Friday’s matchup between the Memphis Tigers and the Cincinnati Bearcats is the most important game of the season. Well, I suppose that statement only pertains to a certain subsect of the college football world and that is the section that is connected to UC.
A disappointing season could still finish in December and not November if UC can win on Friday. (The Bearcats would still have to win the next week as well, but we’re not there yet, so hold your horses). All it takes is six wins to get into a bowl game and at 4-6, the Bearcats still have a shot at those half dozen victories.
Would making a bowl game erase the offensive illness the team is suffering from? No. Will it make UC fans forget that this program is just a few years removed from a stretch in which it won at least nine games seven times in eight seasons. Definitely not. Will it save Tommy Tuberville’s job? Hopefully not. But it would still at least make for a little alacrity in a sea of negativity.
So when the Bearcats and Tigers meet up Friday night at Nippert Stadium, now you know what’s at stake. Let’s get to that preview.
A Norvell Approach
In the previous two seasons, Memphis won a total of 19 games and earned spots in the AP Top 25 for multiple weeks. Before that, the Tigers put together six-straight losing seasons, which yielded a total of 18 wins. This is the part where you pat Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch on the back.
Fuente and Lynch both cashed in on the rapid rise of Memphis football. Lynch was selected 26th overall in last year’s NFL Draft and Fuente took over the head coaching gig at Virginia Tech, replacing legend Frank Beamer in Blacksburg.
With two major parts of the resurgence gone, expectations for the 2016 Tigers were more tepid. Thus far, those expectations have been met if not exceeded, as Memphis finds itself 6-4 overall and 3-3 in American Athletic Conference play. The Tigers have hit a bit of a rough patch of late, dropping three of their last four games, but this is a postseason caliber squad that has not had to endure an absolute free fall from the Fuente/Lynch days in the first season under Mike Norvell. A former coach at Arizona State, Norvell has come in and kept the ship steady in the wake of Fuente’s departure and has played a hand in keeping the Tigers on the attack offensively.
But its not Memphis’ offense that we are concerned with. That’s putting it lightly since UC’s offense is beyond concerning. Its downright horrifying. Perhaps you’ve grown tired of hearing this but after managing a dismal three points in last week’s loss to UCF, the Bearcats have now gone 10-straight quarters without scoring a touchdown. Other than UConn, no team in the AAC is scoring less than UC (18.8 ppg). Part of the problem is the offense doesn’t even get into scoring range very often, ranking 10th in the league in red zone attempts (32).
Its tough to move the ball without a few big plays here and there and for a UC offense that has been used to employing multiple home run threats, this year’s squad is decidedly absent of many plays that have eaten up chunks of yardage. In fact, the Bearcats are last in the conference in plays of 20 or more yards (35).
If there are big plays to be had against Memphis they will come in the running game. The Tigers are second-to-last in the league in rushing defense (216.5 YPG) and are allowing opposing runners to pick up 5.22 yards per carry, the most in the AAC. They have also allowed the most runs of 30 or more yards (12) in the conference. That means this is a plus matchup for Tion Green, who will continue to be the workhorse back with his backfield partner Mike Boone gone for the season. Green has compiled 635 yards on 133 atempts, but only two touchdowns. He had 76 yards on 15 attempts against UCF and has had at least 70 yards in six games this season, although he has yet to hit the 100-yard mark. That may change this Friday.
Memphis’ difficulty with stopping the run is a major reason that it is No. 84 in defensive S&P+. As long as we’re looking at the advanced metrics, Memphis’ defensive woes are a bit assuaged by its strong play on special teams, as it ranks No. 1 in the country in special teams S&P+. UC is just inside the top 100 in that category, so cleaning things up on punt and kick formations will be another critical piece to UC’s upset plan.
As the Bearcats tackle those goals, we as observers will get to play another edition of the game show that is sweeping the nation: “Who is Playing Quarterback for the Bearcats?” After Gunner Kiel started against East Carolina, Temple and BYU and didn’t really find much success, Tuberville turned back to Hayden Moore this past weekend. Who gets the nod on Saturday is anybody’s guess, as Tuberville has surprised with his choice multiple times this season. The threesome of Kiel, Moore and Ross Trail have produced 2,527 yards on 56.4 percent passing, but have just about as many touchdown passes (14) as interceptions (13), the latter of which is tied for the most in the league.
UC’s defense has been passable in the last two weeks and if the offense could have found any momentum or points, perhaps we’d be talking about how the Bearcats could keep a winning streak going rather than how they can stop a three-game slide. In the loss to the Knights, the Bearcats gave up a season-low 305 yards just a week after letting up only 337 against BYU. It was the fourth time this season they have held an opponent to less than 340 yards. While the defensive metrics don’t exactly paint UC as a lockdown unit (No. 50 in defensive S&P+), the defense has been the much more effective part of the team.
That defense faces a Memphis team that likes to pass and not just in dribs and drabs but in fire hose style aggression. The Tigers are second in the conference in passing yards (2,971) and tied for second in yards-per-attempt (8.2). Heading up the passing attack is junior quarterback Riley Ferguson who has thrown for an AAC-leading 24 touchdowns while being intercepted nine times. He is behind only USF’s Quinton Flowers in passer rating among AAC quarterbacks. In Memphis’ 49-42 loss to Flowers and the Bulls last week, Ferguson produced 331 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-46 passing, although he was intercepted once.
Anthony Miller is the target that UC’s secondary will have to key in on. Miller has caught 67 passes for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns for the Tigers, easily the leader in all three categories. He is one of three players in the AAC to have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark, with East Carolina’s Zay Jones and UConn’s Noel Thomas the others.
That will put a lot of pressure on a secondary that may still be without safety Tyrell Gilbert, who is second on the team with three interceptions. If Gilbert does not play then Zach Edwards’ role at safety will be that much more critical and Carter Jacobs will be pressed into a starting job again. As for the corners, Linden Stephens and Alex Thomas have been opportunistic at times, especially Thomas, who has a team-high four interceptions. Even so, it remains to be seen if either can be a lockdown corner on a No. 1 receiver like Miller.
Something that could help take some of the stress off the secondary would be increasing the anxiety on Ferguson. That falls to an improving defensive line that has done a decent job of plugging running lanes and collapsing the pocket this year. However, getting pressure on the opposing team has been difficult recently. Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton recorded the only sack of the game against UCF and it was only the third in the last four games for the Bearcats as a whole.
Memphis doesn’t have the defensive chops of UCF or Temple, which were two of the opponents that have seen to UC’s touchdown drought over the last few weeks. If Green can get rolling, there’s a chance the Bearcats could at least make this more of a shootout (like last year’s 53-46 loss) than the slow, grind-it-out sort of games we’ve seen recently. However, as far as getting that all important win, I wouldn’t bet on the Bearcats. It’s unfortunate to say but once Friday is over, its more than likely UC’s season, for all intents and purposes, will be as well.