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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at South Florida Bulls; Looking for Consistent Play

Cincinnati is now 6-4 and bowl eligible, but now must hit the road to take on the South Florida Bulls.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Game

Friday, Nov. 20, 2015

Tampa, Florida

7:00 PM ET

CBS Sports Network

Meet the Opponent

The South Florida Bulls are entering Friday's game with the same 6-4 record Cincinnati enters the game with. Not much was expected of USF this season, but the Bulls have played well, even if they have just now peaked the interest of the national media following a 44-23 win over the previously No. 22 ranked Temple Owls. The four losses for the Bulls came on the road against Florida State, Maryland and Navy with a lone home loss to Memphis. Even then, the first half against Florida State was close and Memphis only won by one score. Throw in the Temple win, and USF's 6-4 record looks a little more impressive.

Diving a little further into that win over Temple, the Bulls absolutely dominated the game. Sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns with no picks, but the real star was running back Marlon Mack. Mack needed only 21 carries to rack up 230 yards and two touchdowns. Flowers even added 90 yards on the ground and a touchdown against the vaunted Temple defense. Meanwhile, the USF defense held Temple's Jahad Thomas, a guy Cincinnati had plenty of struggles with, to a mere 65 yards on the ground and one touchdown.

Yes, it's only one game, but USF has been trending towards a win like the one against the Owls all season. Plus, with the win, USF is now in the thick of the AAC Conference Championships chase with a 4-2 conference record compared to Temple's 5-1 mark. This is a big matchup for both teams.

USF Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

In the preseason, the quarterback position was a major question mark, but Flowers has ran with the opportunity. Flowers doesn't toss the ball around quite like Cincinnati does, but 1,676 yards through the air on 60.4% completion percentage with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions is respectable. Flowers also adds to the rushing attack with 747 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. That said, the South Florida offense clearly operates through Mack and the run game.

Between Flowers and Mack, USF is ranked 15th nationally in rush offense, averaging 227.9 yards per game with a 5.17 yards per carry average. Mack has 1,065 yards rushing this season on 164 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per carry himself. He also had six touchdowns on the ground. He isn't the same sort of receiving threat out of the backfield, with only 99 yards receiving on 15 receptions, but Mack plays with great speed, power and elusiveness, so he is dangerous with the ball in his hands regardless of how he gets it. While Flowers plays the most important position (and has been playing it efficiently at that), Mack is the most important key to South Florida's success.

On the outside, Rodney Adams leads the way with 575 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. With the run-focused offense, the ball doesn't get spread around the same way it does for Cincinnati, but D'Ernest Johnson and Sean Price each have over 200 yards receiving as well (259 and 217, respectively). Up front, USF has allowed 18 sacks, but again, those number are a little misleading with the run focus. For comparison, Cincinnati has allowed 19 sacks with 418 pass attempts while USF has only attempted 223 passes as a team, so generating a pass rush may be something Cincinnati can exploit.

Cincinnati was uneven last week on both sides of the ball. The defense gave up 588 total yards to Tulsa with 375 passing yards and 213 rushing yards, including two long runs on fourth down. That said, the Bearcats defense made situational plays as the game progressed. They forced and recovered a key fumble when they needed to close out the game and Silverberry Mouhon grabbed two sacks against a high-powered Tulsa offense. While Cincinnati should be able to hold their own against an offense lacking the weapons of a Tulsa, Memphis or Houston, the big plays are unnerving for Bearcats fans. Whether it was two long runs against the Golden Hurricane or touchdown strikes against dynamite passing attacks, Cincinnati will have to avoid those lapses against the Bulls. Mack is the type of player who will capitalize on defensive mistakes. In that sense, this matchup reminds me of Temple's Jahad Thomas against the Cincinnati defense.

Big-plays will be key, although I believe Cincinnati will hold their own in rush defense otherwise. Flowers figures to make some throws and Mack is a major threat, but if Cincinnati can limit big-plays, I believe the Bearcats will continue to show the growth we have seen from them over the past couple weeks, even if the yardage totals don't show it in the box score.

USF Defense vs. Cincinnati Offense

South Florida ranks 42nd in the country on defense, allowing 370.1 total yards per game. Meanwhile, the Bearcats offense ranks 4th in total offense, averaging an absurd 585.6 total yards per game. For reference, only the Big 12 offensive juggernauts of Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech average more yards.

While Flowers plays more of a managerial role for the USF offense, Gunner Kiel has been the key to the Cincinnati offense. His numbers are crazy, despite missing a good deal of time due to injury, as he has 2,423 passing yards on the season with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 66.1% completion percentage. The problem for Kiel is that his play has been uneven. He is able to make every throw, but he makes back-breaking mistakes that result in interceptions or fumbles. It feels like he is pressing, perhaps feeling the pressure of needing to put up points, preventing him from just taking a sack or throwing the ball away. The stats will be there again, but it will all depend on Kiel's ability to protect the ball and make smart decisions.

There has been a lot of discussion about Mike Boone's usage. With 633 rushing yards on the season, Boone now leads the team, although he has over 30 less carries (72 carries) compared to Hosey Williams (108 carries, 630 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Tion Green (120 carries, 620 rushing yards, six touchdowns). That means Boone is averaging 8.8 yards per carry compared to the impressive 5.8 and 5.2 averages for Williams and Green, respectively. I think it's clear Boone should earn a little more of a feature role, although his struggles in pass protection does, and should, limit his time on the field. I'd rather we see more of a "hot-hand" approach, which is something I expect to see this wee, although it will be mostly an even split when all said and done.

USF has the ability to make some impact plays defensively, which should worry Cincinnati fans. They have 26 sacks on the season, nine interceptions and have forced 11 fumbles, recovering six of them. Auggie Sanchez leads the Bulls with 87 total tackles. Jamie Byrd leads the team with five sacks and he has two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Cincinnati should be able to move the ball, like they have all year, but it will all depend on Cincinnati's ability to protect the ball. Should we anticipate turnovers? I'll give Cincinnati the benefit of the doubt and say they limit the mistakes this week and put up some points.

Special Teams

Cincinnati's Andrew Gantz is 44-for-44 on extra points and 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 51. Punter Sam Geraci has been solid this season, averaging 45 yards per punt.

Emilio Nadelman is 36-for-36 on extra points this season for USF and is 11-for-17 on field goals with a long of 47 yards. Matti Ciabatti is the punter. He averages 43.3 yards per punt and has had 18 punts downed inside the 20.

Prediction

Score: Cincinnati 35, USF 31

Cincinnati's offense hasn't been stopped this season, when they don't stop themselves with turnovers or mental errors. Kiel should play well and the run should be emphasized in the gameplan, which bodes well for the Cincinnati turnover margin. While the Bearcats defense likely won't shutdown the Bulls entirely, Cincinnati's situational play has improved defensively, which could be the final deciding factor in this game.

While Mack is a very good player, Cincinnati did limit him to under 60 yards on the ground a year ago and, like I mentioned above, Mack reminds me of Jahad Thomas. If Mack has the opportunities the Bearcats gave Thomas, the Bearcats are in trouble. That said, I do believe the Bearcats have improved and I expect Cincinnati to do enough to limit Mack's impact. Between Flowers and Mack, USF will have every opportunity to win this game as stopping either is a real challenge. Expect a ball control offense from the Bulls and watch the big-plays and turnovers for both teams. For the sake of my prediction, I like Cincinnati to play clean enough across the board to pull off a close win.