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Eddie Gran's Biggest Task? Establishing An Identity

The 2014 Cincinnati Bearcats are blessed with an impressive array of skill position players, a supremely talented if young quarterback and a solid offensive line. Against Miami the Bearcats could not bring any of that talent to bear as the struggled to find consistency in any phase of the game.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The problem is that the Bearcats can be extremely predictable in first and 10 situations. So far this year they have faced 66 first downs on which they have gained 386 yards, on an average of 5.8 yards per play. That is slightly off the 6.2 YPP they averaged on first downs a year ago. The relative decline in production from last year doesn't really bug me. This early in the year it's impossible to tell if that is statistically significant with this small a data set. My bigger problem is that Eddie Gran is still intent on running the ball on first down's despite the Bearcats hilariously inept* attempts to run the ball a year ago.

*By recent UC standards, not for the country at large.

Not much has changed in this regard, the Bearcats still can't run the football*, and they still try to do it far too much on first downs. Just look at these stats; UC has run on 38 of those 66 first down plays this year, that's 58 percent run. On all other downs the Bearcats are running on just 30 percent of their plays. 30 percent!. That is a classical Air Raid era run/pass ratio, with classical air raid success. According Football Outsiders the Bearcats passing game is the 9th best in country and the 7th best on passing downs.** Granted all this data comes from an extremely small sample size, and Football Outsiders does weight in some of last years data into their numbers this early in the season, but those numbers make complete sense if you think about how this team has played

* Currently sitting 114th out of 128 teams in rushing S&P, Football Outsiders opponent adjusted metric of rushing success

** Defined as 2nd down and 8+ yards to go, or 3rd or 4th down with 5+ yards to go

I would love to say that high run ratios on first downs are just a statistical blip and that they will even out as the year goes on, but I can't. Last year the Bearcats ran 256 times on 441 total first down plays. Care to guess what that equates to as a percentage? I will give you one guess.

On all other downs Eddie Gran has become good at taking what the defense offers him with their alignment and punishing whatever weakness they leave. On all other downs he has no problem at all gleefully exploiting open areas of the field, or match ups where the Bearcats can get an easy win with their personnel. But on first down he is still stubbornly calling the inside zone regardless of what the defense is doing.

Consider this; the Bearcats ran the ball 29* times against Miami, of those UC runs 8 were stopped by Miami for zero yards or a loss. In the business that is called a stuff, and Miami stuffed the Bearcats running game on roughly a 30 percent of all running attempts Saturday night. If that rate of allowing stuff's continued for an entire season** it would put the Bearcats near, if not at, the bottom of the national rankings for the play of offensive lines.

* Remember you take out any sacks as rushing attempts,

** Unlikely but technically possible, UC' season long stuff rate is just 16.6%, which would have placed them just outside the top 25 in that metric a year ago. Also that 16.6 stuff rate would be a huge improvement over last year's below average 19.8%

But again its not just that the Bearcats got stuffed so frequently by the RedHawks, it's that 6 of those stuff's came on first down rushing attempts of which there were just 16. That is the problem that comes with this kind of predictability from an offense, it's easier to stop something if you know that it's coming, and so far that first down run is always coming from Gran.

It doesn't need to be this way. The Bearcats can have a passing game that continues to conflagrate every secondary it see's AND a running game that is capable of capitalizing on the spaces that comes with that. But for that to happen Eddie Gran needs to make a decision. Are the Bearcats going to be a spread first team? Or are they going to going to keep trying to muddle around with the spread while being a power running team on standard downs? You can't be both.

There is really only one way forward this year, with this collection of skill position talent the Bearcats have to be a team that throws until the numbers to run are in their advantage. That has worked here before. The most effective running game for the Bearcats in the S&P+ era was 2009 when a young Isaiah Pead and Jacob Ramsey got the Bearcats to 9th in rushing S&P+. That year the Bearcats were throwing until Tony Pike's or Zach Collaros arm fell off (almost literally in Pike's case). They ran only when they saw two high safeties which gave UC a numerical advantage in the box. These Bearcats don't have an Isaiah Pead on this team, but there is no reason why this group can't run with that kind of effectiveness. As a team and as a coaching staff the Bearcats need to become smarter about running the ball when the defense tells them to, and continuing to throw when they don't.