Losing isn’t fun. Nobody plays anything because they like losing. The 2018 Cincinnati Bearcats finally learned what its like to lose last weekend and my guess is they didn’t take a liking to it. Luckily, there is still a lot of season to go and the Bearcats can still make a push in the American Athletic Conference title chase. The next step of the year will be in Dallas against the SMU Mustangs.
If you told any Bearcat fan that UC would be 6-1 (2-1 AAC) in October back in the summer, they would have been elated. Yet somehow, last week’s overtime loss to Temple seems like a real disappointment. That’s because the Bearcats were undefeated, nationally ranked and starting to think about where they would put that AAC championship trophy. That may have been premature, but this Bearcats team still has that same ambition.
SMU (3-4, 2-1) might still have an outside shot at the AAC title as well, but it should be more focused on just continuing to rebound from a horrendous start. After starting 0-3 and allowing 40 points in three-straight games, the Mustangs have salvaged the year, going 3-1 over their last four games, snatching up two conference wins in the process. They are still far from a serious contender, but they aren’t the joke they appeared to be early on.
There has been enough written about how badly the UC offense played against Temple. Some of that has been penned by me, but let’s try to look at a silver lining. The most obvious one is that Michael Warren is still incredible. He rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, making for his fourth-straight 100-yard game. No matter what happens, the Bearcats can feel confident when Desmond Ridder turns around and hands the ball to Warren. Recent strides from freshmen running backs Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland have further solidified UC as an effective rushing offense, which should feast on SMU’s less than stellar run defense.
SMU’s weak defense should also help Ridder as he returns to the field after really struggling against Temple. He completed only 14-of-33 pass attempts for 111 yards, posting a career-low 64.6 quarterback efficiency rating. Ridder has started to clam up a bit with his throws, as his adjusted average yards per attempt has fallen to 7.8, but he still has the ability to throws strikes way downfield. UC needs him to get back to that and it wouldn’t hurt if he didn’t have another game with less than 10 rushing yards.
Another thing UC could use is for Ridder’s receivers to step up. It’s been a theme of this season, but the wideouts on this team have failed to really dominate consistently. While Josiah Deguara has gobbled up catches at tight end, a real big play threat has not emerged. Rashad Medaris is the best option, but he’s only averaging 16.6 yards per reception. That’s still the highest mark by any Bearcat with at least 10 catches and therein lies the problem.
Every week, the Bearcats defense comes to play. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is or where the game is taking place. They just take the field, make life difficult and go home. Against Temple, they allowed only 317 yards of total offense and despite a few busted coverage, were as stingy as ever. A top 20 team nationally in defensive S&P+, the Bearcats have allowed less than 320 yards of total offense six time already and teams really don’t score much against them (15.1 points per game).
Now that we’ve established how good UC is on defense, imagine telling that unit that SMU is the next opponent. If you haven’t thought about the Mustangs since UC played them last year, you might remember them as a pretty potent squad. That has not been the case this year, as SMU is averaging an AAC-worst 348.7 yards per game. This is despite the work of James Proche, who leads the league in catches (49) and touchdowns (eight), as well as a great deal of talent at running back and quarterback.
Three Numbers That Matter
35.3 - That’s UC’s scoring average this season. SMU has scored less than 30 points in five of its seven games this year.
8 - The Mustangs may not move the ball well, but they don’t lose it much either. They are tied for second in the AAC with only eight turnovers this year.
149 - No player in the AAC has carried the ball more often than Warren. Only four players in the country have, actually.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Desmond Ridder, QB
Ridder was the answer last week as well and his struggles were a big reason why UC came up short. This week, he should be much better, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with his first failure at the collegiate level.
SMU - James Proche, WR
Even if SMU’s offense has taken major steps backward, Proche is one of the best wide receivers in the country. If the Mustangs can get him the ball often, they might be able to get enough going to win.
Losing to Temple is one thing. The Owls were at home and they have a very good defense. Losing to SMU, even on the road, would be the real disappointment. The Mustangs don’t have the offensive might to challenge UC’s defense and nobody has been able to stop Warren. As long as Ridder gets back to normal, the Bearcats should pick up win No. 7. Cincinnati 34 SMU 20