It took quite a while, but it seems like we are firmly in the autumn season. Temperatures in Cincinnati dropped to the 50s and 60s this past week after the summer kept its clutches wrapped around the Queen City well into October. The same type of weather adjustment has occurred in Philadelphia, where the Cincinnati Bearcats will play their next game against the Temple Owls at Lincoln Financial Field.
The weather isn’t the only indicator that we are deep into fall. We are now entering the second half of the college football season, which is when league title chases heat up as the temperature outside cools down. Any shivering football fans in South Philly can warm themselves by taking in this weekend’s matchup because it is between two of the hottest teams in the American Athletic Conference. It will also be one of the deciding contests in the league’s East Division race and therefore the overall championship picture.
UC has a clear advantage in this game because it has been off for two weeks, giving it time to rest and recalibrate from its miraculous rise. Thanks to a 6-0 start (including a 2-0 mark in league play), the Bearcats are nationally ranked (No. 20 in the AP) and bursting with confidence.
Temple also has its own obvious advantage, since it will be playing at home, even if the Owls are only 2-2 at Lincoln Financial Field, which rarely gets filled to the brim since it is built for an NFL audience. Still, when you add in their 3-1 spurt over the last four games and sparkling record against the conference (3-0), you’ll find the Owls’ pedestrian 4-3 overall record doesn’t look so bad.
If you were to distill the Bearcats’ offense into two words, they would be: running and Ridder. The Bearcats are built on their ability to run the ball, specifically with Michael Warren, but they have also expanded the job description for their redshirt freshman quarterback. Ridder is doing much more than hold his own even with the added responsibilities. He has completed 65.6 percent of his passes, has only two interceptions (and 10 touchdown throws) and has already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season. In UC’s most recent win against Tulane, he only threw for 174 yards and was picked off once, but he also completed a solid 15-of-25 pass attempts and had two touchdowns. Both of those scores went to Kahlil Lewis, who, along with tight end Josiah Deguara, are the top targets on the team.
Now that we’ve established that Ridder can succeed under center, its time to talk about the defense he will be facing. Temple is No. 1 in the AAC in passing defense, surrendering just a bit more than 150 aerial yards per game. The Owls also make a habit of capitalizing on even the smallest mistakes from opposing quarterbacks, forcing interceptions and fumbles at an accelerated rate. This will be quite the challenge for UC’s young quarterback.
Luckily, Ridder has an exceptional ground game to lean on. Warren is the centerpiece, what with his 11 touchdowns and 664 rushing yards. He can also be a reliable receiver while freshman Tavion Thomas has also shown some real skill out of the backfield. Ridder has mobile tendencies as well, adding another element to the rushing attack, which ranks third in the league (255.5 yards per game).
Ranked 26th in the country in defensive S&P+, the Bearcats can stop just about any offense. The unit they will be tasked with this week is not one to strike fear into the hearts of many. Temple may be playing well recently, but it is still the No. 91 team in the nation in offensive S&P+ while sitting eighth in total offense among AAC teams.
A balanced attack that has run the ball 255 times and thrown it another 229, Temple’s offense has still managed to score more than 30 points per game, so despite the lack of sparkling metrics, they have gotten the job done. That might be more difficult to do this week since leading rusher Ryquell Armstead is still questionable with an ankle injury. Armstead has 626 yards and six touchdowns this season. Jager Gardner is the only other player with more than 100 yards, and he is just barely at that level (101 yards) while averaging 2.9 yards per carry.
If Armstead sits out again (he missed the Navy game last week), then the Owls will need even more from sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo, who has displayed some real staying power over the last few weeks as he cemented himself as the starter.
A weakened rushing game and a still developing quarterback are not the tools you need against UC, however. The Bearcats are allowing AAC-lows of 13.7 points and 274.3 yards per game and know how to put the clamps on anybody.
Three Numbers That Matter
47 - That number right there is the scoring differential the Bearcats have in the fourth quarter (57-10).
4 - There are four teams that have yet to lose a conference game in the AAC East Division, including UC (2-0) and Temple (3-0).
110.67 - Warren is one of five running backs in the AAC to be averaging more than 100 yards per game. Armstead is one of the others (104.3). If he is cleared to play, this will be quite the showdown between two of the best in the league.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Desmond Ridder, QB
Temple creates a lot of turnovers and has a very stout defense. Ridder has faced plenty of tests so far and passed with flying colors. The Owls are another challenge he needs to conquer and to do so he will need to be extremely careful with the ball, while maintaining his ability to make throws down field.
Temple - Anthony Russo, QB
Is Russo a future superstar or just a guy who has had a few good weeks? Most would lean toward the latter, but after throwing for 554 yards and five touchdowns combined over the Owls’ last two games (both wins), the sophomore from Doylestown, Pennsylvania looks like he is rounding into shape. The Bearcats have shut down more proven signal callers, so how they deal with Russo will tell us a lot.
There are more than a few things to consider when picking this game. Will the Bearcats be rested or rusty after their bye week? Has Temple really turned a corner after a slow start? Can UC end a three-game losing streak to the Owls? Can Temple do enough on offense if Armstead sits out? The answer to those questions are: Rested. Yes. Yes. No. Take the Bearcats. Cincinnati 23 Temple 17