision to play Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux rather than picking one guy and rolling. That’s in the past now, but it surely accounts for how disjointed the offense has felt. It will be Kay, and the process of figuring out what the Bearcats will try to do on offense for the rest of the season will start today.

It might feel weird to focus this much thought to the offense when the defense just gave up more points than they have since 2009. But I know who the Bearcats are defensively, I know they want to win with the front four and allow the second level defenders to fly around and make plays. They just ran into a buzz saw of a gameplan from Bill Cubit that was executed to perfection by an offense that looks capable of providing a surprise or two this year. UC is going to have to contend with other teams trying to do the exact same things the rest of the year, and I trust Art Kaufman & Co. to make the needed adjustments to their approach.

But I am no closer to knowing what Eddie Gran wants to with his offense than I was a week ago. Does he want to run with power? If so, explain why 10 of Ralph David Abernathy IV's 12 carries were aimed between the guards? Does he want to run zone read stuff on the side? Does he want a short rhythm based passing attack or does he want to use play action to take shots down the field? To all of that I haven't a clue.

This was always the concern with Gran. I never voiced it, but it was lurking deep in my subconscious. He went out and hired an interesting staff, full of guys associated with offenses that diverged sharply from what he did with Florida State. These are all guys from spread backgrounds, who want to push the tempo, play fast and put athletes in space. That is emphatically not what Florida State did. Florida State attacked with a downhill running game and some interesting power runs with E.J. Manuel.

I don't doubt that Gran will figure it out in time; there is a lot of talent to work with on this team. Hosey Williams clearly is ready for a bigger role within the offense. Shaq Washington played a phenomenal game in the slot and gives the Bearcats two guys that defenses have to account for in the middle of the field. Anthony McClung looked like himself again, Max Morrison showed flashes. But Gran needs to find better ways to use RDA4. He is without question the biggest arrow in the quiver that Gran has, but he is emphatically not a running back, not full time. The raw materials are all there for UC to have an explosive offense, but they need to simplify things to get there.

Tommy Tuberville mentioned a week ago that the Bearcats operated about 60 percent of the play book against Purdue. By the looks of it they operated at about the same capacity against Illinois. They need to shrink that down even more. Gran should pick his 8 best runs and his 8 best pass concepts and run nothing but those looks for the next two weeks. The Bearcats have problems with offensive consistency that can only be fixed with repetition.

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