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Game Preview: East Carolina Pirates at Cincinnati Bearcats

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After a bye week, UC returns home to begin its quest to salvage what it can from a broken season.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve had a bit of a reprieve from Cincinnati Bearcats football after the team was off on bye this past weekend. Hopefully, the time off was used to make critical adjustments and for some good ol’ fashioned soul searching. At 3-3 overall and 0-3 in American Athletic Conference play, UC’s season is circling the drain. Any shot at the league title left town a while ago, but there remain objectives that the program can take aim at in the second half of the campaign, namely showing improvement on offense and stringing together some wins in the hopes of earning a bowl invite.

The first obstacle the Bearcats will face as the second half gets underway are the East Carolina Pirates, who visit UC on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Nippert Stadium.

Vengeful Swashbucklers

The last time the Bearcats were on the same field as ECU they were celebrating Andrew Gantz’s game-winning field goal in last year’s regular season finale. Set up by a 12-play, 56-yard march down the field, Gantz’s 42-yard field goal drained the last few seconds of the 2:34 drive and pushed UC to a 7-5 record, effectively wrapping up its invite to the Hawaii Bowl.

The elation (short-lived as it was considering the outcome of the bowl game) that UC felt was the exact opposite of the feeling around ECU, which needed a win in the contest to earn its sixth win and become bowl eligible. Due to the loss, the Pirates were forced to go into an offseason wondering what if? On top of that, head coach Ruffin McNeill was sacked.

Since last winter the program has changed itself, with the most obvious alteration coming on the sideline, which is now being patrolled by Scottie Montgomery. In his first year at the helm, Montgomery has guided ECU to a 2-4 mark, although all four losses have come in a row, including a 38-22 setback against USF on Oct. 8. Like UC, the Pirates were off this past week, and with an 0-2 mark in league play, they are just as thirsty for a win on Saturday, if not more so because of the memory of last year’s meeting.

Offensively Speaking

In its 20-9 loss against UConn, easily the low point of the season so far, UC did score on three of its first five possessions. The problem was, all those scores were field goals. Now there is nothing wrong with a field goal from time to time (just ask ECU about how critical a field goal from the Bearcats can be), but UC’s inability to get into the end zone has really been killing it. The Bearcats are second to last in the AAC in scoring offense (23 PPG) and have scored only 17 total touchdowns, 13 of which have come on 22 red zone tries. Against UConn, turning just one or two of those field goals into touchdowns may have turned the tide.

Another strategy that needs to be employed for UC to get moving once again is continuing to throw the ball. Sure, Hayden Moore has not looked stellar out there, but he has shown at least some ability to get into a rhythm and his chemistry with Nate Cole and Devin Gray is unquestioned, or at least the talent of those two guys is. Cole is the team’s best playmaker this season, with 364 yards and four touchdowns on a team-high 35 receptions. He nearly had a fifth touchdown catch against UConn but it was called back. Meanwhile, Gray has been as consistent and can be a target glutton, like when he caught nine balls for 98 yards against UConn. Don’t count out Kahlil Lewis (24 receptions, 299 yards, 2 TDs) either, as he has been more involved in the last three games.

That overly simplified fix of the passing game (give Cole the ball), won’t work as well for the backfield. Coming into the season, having a tandem of Tion Green and Mike Boone seemed like a dream for most teams. However, both have been stymied more than set loose, especially Boone, who is averaging four yards less per carry than he did last season. Constantly being bottled up has turned the Bearcats, who normally have a solid rushing attack, into the worst rushing team in the AAC (124.8 YPG).

You can blame the new starters on the outside of the offensive line or the play calling, which clearly needs to be improved, but no matter the cause, the fact remains that if Green and Boone can’t be effective, it brings down the entire offensive unit.

It is very possible that this will be the week the duo breaks through. ECU is last in the conference in rushing defense (195) and is allowing 5.2 yards per carry, while giving up 15 rushing touchdowns. In its loss to USF, it was thrashed for a grand total of 306 yards on the ground. Its high time Boone and Green get loose in a similar fashion.

Defensively Speaking

Even if UC can establish the run and do so effectively, ECU may not give it the chance to rely on the ground too much. After all, no team in the AAC throws as often as the Pirates or gains as many yards through the air. When you line up against ECU, you are standing across from a team that throws the ball 49 times a game and averages 378 yards. Houston is the only other team in the conference that makes it past 300 (305.1). That should make defensive coordinators Robert Prunty and Jeff Koonz a little nervous. Despite some improvements to the unit as a whole, UC is 10th in the AAC in pass defense (262.2 YPG).

You can certainly understand why ECU throws so often since it has Zay Jones on the outside. Easily the best wide receiver in the conference (sorry Noel Thomas and others), Jones already has 84 receptions this season. That’s no typo. That is 84 receptions. There are 15 teams at the FBS level that don’t even have that many completions, including Rutgers, Boston College and Maryland. Jones has turned those catches into 840 yards, but only three touchdowns. He had 18 receptions for 145 yards and a score against USF and has had at least 10 grabs in all but one game.

Linden Stephens and Alex Thomas will have the unenviable job of attempting to slow Jones down because really, there is no stopping him. It also will be on the rest of the secondary, including guys like Tyrell Gilbert, Zach Edwards and Mike Tyson to help lend support. Plus, they can’t forget about Jimmy Williams (20 receptions, 470 yards, 3 TDs) and Quay Johnson (34 receptions, 352 yards, 2 TDs).

UC’s defensive play makers should also be on the lookout for some errant throws and loose balls because ECU has a tendency to cough up the ball, with 14 turnovers on the season and the worst turnover margin in the conference (minus-9). Now, UC has committed 14 turnovers as well, but if it can capitalize on the mistakes ECU seems prone to make while being safe with the ball itself, that could be a major key to a Bearcat victory.

Prediction

Tommy Tuberville may be coaching for his job during the last six games of the season and the Bearcats are clearly playing for their postseason lives. Once again, there needs to be a sense of urgency from the jump in this game, especially on offense. Cole, Gray and Lewis are talented receivers and there’s no way Boone and Green just disappeared. Against a ECU team that can’t stop the run, UC should try to pound its way down the field and, assuming they are successful, air it out in order to keep up with and out-shoot ECU’s pass-heavy attack. It can be done, but at this point, its tough to feel too confident.