Perhaps we should’ve known the Bearcats were in for a tough season when they were trailing 7-6 heading into halftime against Tennessee-Martin in the first game of the year. The Bearcats went on to win that game 28-7, and followed that one up with a win over Purdue, but it’s all been downhill since then. The 4-7 Bearcats close out their 2016 season on Friday evening against the 8-3 Tulsa Golden Hurricanes with little else but pride on the line.
David vs. Goliath
Tulsa has the smallest FBS enrollment, with just 3,473 students. They’ll face UC for the 33rd time on Friday, but only the second time since 1997. UC hasn’t visited Tulsa since freshman Chad Plummer led the Bearcats to a 24-5 victory back in November of 1995. The tiny school had a huge football renaissance from 2005 to 2012, when it appeared in seven bowls in eight seasons, but were in a rut until hiring Philip Montgomery away from Baylor two years ago.
These are two teams headed in very different directions. The Golden Hurricanes have won four of their last five games, and will certainly be playing in a bowl game in December or January. They were 11-26 combined in the previous three seasons, but have developed a running game/blocking scheme that may have set them up to be a long term contender in the AAC. Meanwhile, the Bearcats entered this season appearing in five straight bowls. Their 94 wins over the past 10 years rank among the top 20 in the FBS. However, thanks to subpar recruiting and weak performance both offensively and defensively, the team appears headed for mediocrity in an already mediocre conference.
Coach Philip Montgomery has been a breath of fresh air for the Tulsa program. Montgomery came to Tulsa from Baylor, where he spent the past three years as their offensive coordinator/QB coach. His impact was felt immediately. he Golden Hurricanes appeared in the 2015 Camping World Independence Bowl in his first season, and are positioned for a much flashier bowl in 2016.
The Bearcats offensive struggles have been heavily publicized of late. They’ve only scored 26 points in their past four games, including a game against Temple where they amassed their lowest offensive production since 2005 with just 186 yards of total offense. Last week saw sophomore quarterback Hayden Moore complete 23 passes for just 144 yards. Moore opened the game against Memphis with back-to-back interceptions, only to deliver a subpar game the rest of the way instead of a complete disaster. The team has struggled to get big plays down the field, which has also paralyzed the running game.
It will be the final game in a Bearcats uniform for seniors Deionte Buckley, Gunner Kiel, Nate Cole, Tion Green, Ryan Leahy and Idarius Ray. Despite the way their senior year unfolded, they were part of some very successful UC teams. Leahy has been one of the top offensive lineman in college football and will likely be drafted in next April’s NFL draft.
While Tulsa’s offense has been one of the best in the FBS, its defense has been below average. The Golden Hurricane has allowed 20 or more points to teams at the bottom of the conference, like ECU, SMU and Tulane. Injury-plagued senior linebacker Trent Martin is the leader of the Tulsa defense, but the team has seen increased production from freshman linebacker Cooper Edmiston and sophomore safety McKinley Whitfield. This is a team that appears to be peaking at just the right time.
While the Bearcats have struggled offensively, they haven’t been terrible on defense. They’ve improved significantly in red zone defense, from 80th in 2015 to 24th in 2016, and while they have lost their past four games, they haven’t given up the amount of points you’d expect from a team struggling so badly. Senior linebacker Eric Wilson will be key against Tulsa in his final game as a Bearcat. Tulsa running backs are great at getting to the second level and it will fall on Wilson and the rest of the linebackers to keep gains low and not let the plays bust open. That might be a tall task against a Tulsa team with talent to burn.
Tulsa can thank much of its 2016 success to its ability to run the football. Senior running back James Flanders leads the team with 1,332 yards and 15 touchdowns, but junior D’Angelo Brewer isn’t far behind with 1,221 yards and seven touchdowns of his own. Flanders and Brewer rank fourth and seventh, respectively, on Tulsa’s single season rushing list.
Senior quarterback Dane Evans became the Golden Hurricanes all-time leading passer earlier this season, and has amassed an impressive rating of 138.0 with 24 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. His favorite target is senior Keevan Lucas. Lucas is built like a slot receiver at 5’10”, 195 pounds. He’s caught at least one touchdown pass in each of the last five games.
A big day for Tulsa could put its offense into a category all its own. No team in NCAA D1/FBS history has ever had two 1,000-yard rushers, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 3,000-yard passer. Senior wideout Josh Atkinson is just 169 yards away from 1,000 receiving yards, Lucas only needs 12 receiving yards for 1,000, and Evans just needs to throw for 261 yards to reach 3,000. If they can achieve these milestones against the Bearcats (which are all well within the realm of possibility), this will be a truly historic offensive team.
I expect the Bearcats to come out stronger than they have in previous games and keep the game close at halftime, but a steady diet of Flanders and Brewer will eventually wear down the defense. My pick is Tulsa 50, Cincinnati 21. But hey, 21 points!