If you have watched SMU football at all this year it goes without saying that everything that is written from this point comes replete with many, many grains of salt. SMU played an unbelievably brutal schedule, the kind of schedule that Joseph Stalin would concoct to punish a bunch of russian poets if putting them all on train to Siberia wasn't an option*. SMU opened at Baylor, got a (relative) breather against North Texas and then went Texas A&M, TCU and ECU back to back to back. That they came into today's game 0-5 is not a surprise, but the manner of their destruction was so absolute, so final that many in Dallas are in basketball mode already. Thats probably for the best because they aren't a good football team.
*putting them on a train to siberia was totally an option
Even considering all that, what the Bearcats did against the Mustangs yesterday is encouraging, especially on defense. It's not the stats that has me encouraged, because that is not going to be repeated in the coming weeks. The biggest thing is that the passivity that came to define the Bearcats defense against Ohio State, Memphis and Miami wasn't as noticeable. There were blips where the Bearcats reverted to their bad habits, but they are clearly working on a different approach, and it worked incredibly well.
The most noticeable thing was the way the Bearcats walked both corners up on SMU's outside receivers and playing honest to goodness press coverage against vertical routes. UC didn't play much man at all, it was zone by and large. But they challenged the receivers space and made life more difficult for them. That is something the Bearcats have to continue to do, no matter who they are playing.
In this era of football it is nearly impossible for a defense, even one with five star talent*, to have consistent success by playing off receivers and "rallying to the football" on completed passes. Offense's are too good at creating and exploiting space, and quarterbacks are on the whole better than they have ever been.
*Totally not the Bearcats, but you knew that
To wit in 2014 29 quarterbacks are completing 65 percent of their passes, In 2004 only 10 quarterbacks were that efficient. To have even the faintest hope of disrupting an offense in the passing game a defense has to be able to challenge the throwing lanes. It is impossible to challenge any throw sitting 8 yards off the receiver, which has been the UC default setting for most of the season.
So seeing Hank Hughes walk the corners up on SMU was the headliner of defensive changes, but that wasn't the only one. The open field tackling was infinitely better, the communications breakdowns where fewer and farther between (though a few still happened). UC defenders routinely passed receivers off from one zone to the next successfully.
Those things might seem trivial and insignificant, but those are the very things that the Bearcats were getting disastrously wrong through the first five games. Making progress in those areas is unquestionably a positive sign, and they should be welcomed as such. That does not mean the Bearcats are out of the woods defensively, it just means that there is room for growth and a way for this defense to be just bad as opposed to being "oh my god, EVERYTHING is on fire." Bad is fine, UC can probably get to a bowl game with a bad.
The big question for the rest of the year is one of scalability. They looked good against SMU, the worst team in the country and probably one of the worst teams of the last five years. Can they take what they did against SMU and scale it up for the better teams left on the schedule? Can they make enough incremental improvement to give the Bearcats offense a shot to make noise against ECU in four weeks time*? Maybe, but probably not, but the fact that I can get through that question in my head without bursting out laughing is progress.
*A game that I will totally be at by the way
USF will ask a completely different series of questions about the Bearcats defense. It will be a pretty good barometer for how or if the Bearcats have improved at all in the running game. The Bulls have had a lot of success on the ground this year with Marlon Mack (probably the best back in the conference) and they will try to run the ball right down the Bearcats throat. That is the next test for the Bearcats defense, we will see if they are up to the task on friday night.