It may not seem possible, given who the opponent is, but the Cincinnati Bearcats are getting a bit of a reprieve this week. At least that’s what it would seem like since the 7-1 Bearcats are facing 2-6 Navy. That’s a pretty stunning sentence to write and not because UC is doing well. Instead, it is the Midshipmen and their awful 2018 campaign that makes this Saturday’s matchup one of oddly divergent programs.
The discussion about whether or not UC (7-1, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) is a good team ended weeks ago. At this point, we’re still just trying to figure what level of good the Bearcats are. The best team in the AAC? Very good? Just decent? It could really be any of those, especially since they needed an overtime miracle to escape with a win against SMU. We’ll learn even more in the coming weeks (hello, USF and UCF), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What is most shocking about this matchup, at least on paper, is that Navy is somehow a bad team. While they seemed poised to take a step back entering the year, it was tough to see it being this drastic. The Midshipmen have been one of the most consistent programs in the country, with 14 bowl appearances in the last 15 years. It is now apparent that the Midshipmen’s 7-6 mark in 2017 was a sign that things were trending down and not just a readjustment from the 20 combined wins they had in the two prior years.
Even though they have a win over Memphis in hand, the Midshipmen have lost five-straight games and are just 1-3 in league play, putting them way out of the AAC West division race. Facing a UC team that is one of the better competitors in the league probably won’t help change that.
Is Kahlil Lewis finally ready to be a star for the last few games of his collegiate career? The immensely talented wide receiver was incredible against SMU (12 receptions, 174 yards, 2 TDs), reminding everyone in the AAC that he is capable of dominating for four quarters.
The problem is, he hasn’t done it consistently enough this year. He is the top target on the offense, but he only has 31 catches for 414 yards and five touchdowns. That’s despite the Bearcats lacking a glut of productive pass-catchers. Tight end Josiah Deguara is the only other player with more than 300 yards receiving and only five non-running backs have more than 10 receptions. Lewis and Deguara are also the only players on the team with at least one catch in every game.
A lack of consistently elite receiving options has not really kept UC from being productive offensively, even if the advanced metrics aren’t huge fans. The Bearcats, ranked 98th in the country in offensive S&P+, are still scoring 34.1 points per game. However, weaknesses have begun to show lately. They scored 21.5 points per game during the last two weeks and quarterback Desmond Ridder, despite tossing up 352 yards last week, has been intercepted four times in the last three contests.
Navy is not built to exploit those weaknesses all that well, ranking 120th in the country in defensive S&P+. The only reason they are only ninth in the AAC in total yards allowed is because their run-heavy offense chews up clock. That’s right, despite that 2-6 record, the Midshipmen are still winning in time of possession, averaging an AAC-best 34:40 per game. Less time on the field means fewer opportunities for even more bloated offensive numbers from opponents.
UC may be able to hang with Navy on the run this year. Michael Warren can probably do that all by himself. He was held to a season-low 67 yards last week but has 863 yards and 12 touchdowns as a whole. Expecting back-to-back rough games from the sophomore would not be a smart strategy.
There are no frills here. Navy is a running team and UC will need to sharpen their focus in that regard. That probably won’t be too much of a problem. The Bearcats held SMU to 1.0 yards per carry and 23 rushing yards last week, helping to elevate their AAC-leading rushing defense (102.9 yards allowed per game). That brilliant ability to stop the run has UC ranked in the top 20 teams in the nation in defensive S&P+.
The Midshipmen are still going to produce, just not like they did a year ago when they piled up 569 rushing yards against UC. Quarterback Malcolm Perry is the most lethal offensive producer, having rushed for 862 yards and seven touchdowns. Another quarterback, Garret Lewis, is third on the team in rushing and does more of the passing than Perry, although that still isn’t all that much.
Three Numbers That Matter
51 - The Bearcats (24) and Midshipmen (27) have combined for 51 rushing touchdowns. When either team scores, its likely going to be on the ground.
13.5 - That’s how many tackles for loss UC defensive tackle Cortez Broughton has this season. He’s had at least a half of one in every game and at least one in seven.
205 - UC is allowing 102.9 rushing yards per game. Navy is running for 307.9. That’s a mammoth difference of 205 yards.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Cortez Broughton, DT
As you just read, Broughton has been amassing tackles for loss. He will be the tip of the spear for the Bearcats’ run defense. His ability to disrupt Navy’s blocking schemes is a real advantage for the Bearcats.
Navy - Malcolm Perry, QB
Navy’s offense is built on what Perry can do. Navy may still lose if he runs well, but it can’t hope to win without him. The Midshipmen are 2-2 in games when he reaches the century mark and 0-4 when he doesn’t.
I picked UC to beat Navy back in the summer. That’s not going to change, especially now that UC is a bowl bound squad and the Midshipmen are in the AAC basement. Cincinnati 30 Navy 14