Its time to turn the season around. The Cincinnati Bearcats won a conference game last weekend and the offense looked good in the process. Now 4-3 overall, they are above .500 once again and back in business when it comes to bowl contention. We can discuss whether or not that is acceptable (its not) and if the program is in the right hands (it doesn’t seem that way) at another time. For now, the Bearcats have to do what they can with the time that is given to them.
The next step of that process comes on Saturday when UC visits the Temple Owls for an American Athletic Conference clash at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Owls’ Uneven Flight Path
After winning 10 games and making their way into the national rankings last season, the Owls were poised to be a team to be reckoned with in the AAC this fall. Then the season opener hit and after Army mashed out a 28-13 victory at Temple, the Owls’ stock plummeted. By mid-September they were just 1-2 with the best that could be said for them was that they fought tooth and nail at Penn State in a 34-27 loss.
Since that difficult start, Temple has rebounded nicely and is right back in the thick of things in the AAC thanks to wins in four of their last five games. That includes a convincing 46-30 triumph over USF last Saturday. Say what you will about their other victories over the last few weeks (26-25 over a maybe good UCF team, 45-20 over SMU, which just upset Houston and 48-20 over Charlotte), but a victory over the Bulls was huge for the Owls. In fact, it vaulted them into first place in the AAC East Division (3-1), a full two games ahead of Cincinnati and tied with the previously surging Bulls, who obviously don’t have the tiebreaker. Other than Navy, there may not be a hotter team in the conference right now than Matt Rhule’s squad. Let’s hope the Bearcats bring their fire extinguishers to Philly.
If there is one thing we learned from last weekend’s win over ECU its that Gunner Kiel is the savior. Or maybe its that you can throw against the Pirates. I guess the verdict is still out.
Either way, Kiel came in to start for the first time since last November and gave the Bearcats a jolt in the arm, literally and figuratively. He piled up 348 yards and four touchdowns on 23-of-40 passing, easily turning in the best performance of any Bearcat quarterback this season. Better than Hayden Moore and light years beyond what Ross Trail was able to accomplish.
With Kiel injected into the starting lineup, UC is now the third-most prolific passing team in the AAC (284.1 YPG) behind ECU and Houston. He brought UC’s passing yards per game average up by more than 10 yards and was at the helm of the team’s best offensive showing of the year (513 yards). He might not solve everything, but Kiel clearly gives this team the best chance to succeed on offense, despite what Tommy Tuberville may have said in the preseason.
While Kiel’s return stole the top billing of the marquee, credit needs to be paid to Kahlil Lewis. All he did was catch 11 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns last week. Lewis, along with Devin Gray and Nate Cole, have formed a strong trio at wideout, with each one taking turns being the go-to pass-catcher. However, in recent weeks it has been Lewis that has been most consistent. He has had at least five receptions and 50 yards receiving in four-straight games, which is the longest active streak of any Bearcat pass-catcher.
Even as Lewis is ascending, its not time to bury Cole or Gray. Gray leads the team with 540 receiving yards and Cole has more catches (38) than anyone on the roster. Its heartening to see that each one has the ability to step up.
Now that was a lot of words about how UC’s passing attack is back. Well enter the disc scratch.
Not only is Temple a top 25 defense according to the S&P ratings, it has been the stingiest pass defense in the conference this season, allowing a meager 169.3 yards per game through the air. With guys in the secondary like Delvon Randall, Sean Chandler and Nate L. Smith, the Owls have made it difficult for any quarterback to get into a rhythm. Plus, it doesn’t help that Haason Reddick is terrorizing opposing offensive lines, racking up an AAC-leading 7.5 sacks. UC’s line has generally been solid against the pass rush, tying with SMU and USF for the fewest sacks allowed (13) in the league, but extra caution needs to be paid this week.
The line is not the only group that can help keep the ball moving well through the air. If Tion Green and Mike Boone can be more like they were last week (159 combined yards) than they were against UConn (22 yards), that should at least make Temple respect the run and give Kiel some breathing room.
Get ready for the run. Temple is far from a powerful offensive team, ranking 10th in the league in yards per game (396.8), but that is more a product of the style of play they employ. While UC has been trying to rediscover its pass-happy formula, Temple has remained true to its pound it until there’s nothing left approach. The Owls have run the ball 305 times and thrown in 239 times. That’s quite a disparity. They have two capable backs who can get the job done in Ryquell Armstead (613 yards, 9 TDs) and Jahad Thomas (413 yards, 9 TDs). Armstead physically broke USF’s defense last week, rushing for 210 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
As a middle of the road rushing defense, UC will have to be extra certain it keeps plenty of guys in the box and is ready to gang tackle any ball carrier that appears past the line of scrimmage. Due to that, this will be a game in which Eric Wilson can shine. The AAC-leader in tackles will be getting up close and personal with Armstead and Thomas. His and fellow linebacker Antonio Kinard’s ability to read the running lanes and fill them up as quickly as possible will be a major key.
Last week, against a ECU team that doesn’t run as often, Temple failed in this regard, allowing 221 yards on the ground. The offense bailed the defense out, but there is no promise that will happen again, especially since Armstead alone could pile up 200 yards.
If UC can somehow limit or at least slow the run, they should be able to contain the Owls passing game. Although Temple ranks 31st in the country in passing S&P+, because it does not throw it as frequently, quarterback PJ Walker has not been asked to do too much. Still, he has thrown for 1,791 yards on 57.1 percent passing. Where UC may be able to take advantage is in the turnover game. The Bearcats have collected more interceptions than any team in the AAC this season. Guess who leads the AAC in interceptions thrown. That’s right. It’s Walker.
So the gameplan is simple, if difficult to execute: plug the run and wait for Walker to make mistakes.
The win over ECU put a stop to the doom and gloom surrounding the Bearcats, but only momentarily. This is still a majorly flawed team and a program that doesn’t have the brightest future from where it is currently standing. Still, with Kiel back in the fold, the offense appears to have found its footing to a degree. Pulling off another 500-yard effort will be extremely tough against Temple and its strong defense. However, that may be what it takes for the Bearcats to pull the upset and return the favor after Temple handed UC a 34-26 loss at Nippert Stadium last September. Such a degree of difficulty should tell you that the Bearcats aren’t poised for a major win, even if they really need it.