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Grading the Defense: Week Six

Not as bad as the offense.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In their loss to the UConn Huskies on Saturday, the Cincinnati Bearcats did some good things defensively. They only let up 412 total yards of offense, which was the third-lowest total from an opponent this season and they also matched their second-best effort of the season in terms of points allowed (20).

However, as we all know, the blubbering failure of the offense doomed UC to the loss column, despite some key plays from the defensive unit. Here’s a break down of what each positional group brought to the table.

Defensive line

The good: Junior defensive end Mark Wilson broke through for his first sack of the season, which was a nice sign, as UC has not been that great at getting pressure from the edge, with defensive ends accounting for 3.5 of the team’s 14 sacks.

The bad: Although UConn didn’t set the field at Rentschler Field ablaze offensively, the Huskies had some success on the ground. Arkeel Newsome rushed for 116 yards on 14 carries and ripped off a 67-yard run that showed up all three levels of the defense, including the line. Additionally, Bryant Shirreffs was able to escape the pocket and rush for far too many yards (52 total) and a number of painful first downs.

Final grade: D+

Linebackers

The good: Eric Wilson. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Easily the most consistent and best player on the roster right now, Wilson accumulated another 11 tackles, including one for loss. He leads the American Athletic Conference in tackles (65) with 11 more than the next-best player (Auggie Sanchez of USF). Antonio Kinard had seven tackles and was active and the unit also committed zero penalties and was generally there to clean up the mess when Shirreffs ran the ball.

The bad: Newsome’s big day is the fault of the line and the linebackers, who let him cut into space a little too much. In addition, the linebacking corps didn’t create many negative plays, with Wilson accounting for the only tackle for loss of the contest from the unit.

Final grade: B

Secondary

The good: Zach Edwards looked like Zach Edwards again. He was all over the field, amassing nine tackles, including a sack. Grant Coleman also recorded a forced fumble and 1.5 tackles for loss, while Alex Thomas and Linden Stephens each stepped in front of a pass from Shirreffs. UC is now tied with Troy for the second-most interceptions in the country (12). Additionally, safeties Mike Tyson and Tyrell Gilbert had a pass breakup apiece and continue to be ballhawking defenders.

The bad: A few key plays downgraded the secondary’s performance. More than once, UC defensive backs gambled and went all in on trying to snag a pick, only to miss badly and allow UConn to pick up a big gain. Perhaps no example was more damning than Shirreffs 59-yard touchdown pass to Tyraiq Beals at the end of the first half.

As you can see the defensive back scrambles to cover Beals, decides to dive for a pass breakup or interception instead of allowing the UConn receiver to catch the ball and then make a tackle. With less than a minute left in the second quarter, a more conservative approach would have been better, as UConn’s offense had been stagnant up until that point. If Beals makes a 20-yard or so catch there, the Huskies probably settle for a field goal attempt rather than a quick strike touchdown.

In addition to the over eagerness, the secondary was at fault for the bulk of UC’s penalties. Gilbert was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul on the second play of the game, Thomas was called for a 10-yard holding penalty and Stephens committed a 15-yard pass interference infraction as well. The rest of the team was guilty of two penalties for 17 yards.

Final grade: C+

Overall

If UC had figured out a way to win this game, the defense would probably be heralded for largely keeping mistakes at a minimum and putting the Bearcats in a position to win. Even without the victory, that’s largely what the group did. Despite a few breakdowns, UC created a number of turnovers, got some pressure and held UConn to a pair of field goals on its only two red zone trips of the game.

Normally, overcoming a 20-point game from an opponent would be no problem for UC, which scored more than 30 points per game in every season from 2011 to 2015. Not this season, when the Bearcats are second-to-last in the AAC in scoring (23 PPG). Playing with that kind of thin margin of error will continue to make defensive mistakes stand out and largely solid defensive efforts seem inconsequential.

Final grade: B-