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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at East Carolina Pirates; Finishing Strong

Cincinnati hits the road for their final regular season contest to take on the 5-6 East Carolina Pirates.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Game

Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015

Greenville, N.C.

12:00 PM ET

CBS Sports Network

Meet the Opponent

East Carolina's season has played out as you might expect. The Pirates are 5-6 with a 3-4 record in the AAC and have struggled with consistency this season as they tried to replace former quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy, who both are now trying to find their way in the NFL (plus the loss of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley). The Pirates have created a solid, deep program with a wealth of talent to call upon, but this season, the inexperience has played a role in the inconsistency for a team, now fighting to become bowl-eligible.

The Pirates have beaten the teams you'd expect them to beat and did take down Virginia Tech, 35-28, in September. The losses haven't always been pretty, but the Pirates only fell to the Florida Gators by one score and played teams like South Florida and BYU much closer than Cincinnati did, falling 17-22 and 38-45, respectively.

East Carolina may not be the overall better team when the Pirates take the field against the Bearcats Saturday, but the Pirates are a very dangerous opponent, just on the cusp of bowl-eligibility in front of the home crowd for Senior Day.

East Carolina Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

East Carolina's Blake Kemp has stepped in and played well at quarterback this season, completing 69.8% of his passes for 2,343 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Kemp is coming off a career game in last week's 44-7 victory over UCF. Seriously, who doesn't light up the Knights? Still, Kemp threw for 465 yards and four touchdowns with no picks. That confidence is brought into a matchup with a Bearcats defense that was decimated by South Florida last week with the Bulls throwing for four easy touchdowns.

The Pirates are led on the ground by Chris Hairston, who has 738 rushing yards on the season and eight touchdowns. James Summers has 445 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns of his own. Both players average 4.7 yards per carry. Cincinnati has struggled to matchup with running attacks for much of the season, allowing just over 200 yards per game on the ground. It is hardly worth reminding Cincinnati fans that USF ran for 355 yards on 52 carries just a week ago.

Isaiah Jones is a very talented receiver on the outside, taking up the mantle from Hardy this season. Jones has 86 receptions on the year for 975 yards with five touchdowns. His long reception of the year is only 36 yards, so he has yet to bust a deep one, but Jones is going to be hard for the Bearcats to contain. Jones is coming off a 14 reception, 181-yard, two touchdown performance against the Knights. Three other receivers have over 400 receiving yards on the season.

Cincinnati has yet to demonstrate an ability to take advantage of pass rushing opportunities with only 12 sacks on the season, but the Pirates have allowed 29 sacks as a team. East Carolina also struggles to take care of the ball with 19 turnovers on the season and a turnover margin of minus-4. It still doesn't touch Cincinnati's minus-15, but after a string of games where Cincinnati took on teams with overwhelming advantages in that key stat, Cincinnati will have a chance to win the turnover battle in this one.

I'm not really sure what to expect for the Cincinnati defense this week, following the total embarrassment that was the USF loss. I'd hope Cincinnati comes out and plays hard, even if it brings some mistakes in the process, but East Carolina will be riding high off a blowout win last week and will be playing in front of the home crowd with bowl-eligibility on the line. I do think Cincinnati could force a couple turnovers. Expect points for the Pirates.

East Carolina Defense vs. Cincinnati Offense

If I wanted to make this section incredibly short, all I would do is point to that terrible turnover margin from above. Cincinnati ranks 123rd in the country with their minus-15 turnover margin, and that's with the Bearcats defense actually forcing some turnovers of their own in the process. Gunner Kiel has been amazing at times, in a positive way, and then amazing at other times, in a "screaming at the television in disbelief" way. I believe in Kiel, but the turnovers are absolute killers. Even Hayden Moore's presence hasn't remedied the problems on offense as he accounted for three turnovers against the Bulls in relief of Kiel.

You know the story with the rest of the offense. The run game has been very solid all season with Mike Boone, Tion Green and Hosey Williams combining for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground. After falling behind quickly against the Bulls last week, the run game was largely abandoned. Cincinnati will need the run game to control the pace of the game with East Carolina's ability to throw the ball. The Cincinnati passing game remains a largely unstoppable unit if they don't turn the ball over.

East Carolina is led on the defensive side of the ball by linebacker Zeek Bigger, who has 89 total tackles on the season. Montese Overton has 7.5 sacks of the Pirates' 25. East Carolina only has forced seven interceptions on the year, which is good for a Cincinnati offense that has thrown 18.

This is how many of Cincinnati's games have looked on paper. Cincinnati's offense has the ability to move the ball. It will just depend on their ability to protect the ball.

Special Teams

Cincinnati's Andrew Gantz is 47-for-47 on extra points and 19-for-24 on field goals with a long of 51. Punter Sam Geraci averages 45.6 yards per punt.

Davis Plowman is 36-for-37 on extra points this season for USF and is 9-for-11 on field goals with a long of 45 yards. Worth Gregory averages 43.1 yards per punt and has had 29 punts downed inside the 20.

Prediction

Score: Cincinnati 42, East Carolina 34

Last week's game against USF was a total meltdown. Cincinnati got behind the ball early and couldn't come back. Everything fell apart after that. I don't see that happening in this one, but it is difficult to project Cincinnati because of how bad the turnovers have been this season.

Cincinnati has the offensive firepower to put up points and has used that to stay in games, even after shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers or mental mistakes. East Carolina, on the other hand, may not have the firepower Cincinnati has, but has the playmakers to torment Bearcats fans if Cincinnati doesn't play smart football.

We've been here before. Cincinnati has talent all over the field and should be able to put up points, but it will all come down to turnovers and mental lapses on the defensive side of the ball. Not to mention, Cincinnati will have to overcome a road test against an East Carolina team looking for bowl-eligibility on their Senior Day. I'll take Cincinnati, but it may not be pretty.