A lot of things can change when you’re on a bye. When the Cincinnati Bearcats finished off their 37-21 win over Tulane on Oct. 6, they went into a two-week break with a perfect 6-0 mark and a 2-0 record against the rest of the American Athletic Conference. Now that they are getting back to business, the Bearcats find themselves in a hotly contested race for the top of the league’s East Division. They will have a real chance to improve their positioning this weekend when they face a suddenly resurgent Temple Owls team in Philadelphia. In order to come out on top, UC will need to pay particular attention to these five areas.
UC’s secondary vs. Anthony Russo’s hot streak
The Owls were supposed to have a big year from under center, but it wasn’t supposed to be from Russo. However, during their recent 3-1 stretch, which has restored hope to North Philadelphia, the redshirt sophomore has been excellent. In a 49-6 win over East Carolina, he threw for 254 yards and four touchdowns while completing 21-of-25 pass attempts. He followed that up with a 300-yard effort against Navy this past weekend.
The Bearcats will be ready for Russo, however. Tyrell Gilbert and Coby Bryant have been solid at the corners and James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are both in varying degrees of star development. With those four leading the way, UC is allowing only 154.3 passing yards per game, which is ranked second in the AAC ... behind Temple. In addition, even though Russo has been great recently, he has still been picked off seven times with only six touchdowns. UC needs to turn him back into that quarterback. Which brings us to the next point...
Temple’s ball security vs. UC’s ability to force turnovers
Even if they are not at the top of the AAC in turnovers created, the Bearcats have come up with some big ones in critical situations. (Thanks, James Wiggins). With seven forced and seven lost, UC actually as an exactly even turnover margin on the season, but the odds are they will end on the positive side with how good the defense is.
There there’s Temple, which is great at forcing turnovers, but pretty awful at holding onto the ball. Despite 12 opponent giveaways, the Owls have a -2 turnover margin thanks to 14 mistakes in ball control. Temple is going to have a hard time moving the ball and putting up points against UC as it is. If the Bearcats can jump on a few fumbles or step in front of some passes, they will set themselves up to completely shut down a team ranked 91st in the country in offensive S&P+.
Which defense breaks first?
OK, so this technically isn’t a matchup, but UC’s defense isn’t going to actually play against Temple’s defense, so work with me here. In this game, the No. 1 defense in the AAC will face the No. 2 defense. The Bearcats are the top of the conference, allowing only 274.3 yards per game. The Owls are a fine unit as well, letting up 333.3 yards per game. Both teams have talent on offense, especially the Bearcats, but whichever team lets its defensive guard down first will probably end up disappointed when the final whistle blows.
UC’s red zone offense vs. Temple’s red zone defense
After a scorching start in the red zone to start the season, the Bearcats were a bit more mortal against Tulane, scoring only twice in four chances. Obviously that didn’t matter since UC won handily, but on the road against a tough Temple team, the same empty trips can’t happen. The Bearcats are still a good red zone team, ranking second in the league in touchdowns from such a distance, but the Owls are the No. 1 red zone defense in the conference. Ensuring drives that get deep into enemy territory end with points (preferably touchdowns) will tip the scales in favor of the Bearcats.
UC’s running backs vs. Temple’s run defense
Last year, the Bearcats had 184 rushing yards against Temple, but quarterback Hayden Moore had 75 of them. Meanwhile, Mike Boone, Michael Warren and Gerrid Doaks combined for 112 yards on 23 carries. That may be worth a healthy 4.9 yards per carry, but now that the offense is so reliant on running, especially from Warren, the Bearcats will need even more production.