The question is, as it almost always is here, is how has this happened? There is no simple one line answer to that question, but there are a number of key points that have got the Bearcats to this point.
-- The Bearcats have made a remarkable turnaround in field goal efficiency. Andrew Gantz has been a huge upgrade over Tony Miliano with his consistency. Through eight games he is 10 for 11 on field goal attempts, good for 90 percent, a rate of efficiency that Milaino never even came close to touching in his best season. He has also been very good on PAT's. In the FEI numbers which are all about measuring expected points given a situation against what is actually achieved being efficient in place kicking situations matters rather more than the other factors. Gantz leap in efficiency from the field is a huge boost for the Bearcats numbers
-- The other factor that is being overlooked by a lot of fans is that the Bearcats have managed to hold their own in kick coverage this year. That was certainly not the case a year ago when UC allowed a pair of return touchdowns, both in games where the special teams collapses doomed the Bearcats to defeat. UC is still not good at covering punts, and they are merely OK at covering kickoffs. But not good and OK are massive improvements over "oh my god" and "how...I don't even...".
-- Lastly and most importantly the Bearcats return game has benefited from moving on from Ralph David Abernathy IV as the primary kick and punt returner. RDA4 was a good player who had flashes of brilliance that were so bright that it enabled all of us to look beyond his occasionally long stretches of so so play both in the backfield and in the return game. He was named the special teams player of the year last season on reputation as much as performance. I am saddened to see his career as a Bearcat end the way it has, but there is no escaping the fact that UC is better off with Shaq Washington returning punts and Casey Gladney/Johnny Holton returning kickoffs. Shaq in particular has been a revelation and given the Bearcats at threat in that spot that they really haven't had since Mardy Gilyard. Oh and he catches the punt almost without fail.
All of this stuff is particularly relevant heading into tonight's game for one big reason, special teams is the one area of this game where the Bearcats have a clear and decided advantage. The Bearcats offense is more or less of a piece with the Pirates offense. They are not the same, but the effectiveness of each is roughly equivalent. Likewise both teams have defenses that have struggled mightily through eight games. Finding an advantage for either defense over the oppositions offense is very, very difficult. Really the only phase of the game where one team does have a decided advantage is the Bearcats special teams over the Pirates group. For UC to spring the (relative) upset they will need to get steady production from Gantz and maybe just maybe a special teams score for the first time since 2011.