When the Cincinnati Bearcats play the SMU Mustangs this Saturday, they will be doing something they haven’t had to do yet this season: bounce back from a loss. The 6-1 Bearcats are still having a year that has surpassed expectations, but a roadblock in Philadelphia hampered them a bit.
Now, each game is more important since any chance at an American Athletic Conference title will require a pretty much perfect finish to the campaign. To get that run started, and avoid a *gulp* losing streak, the Bearcats will need to win in these five matchups.
The Bearcats vs. their first loss
I just mentioned this, but it is worth repeating. Everything came up Bearcats in the first six games of the season. Winning like that can breed a bit of complacency, especially in a team with so many young players. While losing at Temple is nothing to be ashamed of, the Bearcats left a winnable game on the table. That means this will be our first look at how Luke Fickell gets his team ready following a major disappointment. Sure, the Bearcats lost eight games last year, but they weren’t nationally ranked or carrying expectations at any point. How they respond to this loss is a much different, and more important, indication of just how good this team is.
Desmond Ridder vs. his first subpar game
This matchup is directly related to the one above. It is important that every Bearcat rallies back, but nobody’s resurgence is more necessary than Ridder’s. The redshirt freshman played like the offensive savior the Bearcats needed during the first half of the year. He completed passes at a high rate, threw the ball all over and made exciting plays on the ground.
Then he met Temple.
Against the Owls, Ridder completed fewer than 50 percent of his throws for the first time in his career (14-for-33). He also had only 111 passing yards and an interception. Now, you may think that his showing against Miami-Ohio was his worst game, but that was in horrendous conditions, and he still turned in 100 rushing yards. Against Temple, he looked really out of sorts and only had nine rushing yards.
That was all one game, however, and SMU doesn’t not have the type of defense Temple does. That means if Ridder has another dud, it might be because he’s losing to his own mind.
SMU’s AAC-worst offense vs. UC’s AAC-best defense
SMU head coach Sonny Dykes is supposed to be an offensive guru, but that’s not what’s happening with the Mustangs this year. They are last in the AAC in total yards per game (348.7) and ranked 110th in the country in offensive S&P+. It’s quite the regression. SMU was the No. 4 offense in the AAC last season and No. 11 in defensive S&P+ nationally. Part of the problem is the departure of key contributors like wideouts Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn, but it is incredible that things have fallen so far.
Making matters worse for SMU is the fact that UC is really, really good on defense. Temple may have won the game last week, but it wasn’t like the Owls did whatever they wanted with the ball. The Bearcats allowed only 317 yards of total offense and have held opponents to less than 320 yards in six of seven games this year. That type of resume would lead you to believe they’ll make it seven of eight this weekend.
Tyrell Gilbert vs. James Proche
That is unless Proche throws up a 15-catch, 250-yard game. That’s highly unlikely, even for Proche, but the heir to Sutton and Quinn has managed to have a pretty nice season despite poor results from the team around him. He’s caught 49 passes for 619 yards and eight touchdowns, leading the conference in the first and third of those statistics.
It is more than likely that the Bearcats will use a number of different looks to keep Proche from burning them, but Gilbert is the elder statesman in the secondary and should get the bulk of the responsibility for covering him. Gilbert has eight passes defended and seven pass breakups, so he tracks the ball well. If he can’t hold Proche down, then Coby Bryant (team-high eight pass breakups) will get the chance.
The time of possession battle
Since they can’t play offense very well, the Mustangs don’t often have the ball for that long. They are second to last in the conference in time of possession. Meanwhile, UC runs the ball quite a bit (you would too if you had Michael Warren) and it usually dictates the pace by holding the ball for longer than its opponent, ranking second in the league in time of possession. If it feels like the Bearcats constantly have the ball and the Mustangs never do, then things will be going right for the visitors.