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Grading the Defense: Week Nine

James Wiggins’ pick six was just one of many great plays from the defense against SMU.

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Cincinnati David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

In a very literal way, the Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the SMU Mustangs on Saturday because of their defense. That’s because James Wiggins snapped up an interception and returned it 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown in overtime. However, that was only one play, and despite it being the final push that weighed the scales in UC’s favor, there was a lot more defending to be evaluated. Let’s get to it.

Defensive Line

The Good: Marquise Copeland was the standout for the group this week, as he had two tackles for loss and one of the Bearcats’ two sacks. Copeland has had at least a half a sack in the last two games. Is that all-conference material? No, but its a decent run all the same.

Cortez Broughton only had half a tackle for loss, but tallied five regular stops, which tied him for second on the team. He also knocked down a pass at the line, which is a bit of a special skill of his. He has four pass breakups on the season, which is as many as Wiggins and Darrick Forrest combined.

With Broughton and Copeland leading the way, the Bearcats were fantastic against the run, allowing a total of 23 combined rushing yards and a 1.0-yards per carry average. Making sure the Mustangs couldn’t get past the line let the rest of the defense breathe a bit easier.

The Bad: Just a single sack from the line is not ideal, especially when the Mustangs prefer to throw the ball. With more time to pass, the Mustangs got 328 passing yards, but we’ll talk about that more later.

Final Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Good: Bryan Wright played the best start-to-finish game of anyone on the defense. He led the Bearcats with eight tackles, all of which were solo efforts. He also produced a critical sack, one of only two from in the game by UC. Wright is second on the team in sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (6.5) this season and his ability to pursue ball carriers behind the line has been invaluable each week.

The Bad: The rest of the linebacking group was serviceable, but failed to make a major impact. Malik Clements had five tackles and Perry Young tallied three.

Final Grade: B

Secondary

The Good: Did I mention the game-winning interception return for a touchdown? Wiggins just has a gift for making huge plays in big situations. Cam Jefferies didn’t have a flashy highlight, but he tied for second on the team with five tackles and added a pass breakup.

The Bad: A lot can be erased by such a play as that Wiggins interception, but the pass defense was not great overall. As mentioned earlier in this article, the Bearcats surrendered 328 passing yards. Even if that came on 22-of-43 passing (51.2 percent), it was a sour spot.

Coby Bryant and Jefferies were both called for pass interference penalties. You can’t really blame them for trying anything to get a stop, as SMU wideouts James Proche and Reggie Roberson Jr. combined for 219 yards and two scores on 13 receptions.

Final Grade: C+

Overall

It all added up to a strong showing from the Bearcats, which is the expectation this deep into the season. Even with the SMU passing game getting some big plays, UC got the turnover it needed in a clutch spot. In addition, thanks to phenomenal run defense, the Bearcats were only guilty of 351 total yards allowed. The more incredible stat was the 3-for-17 success rate SMU had on third down. This game will be remembered for one defensive play, but there were many more than that.

Final Grade: B