It didn’t take nearly as long as it appeared it would for Luke Fickell to take the Cincinnati Bearcats from zeroes to heroes. A year ago at this time, Fickell and the Bearcats were stumbling through a 4-8 campaign in his first year. When they were preparing to take part in the penultimate game of the regular season, as they are this weekend, their wasn’t much to play for other than pride.
Things are quite different now. The Bearcats (9-1, 5-1 American Athletic Conference) are taking aim at their first 10-win campaign since 2012 and trying to keep themselves in the league title conversation.
Standing in their way is one heck of a boss battle, as the UCF Knights are playing hosts for the Bearcats on Saturday. It’s a game that will be played under the lights at Spectrum Stadium and will be watched by more than a few folks. (Hello, ESPN and ABC!).
This is an important game for UCF as well. Its not so much a chance for the Knights to prove themselves like it is for UC. Instead, it is another precarious showdown with a team desperate to knock them down a peg. The Knights have won 22-straight games, despite changing coaches this past offseason, and that includes all six in AAC play this year. Any team in the league would love to be the one to end that dominance. You can count the Bearcats among them.
Mike Denbrock and Fickell have to make a choice this weekend. The UC offensive coordinator and his head coach could very well choose to keep things steady and stay committed to what’s worked this season. That has usually included putting quite a large emphasis on the run game. With Michael Warren, it’s not hard to see why that has been successful.
Warren is a throwback rusher who excels at taking on massive workloads. At 206 carries, the sophomore is the only player in the AAC with more than 200 rushing attempts. All those carries have yielded wonderful results (108.2 YPG, 17 rushing touchdowns). With 151 yards and four total scores last week against USF, Warren was the offense.
Denbrock and Fickell will more than likely feed Warren as much as usual this weekend against a UCF team that isn’t great at defending against the run. The Knights are allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game and therein lies the obvious avenue to victory for the Bearcats.
But the Knights are pretty mediocre defensively overall, ranking 45th in the country in defensive S&P+. They make up for that with an incredible amount of forced turnovers (21), but they are prone to giving up yards, ranking seventh in the AAC in total yards allowed (423.6 YPG).
This is where the choice for Denbrock and Fickell comes into play. UCF’s perfect mark won’t fall against a predictable team. The Bearcats will need to get creative and get a big game from Warren. That means that redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder will be asked to make some big throws and be explosive on the ground. He has proven he can do both (7.9 adjusted yards per attempt, 497 rushing yards) but UC’s lack of consistency at wide receiver could hamper their more inventive play calls, assuming they choose to make some. That is unless Kahlil Lewis eats up receptions like he did against SMU (12 catches, 174 yards, two touchdowns) and Rashad Medaris makes good on his potential as a vertical threat (17.9 yards per reception).
UCF hasn’t needed an elite defense because its offense has been so spectacular. Led by McKenzie Milton at quarterback and a bevy of talented runners and receivers, the Knights are fourth in the country in offensive S&P+. They are scoring a little more than 44 points per game and have not been held below 30 in any game. On a national level, only Oklahoma and Houston are producing more yards per game than the Knights (543.0).
Due to UCF’s potency and balance, UC defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and Fickell also have to make a choice. It’s unlikely that the Bearcats can completely shut the Knights down, so they need to pick areas to focus on. Playing to their own strengths should help. UC is excellent at defending against the run, allowing only 102.8 yards per game on the ground. It will be tough to do that against UCF backs like Adrian Killins and Greg McCrae as well as Otis Anderson, who plays more of a hybrid position, but if any team can do it, it’s the Bearcats.
It will begin up front, much as it has all season. Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton will likely have his hands full with UCF’s talented interior offensive linemen, especially Jordan Johnson, but he’ll need to find a way to make an impact and add to his tremendous tackle for loss total (16.5). Sealing off the edge and containing the rushers, — as well as Milton — will also be critical and that will fall to defensive end Kimoni Fitz and ‘JACK’ of all trades Michael Pitts. Sure-handed tackling by UC’s linebackers like Jarell White, Malik Clements and Bryan Wright in the open field will help mitigate any shortcomings from the line.
Even if they can keep the running game at bay, the Bearcats are going to have Milton to deal with. UCF’s signal caller is the type of player Ridder is trying to become. The junior is just as comfortable throwing for 300 yards as escaping for multiple rushing touchdowns. He can make throws all over the field and doesn’t crumble under pressure. The Bearcats can stop the run all they want, but making life difficult for Milton will be critical as well. That is a defense-wide assignment.
Three Numbers That Matter
19 - While UC may have not faced an offense like UCF’s yet this season, UCF hasn’t played a defense like UC’s. The Bearcats are ranked 19th in the country in defensive S&P+. The highest rated team the Knights have faced so far is Temple (No. 29).
22 - UCF has won its last 22 games. It’s last loss was during the AutoNation Cure Bowl against Arkansas State on Dec. 17, 2016.
4 - There are four different players who have at least 500 all-purpose yards for the Knights (Killins, McCrae, Gabriel Davis and Anderson). For context, Warren is the only player to have accomplished that feat for the Bearcats.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - James Wiggins, S
There are plenty of obvious answers here. Warren, Ridder and Broughton all come to mind. However, those are the easy responses. All three need to play well for the Bearcats to win. That’s why I’m more interested to see how an electric defender like Wiggins, who has made more than a few clutch plays this season, affects this game.
UCF - McKenzie Milton, QB
It seems like a long time ago, but remember what Ohio’s Nathan Rourke did against UC? While the Bearcats survived that one, they struggled to stop Rourke. The Bearcats are facing another dual-threat quarterback this week and Milton also happens to be flanked by some of the best skill players in the conference. Really any player on the unit would do here, but the guy in charge seems like a good place to start.
Now its time for me to make a choice.
Cincinnati is a good team and much better than the one that lost 51-23 to UCF a year ago. The Bearcats can defend really well and actually have a vision on offense and the players to execute. Picking them to win this game wouldn’t be an entirely biased selection, just a predominantly biased one. The Knights have been winning and by a lot for nearly two-straight seasons. They’re also at home, where they haven’t lost since Nov. 19, 2016. The Knights are the safer pick. So my objective pick is UCF 38 Cincinnati 24
However, playing it safe will not win this game for the Bearcats. If I must lead by example, so be it. Cincinnati 35 UCF 34