The Cincinnati Bearcats lost six times last season. Their schedule this season features five of the teams that defeated them, giving them plenty of opportunities to exact revenge. Their first three attempts fell flat, as they were topped by Houston, USF and Temple in 2016 just as they were in 2015.
On Saturday, they will once again attempt to rectify a wrong that has stood for a year when they face off against the BYU Cougars. Of course, there is much more at stake than a shot at vengeance. Following a 34-13 loss to Temple last weekend, UC is once again on the precipice of destruction, with the offense looking ineffective and a postseason appearance slipping away.
Both of these teams may not be in exactly the same situation, but with identical records (4-4), each needs a win to keep their respective bowl bids alive. Maybe that won’t save Tommy Tuberville’s job or solve the issues on offense, but it is still the best the players can hope for and should be what they play for over the next month.
The Once and Future Cougars
This year’s BYU team is much different than the one UC faced last season. The most notable changes are at head coach and quarterback.
Bronco Mendenhall was still the man leading the program last season, but he left to take the same job at Virginia. That opened the job up for Kalani Sitake, who played for BYU in the late 90s and was the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator at Oregon State last year.
At quarterback, there isn’t a new face exactly. Sure, Tanner Mangum isn’t playing like he did last year, but the sophomore (then a freshman) only got the job because Taysom Hill suffered a season-ending injury and was given a medical redshirt. Hill has always shown an incredible ability as a dual-threat QB but has struggled to stay on the field. In 2013 he played a career-best 13 games and threw for 2,938 yards and 19 scores, while rushing for 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns. He played in a total of six games combined in the two seasons after that. He decided to come back in 2016 and has been at the helm for the 4-4 Cougars.
That 4-4 mark belies how good BYU has actually been. Its four losses have come by a combined eight points and to such teams as No. 16 Utah, No. 14 West Virginia and No. 24 Boise State. Obviously, things have been going a little different for this .500 team than the one it faces in Cincinnati.
This should be another tough game for Cincinnati. After being bludgeoned to the tune of 186 total yards against Temple last week, UC is facing a BYU team that ranks just behind the Owls in terms of overall S&P+ ranking, falling in at No. 33. Now, while Temple is a top 20 defense according to those ratings, BYU is outside the top 40, although just barely (No. 41). The Cougars are also allowing 423 yards per game, which is ranked 83rd in the country. So there may be some cracks to be found, even if the Cougars compare favorably to Temple overall.
What will be critical to ensure that UC can bust through is that it is careful with the ball. BYU is not a team that lets errant passes or loose balls slip away. The Cougars are tied for second in the country in forced turnovers (21). That is a frightening proposition for a UC team that is tied for the second-most giveaways in the American Athletic Conference (16).
With that said, Gunner Kiel has done a good job of avoiding opposing defensive backs since taking over as the starter. He has completed only 52.6 percent of his pass attempts this season, and was held to a meager 119 yards through the air against Temple, but he has yet to be picked off in 78 pass attempts. I’m either jinxing the heck out of him by saying that or pointing out that Kiel has made better decisions than his predecessors Hayden Moore and Ross Trail.
Now, Kiel has still been guilty of a mistake, as he lost a fumble against Temple, but in all, the Bearcats have only lost six fumbles this season, which isn’t all together horrible.
What is horrible is how ineffective they were on offense against Temple and how uneven they have been all year. We already delved into how awful they were in the second half against the Owls, but its not as if the Bearcats have been lighting up the scoreboard anyway. They are averaging only 386.1 yards per game, ranking near the bottom of the AAC in that regard.
Perhaps the most disappointing offensive performer (non-quarterback division) has been running back Mike Boone. While struggles by the offensive line have played a part, Boone has been largely bottled up this season, tallying a total of 366 yards and two scores on 103 carries. Prior to this season, the junior running back had averaged 6.8 yards per carry. This year he’s at 3.6. Luckily, he has made an impact in other ways, setting career-highs in receptions (19), receiving yards (238) while being an effective kick returner (23.4 yards per return). Still, Boone was expected to be an explosive difference maker for this offense and he has not met those expectations. That’s not to say Tion Green has been otherworldly either (477 yards, two scores on 102 carries), but he has been more consistent as a rusher.
The rushing struggles have had a noticeable affect on the overall offensive output, with UC ranked last in the AAC in rushing yards. In fact, with 981, the Bearcats are the only team in the league that has yet to crack 1,000 yards on the ground. Last year, when they were the top offense in the conference, the Bearcats ranked a respectable fifth in the league in running the ball.
All of that might not matter because BYU is No. 31 in the country in rushing defense, but a distant 118th against the pass. It remains to be seen how much of an impact there will be on the run defense now that BYU will be without two of its defensive tackles, including standout Travis Tuiloma, but UC should be looking to pass. That means Kahlil Lewis, Nate Cole and Devin Gray, who were held to a combined 80 yards receiving against Temple, should be involved heavily.
As Jake Welch of Vanquish the Foe told us in our Q&A preview of this game, Jamaal Williams is the playmaker on the offense for the Cougars. The senior running back has rushed for 942 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games, ranking fourth in the country in yards per game (134.6). He sat out in BYU’s last game against Boise State with an ankle injury, but is expected to play. If he’s at full strength, UC is in trouble. Last week, it was obvious from the jump that Temple was going to run heavily, and the Owls did just that, racking up 275 yards on 60 carries. With all due respect to Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead, Williams is a more talented back than anyone on the Owls’ roster. If the same running lanes open up for him, UC is in for a long day.
Even if they can keep Williams in check, there is still the whole passing game to worry about. BYU is not a pass-heavy offensive team and Taysom Hill’s subdued mobility will make it a bit easier to game plan, but UC still ranks second to last in the AAC in passing defense (256.9 YPG). Hill has thrown for only 200.9 yards per game this season and is completing just under 59 percent of his pass attempts. He also has been intercepted seven times in 267 pass attempts. Which reminds me, UC and BYU have something besides their 4-4 records in common as the Bearcats are also good at forcing turnovers. They have collected 19 this season, doing most of that work through the air (14 interceptions).
So, for the second week in a row the defensive strategy will be to contain the running game and force a rather pedestrian passing attack to try to move the ball and, hopefully, make some mistakes.
Cincinnati opened as 10-point underdogs in this game and although the line has dropped some (7.5) the Bearcats are clearly not expected to win this contest. The logic is sound. BYU has played much better competition than UC and won (or at least been in it until the final whistle) while UC has been on the wrong side of more than a few blowouts. There is some reason to be optimistic, as UC should be able to move the ball through the air and that might be enough for the Bearcats to keep up with the Williams-led BYU offense. Still, as Temple proved last week, you can run on UC and when you do, you can win.