Did you enjoy your Halloween this year? If you are a fan of the Cincinnati Bearcats fan, you certainly enjoyed the holiday in 2014. On that night not only did you get to wear a “Frozen” costume and binge on candy, you got to watch the Bearcats trounce American Athletic Conference newcomer Tulane 38-14 in New Orleans.
Three years later and the bet costume at your Halloween party probably involved “Stranger Things” or David S. Pumpkins instead of “Frozen.” In the same way that costume trends have changed, so too has the Green Wave. Now headed by Willie Fritz and sporting a run-heavy option style offense, the Green Wave are 3-5 and fighting for a bowl appearance, something it never did under Curtis Johnson. Cincinnati has undergone its own changes, replacing Tommy Tuberville with Luke Fickell and sporting a largely changed roster.
On Saturday, the new look Bearcats (2-6, 0-4 AAC) will take on the changed Green Wave (3-5, 1-3) in an AAC bout at Yulman Stadium in New Orleans.
Losses in five-straight games have wrecked the Bearcats, as has normally dismal offensive showings. Outside of the top 100 in offensive S&P+ and with the worst unit in the AAC in yards gained, the Bearcats have continually struggled to move the ball. In their last game against SMU they at least bucked that trend a bit, especially with an altogether stupendous effort on the ground. They racked up 282 rushing yards and 438 yards total. It’s just too bad that work came in a loss.
Speaking of the running game, I think its time Gerrid Doaks gets the starting role. The downfall of Mike Boone is one of the most disappointing developments of the last few years, but right now, Doaks is just the better runner. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has more than 100 more rushing yards than Boone on the same number of carries (66). Feed him the ball.
The running game has also been aided by an increasingly mobile Hayden Moore, who has rushed for more than 50 yards in two of the last three games. That dynamic has made Moore a bit more dangerous even if he is still completing less than 55 percent of his pass attempts and has been held below 200 passing yards in each of the last two games.
A critically important matchup in this contest will be on the edge, where Kahlil Lewis will have to contend with Parry Nickerson, who has three interceptions already this season. Lewis has 27 more receptions than Devin Gray and has more targets than he knows what to do with. Tulane, and its No. 109 ranked defense by S&P+ will want to blanket Lewis and give itself any advantage it can get.
Tulane is actually quite competent offensively. With a star running back in Dontrell Hilliard, they move the ball fairly well, especially on the ground. Quarterback Jonathan Banks is a mobile guy who fits well in Fitz’s system and runs the show for a team ranked No. 41 in the country in offensive S&P+.
But Hilliard is the real standout. He has rushed for 768 yards and nine touchdowns on 133 carries, ranking him third, tied for third and fourth in each category among AAC rushers, respectively. He has been slowed a bit recently, averaging less than four yards per carry in each of the last two games, while posting only 67 yards against Memphis last weekend. Unfortunately, the Bearcats are not one of the better run defenses around, unless Perry Young, Jaylyin Minor and the defensive line step up. That seems unlikely since UC let up 622 yards to Navy, a team that runs a somewhat comparable offensive scheme to Tulane.
Where UC has to strike is on third down. Tulane’s biggest weakness is when it gets into such situations. While the offense has been decent to good overall, the Green Wave has converted only 37.04 percent of its third down tries into first downs, the worst mark in the AAC. UC can obviously commiserate, since it ranks third to last.
Numbers That Matter
46 - Tulane has only been called for 46 penalties this season, the second-lowest mark in the conference. UC cannot afford to make errors since Tulane won’t.
37 - With the second-fewest tackles for loss in the AAC, Tulane is not a team that is going to push the Bearcats back. Expect the offensive line to find room for Doaks and Boone to move.
5 - Cincinnati has lost five-straight games and with one more loss, it will be outside of bowl eligibility.
The Bearcats are only 5.5-point underdogs in this one, so Vegas is predicting a closer game than you might expect. The Green Wave have a disciplined and dedicated approach to the game based on ball control. UC has to force mistakes and do everything it can to keep Hilliard from going off. With an improving running game of their own, the Bearcats have to capitalize on offense, because there’s only so many times they’ll be able to push Tulane’s offense off the field. When its all said and done, though, the changes made at each program mean the result on the field should change as well compared to 2014. Tulane 28 Cincinnati 20