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Cincinnati at South Florida; The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Okay, so it's more like "ugly, ugly, ugly".

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know - you're trying to heal. You're pinching yourself, trying to wake-up from the nightmare that was a 65-27 loss to the South Florida Bulls.

Well, you can't. This is our reality. Cincinnati is 6-5 and will have to beat a tough East Carolina team next week, on the road, to avoid a .500 season. This wouldn't be all so bad if Cincinnati wasn't picked to run away with the American Athletic Conference Championship in the preseason. Now certainly the preseason rankings, based purely on conjecture and promise, really mean nothing once the teams take the field, but that's just it; Cincinnati had that promise and things have since fallen apart.

So, let's take a deep breath and pull at the band-aid now. Let's talk about the Good, Bad and the Ugly of Cincinnati's latest loss.

The Good

There was none.

It may sound harsh (well, maybe not to Bearcats fans), but there was very, very little to look at as a "good" for this week, so I have accumulated a couple points to perhaps stand-in.

  • Cincinnati "bounced back" when they were trailing 51-3 at halftime by scoring 17 unanswered?
  • Chris Moore broke the Cincinnati school-record for touchdown receptions in a career! (Yay!)
  • Two interceptions by the defense?
  • Houston's Tom Herman, Memphis' Justin Fuente and maybe even Temple's Matt Rhule could be out of the AAC come next season?
  • The game is over. (Winner!)

The Bad

Everything could fall in this category, but let's stick with one particular topic.

Quarterback play.

Freshman Hayden Moore and junior Gunner Kiel haven't been perfect this season, but they still were solid, if not very good for much of the season. While Kiel had his struggles against Temple and Houston and Moore struggled at BYU and had a freshman moment in an otherwise incredibly impressive Memphis performance, whoever played quarterback for Cincinnati played well enough to pull the Bearcats back into games or keep pace in shootouts.

Let me put it this way; quarterback play hasn't been the lone problem this season. It's been one of many, but through it all, we have seen the talent and ability of both Kiel and Moore shine through.

This was not one of those games.

Reminiscent of the end of the BYU game, the Bearcats utterly fell apart, completely outplayed and on their heels from the opening snap.

Even after USF's early score, I expected the leadership and talent of Kiel to right the ship. However, with Kiel needing to sit out a play after losing his helmet on a second down play, Moore was forced into the game and was strip sacked, setting up another USF score.

Okay, it's unfortunate, but it happens, I thought to myself.

With Kiel back in, I expected one of those bounce back, storm back, urgent drives we have seen all too often this season, but instead we got a Kiel interception and another Bulls score. Again, I found myself thinking there was still a chance because Kiel and the Cincinnati offense is just so prolific, but instead Kiel threw another interception a couple drives later that brought him to the bench.

With Moore entering the game I expected him to bring a calming presence, but instead there was more of the same with him throwing two more interceptions with one being taken back for a touchdown.

My point is; what happened? Both quarterbacks, who most of the country would trade for in a heartbeat, couldn't avoid being dragged down in the total team collapse. Kiel ended the day going 8-of-15 for 84 yards and two interceptions and a QBR of 13.5. Moore led those third quarter garbage time drives and finished the game 20-of-36 for 246 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. That equates to a 16.5 QBR.

Again, neither quarterback has been perfect this season and some of these mistakes aren't just appearing for the first time, but to have both quarterbacks, as talented as they are and as good as they've been, suddenly fall apart is unexpected.

The Ugly

To tackle this section, let's begin with the Game Preview (titled "Looking for Consistent Play) I wrote for this game. In that piece, I wrote that the keys to this game for Cincinnati were the following;

  • Cincinnati's defense will have to limit the big-plays, particularly those for Marlon Mack and Quinton Flowers.
  • Cincinnati will have to protect the ball offensively.
  • Cincinnati will have to limit mental errors as a team.

Well... shoot.

Cincinnati did none of those things. The quarterback play was surprisingly poor. The run game was ineffective, even though Mike Boone was relatively effective in the early-going and the defense was bad, plagued by mental errors and big-plays. Everything was ugly.

Well, okay, kicker Andrew Gantz was solid, going 2-for-2 on field goals and was perfect on extra points. Punter Sam Geraci also had a 62-yard punt, which is great.

But overall, it was ugly.

Now, the general vibe you pick-up from the Twitter-sphere is that coaching is the route of the problem (or the source of the "ugly") and I'm not sure if I could make a solid argument against that stance. Even when everything is falling apart around you, the coaches should find some way to settle a team down. Maybe it's taking an early offensive drive and playing it ultra-conservative just to get the team settled, a la "weather the storm". Maybe it's just making an "x's and o's" adjustment, but you would hope there is something that can be done when the momentum is profoundly against you.

That said, this game was over after South Florida's first offensive snap (a 67-yard touchdown pass from Flowers to Rodney Flowers). The Tampa home crowd in the national spotlight fed off that first spark and before the Bearcats could even settle into the contest, the mountain to climb was just too steep for an inexperienced and much maligned Cincy defense or an offense that plays tense, as if they know they need to score each an every time they take the field, pressing throws or pushing for extra yardage and exposing the ball to defenders.

So was this game just a complete buzzsaw or a result of the coaching staff? Our very own Cincinnati guru, Matt Opper, has written about this at length and I tend to agree that Tommy Tuberville and company are still in the process of building something that will take more time than many expected. There are exciting pieces in place now and for the future, but perhaps the preseason hype got ahead of a program with more holes than was initially anticipated.

Nonetheless, this game, as a whole, is the "ugly". All season, we have seen the offense, defense, special teams and coaching staff have bad games or bad moments, but there was always something that kept Cincinnati in the game. Everything fell apart in this one from the very beginning and a total team meltdown ensued. Everything about this game was ugly.

And it's unfortunate for so many reasons, but most importantly because now Cincinnati can never wear those red helmets again.

Cincinnati has one more game this season before Bowl season. Let's hope we have a little more good to talk about come next weekend.