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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at UConn Huskies

After digging itself into an 0-2 hole in league play, Cincinnati is in must-win mode.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Its been a miserable start to the American Athletic Conference schedule for the Cincinnati Bearcats. An 0-2 mark is not the foundation for contention. However, the Bearcats faced the toughest first two league games of anyone in the conference, taking on Houston and USF, largely considered the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the league.

On Saturday, the Bearcats will dip back down into its comfort zone, as it faces a team in the muddling stew of teams battling for six wins and a bowl berth in the middle of the conference. UC is undoubtedly (and unfortunately) a part of that group, as are the UConn Huskies (2-3, 0-2 AAC), who play host to the Bearcats this weekend.

A Basketball Rivalry In A Football Game’s Body

Due to both program’s consistent success in basketball, UC and UConn have already established a heated rivalry, probably the most molten in the conference. However, that rivalry doesn’t really stretch outside of Fifth Third Arena and the XL Center. On the football field, there has been less contention, especially in the last five years. During that time UC has won each meeting with the Huskies by an average score of 37.6 to 14.6. Even in the two UConn wins during the 12 all-time meetings there wasn’t much competition, with the Huskies winning 38-17 in 2010 and 40-16 in 2008. Only two contests have ever been decided by fewer than 10 points (2009 and 2006).

Due to this, UC largely takes on the role of bully in this “rivalry”, flipping the switch from basketball season when the Huskies just seem to get the Bearcats’ goat, even if takes four bleeping overtimes. However, this season, that may not be entirely the case, mainly due to the apparent regression on offense by the Bearcats. (More on that later).

In its third year of the Bob Diaco era, UConn has started off with a 2-3 mark. Like UC, the Huskies struggled in the opener against a FCS program, barely toppling Maine. Some questionable coaching decisions cost the Huskies a game against Navy and their loss to Syracuse was another tough pill to swallow, but the team did pick up a solid(ish) win against Virginia. Last week’s 42-14 loss on the road against Houston, which wasn’t much of a surprise, is their most recent result.

So as it stands, UConn is not the surprise contender some may have pegged it as, but it is still very much in the hunt for a bowl bid, making every game, including Saturday’s, of vital importance for Diaco as he continues to push the program forward.

Offensively Speaking

Its tough to really know what’s going on at offense for Cincinnati right now, which is not a great spot to be in when you’re trying to keep your head above water. So frequently a top of the league type unit, UC’s offense has been frustratingly ineffective, averaging only 414.6 yards per game.

Of course the conversation about the offense continues to be centered on the quarterback position. Redshirt freshman Ross Trail once again started in place of Hayden Moore last week against USF and once again, he was not very good. Sure he completed 66.7 percent of his pass attempts, but he was intercepted three times and finished with only 216 yards passing. Gunner Kiel managed to get on the field for the first time after Trail’s struggles, but he only completed 3-of-11 attempts.

Moore’s return does not appear to be imminent.

So that means Trail will likely get the start once again, as Kiel didn’t jump in and reassert himself after being a NFL prospect-level signal caller in 2014 and 2015. But it will be interesting to see how long Trail’s leash is because going down 0-3 in league play is a fate that UC can’t afford to endure.

Part of the issue with evaluating UC’s offensive production, and the work of new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor is that without the QB situation squared away, there is a built in excuse for the regression. Is the problem that Moore, Trail and Kiel just aren’t good (unlikely but possible) or that the new offensive system doesn’t fit their skill sets or simply isn’t a good fit for UC?

We might get more answers this weekend against UConn, which is a team that is built on its defense, but still isn’t exactly a dominant force in that regard, ranking No. 81 in S&P ratings while allowing the most yards per play (6.29) in the AAC.

One thing that is clear is that Tion Green, Mike Boone and Nate Cole are the playmakers that have been the most effective and most utilized for the Bearcats.

Green rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries last week and now has at least 80 yards in a score in back-to-back weeks. He has reached the 50-yard plateau in four of five games and when you add in his 13 receptions, he has 83 touches on the year. Boone’s rushing totals (247 yards on 74 carries) have not been all that impressive, but he has contributed 143 yards through the air and has a team-high 648 yards of all-purpose yards thanks to his work on special teams.

Cole was practically invisible against Miami-Ohio, but he has at least six receptions in every other game this season, including a seven-reception, 73-yard effort last week. He is clearly the target that is trusted no matter who is under center. Kahlil Lewis appears to have a good thing working with Trail, catching 11 balls for 165 yards over the last two weeks, but Devin Gray got a lot of work when Moore was lining up under center.

Defensively Speaking

Looking at UConn’s offense over the last few seasons, including this one, makes me realize how spoiled UC has been during the last decade or so. The Huskies are only managing 350.6 yards per game, which actually amounts to a giant leap forward, as the program hasn’t reached the 350-yard mark since 2009.

While UC has three quarterbacks who have not been very good, UConn only has one. Bryant Shirreffs has completed 62.6 percent of his pass attempts and has limited his turnovers (two interceptions) but that is because he largely hasn’t been tasked with taking many risks. When he has tried to go down field, he has often missed the mark, which has kept the lid on an offense that seems determined to be a run-first pro-style unit despite constant reminders that it just isn’t working. Even with a talented running back like Arkeel Newsome, the Huskies are averaging only 3.2 yards per carry, even as they’ve run the ball nearly 200 times in five games.

In the midst of the offensive struggles is the rising star of Noel Thomas. UConn’s first, second, third, fourth and fifth target, Thomas is dominating this season with 523 yards and two scores on 46 receptions already. No other player on the team has more than 15 catches.

Linden Stephens will likely be tasked with locking Thomas up, but its on the entire secondary to put the clamps down on a passing attack that isn’t in the same arena as what the Bearcats saw against Houston and USF. As the second-worst passing defense in the conference (UConn is the worst, coincidentally), UC needs to start keeping the ball out of the air.

Even as the passing defense has not been amazing, UC’s improved ability to get pressure should help this week. Against USF’s Quinton Flowers, the Bearcats had only one sack, but Shirreffs is an easier target due to his lack of mobility, plus UConn has let up 13 sacks already this year.

A final thought, just as Thomas has been a first-team all-conference performer surrounded by a lot of nothing, Eric Wilson has been outstanding on a UC defense that has been somewhat improved but is nowhere near the top of the heap. He has 54 tackles, including three sacks. Let’s not let the largely disappointing start to this season let us ignore how well Wilson is playing.

Prediction

This is a bigger game than those outside of Cincinnati and Connecticut may realize. Saying must-win in early October seems wrong, but for the Bearcats, a loss here signals that things are even worse than we imagined, and we already imagine they are not good. As for UConn, a loss here would push it to 2-4 with a road game against USF looming. That’s not a recipe for success.

With that type of desperation pulsing through Rentschler Field, both teams may be a little tight and the game will reflect that. We may be used to UC hanging a 35 spot on the Huskies, but this game will be more low scoring. That doesn’t mean that the Bearcats won’t win, however. Without having to deal with a USF-type offense, the defense should be able to get off the field more often, and against a defense that isn’t Houston-good, UC should finally break through.