Where were you on Nov. 20, 2015? If you lean in favor of the Cincinnati Bearcats, hopefully you were nowhere near a television, radio, laptop, tablet, phone or any other portal to the internet. Otherwise, you might have decided to tune in and watch the Bearcats play a football game against the USF Bulls. If you were unfortunate enough to watch that game (or even worse attend it), then I commend you for enduring such putrid imagery and soldiering on.
On Saturday, the Bearcats have a chance to put that bitter memory behind them, as the Bulls take a trip up to Nippert Stadium for an American Athletic Conference clash. Both teams sport a 3-1 record, but are approaching the contest from different angles. UC survived a Victory Bell showdown with Miami-Ohio (0-4 Miami-Ohio that is) last week, while USF was the unfortunate victim of Florida State’s wrath following the Seminoles’ embarrassment against Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals.
These Ain’t Skip Holtz’s Bulls
For a few years, following the success of Jim Leavitt, USF was an easy punchline and an even easier win on the schedule. The team fell exceptionally flat during the three-year Skip Holtz era, going just 3-9 in the last season before he was shown the door. As Holtz exited, Willie Taggart pushed past him and began building. Taggart’s first two season’s were forgettable (6-18 combined) and it appeared that perhaps Holtz wasn’t the only problem.
Then 2015 came and the Bulls, after going just 1-3 in its first four games, flipped a switch. They won seven of their last eight regular season games, finished 6-2 in league play and earned their first bowl bid since 2010. While they may have lost to Western Kentucky in the Miami Beach Bowl, last year showed that Taggart’s construction is finally coming to completion.
Entering this fall, no team outside of Houston was as hyped as USF, which was favored to win the AAC East and is considered by many (this writer included) to be the second best team in the conference.
With three wins in four games, USF has largely lived up to its preseason coronation and, powered by an extremely productive offense, it is set up to continue on into the AAC schedule.
Remember when you could count on UC to pile up yards and points? Ahh. Memories.
Unfortunately, under first year offensive coordinator Zac Taylor, the Bearcats have lost a great deal of their offensive bite. They are averaging just 420 (yeah, bro) yards per game and are No. 71 in S&P’s offensive ratings. For reference, they were No. 42 last season when they were putting up 537.8 yards per game.
Taylor isn’t the only person at fault for the offensive slowdown. Uncertainty at quarterback has certainly not helped. Hayden Moore started the first three games but was replaced last week by redshirt freshman Ross Trail after suffering an ankle injury against Houston. Moore is slated to start this week, according to the depth chart, but its not as if he has been the second coming in his first season as the full-time starter. He has completed 59.2 percent of his pass attempts for 785 yards, for an average of 261.7 yards per game, while pairing seven touchdowns with three interceptions.
Trail got an opportunity to sneak past Moore on the depth chart last week, but was largely unimpressive in his debut. Perhaps unimpressive is too strong, but two interceptions and 276 yards on 38 pass attempts wasn’t the type of performance to thrust him into stardom.
As a team, UC is averaging only 265.8 yards per game passing. In the first three years of Tommy Tuberville’s time with UC, it has never averaged less than 300 yards per game for an entire season. What makes this entire passing game/quarterback saga even more perplexing is that last year’s starter Gunner Kiel is sitting third on the depth chart and despite Tuberville’s indications otherwise, doesn’t seem anywhere close to being put in a game.
The regression of the passing game has led to a bit more reliance on the run, which isn’t a terrible thing considering UC’s talent at running back in Mike Boone and Tion Green. However, two weeks ago, when Houston came to town, the duo was held to 43 rushing yards. They found their footing against Miami-Ohio last week, combining for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries, while each recording four receptions. The two may be fed the ball quite a bit against USF, which was lit up for 478 yards and six touchdowns on the ground by Florida State.
That brings us to a spark of optimism for the offense. Although UC’s offense has had trouble playing consistently and effectively for four quarters, USF is not the type of punishing defensive team that will keep things headed in reverse. USF is No. 89 in S&P’s defensive ratings and is allowing 451.5 yards per game, which is last in the AAC. Much of that has to do with the beatdown from FSU, but the Bulls gave up 549 yards to Syracuse the game before that. Whether or not UC can take advantage of USF’s defensive weakness is up for debate, however, as its not as if the Bearcats have been lining up against the nation’s elite defenses the last few weeks. For example, Miami is No. 109 in those S&P defensive ratings.
This is where it gets scary. For all their defensive shortcomings, the Bulls have shown no signs of having any on offense. A top 10 unit according to S&P ratings, USF is No. 22 in the country in total offense (501.5 yards per game). The attack is built on the dual-threat abilities of quarterback Quinton Flowers, who has thrown for 876 yards and eight touchdowns, while rushing for an additional 309 and two.
Keeping Flowers contained will be of utmost importance for the Bearcats, who have showed strong progress in the area of quarterback pressure, with 11.0 sacks already this season. (Compared to 13.0 all of last year).
The defensive line has another tough task besides making Flowers uncomfortable, as the Bulls are blessed with a ton of backfield depth. Marlon Mack (215 yards, four TDs) has been there for years banging out 100-yard games, but D’Ernest Johnson (221 yards, three TDs), Darius Tice (169 yards, TD) and even wide receiver Rodney Adams (102 yards, four TDs) have been productive. Adams also is the team’s leading receiver, so he is a player with whom UC needs to be familiar.
Flowers and company will be contending with a group that has not been given as much credit as it might deserve. Hidden in the disappointment of UC’s offensive inconsistencies has been the somewhat strong play of the defense. While not elite when looking at the S&P ratings (No. 57) and largely in line with last year in terms of yardage allowed, the unit has been better at getting pressure and capitalizing on mistakes. The Bearcats lead the AAC in forced turnovers (13) and may be set to improve on that type of production going forward as safety Zach Edwards, who missed last week, is reportedly set to return to the field.
I’d love to fill this space with bravado and confident grandstanding about how UC is awesome and USF is a group of frauds and cowards. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. USF may not have the type of defense to lead it to national prominence, but it doesn’t really need that against UC, especially with how well Flowers and company move the ball. I expect the Bulls to do just that and expose some lingering weaknesses on that side of the ball from the Bearcats.
Of course, there is a narrative swirling in my head that says UC will be fueled by revenge, play USF as tightly as it played Houston in the first three quarters and find a way to finish the job this time. However, what my eyes have seen and what the numbers tell me just doesn’t support that line of thinking. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.