With all due respect to the East Carolina Pirates, this week’s matchup isn’t the same as last week’s. Last Thursday, the Cincinnati Bearcats were preparing to do battle with the undefeated UCF Knights, as a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game dangled before their eyes.
This week’s action is a bit less climatic, but the Bearcats still have a lot to play for. If they come out on top, they’ll reach 10 wins for the first time since 2012. That’s certainly a worthy goal to strive for. To accomplish it, the Bearcats need to pay attention to this week’s critical deciding factors.
Tyrell Gilbert vs. Trevon Brown
This all depends on Gilbert’s health, as he missed time and played with pain during the UCF game, but assuming he is playing, this is going to be a fun matchup to watch. The Bearcats’ pass defense wasn’t very good against UCF, but it was even worse without Gilbert. When the team’s top cornerback was out, Noah Hamlin and others was tasked with replacing him. Hamlin, a freshman corner, struggled in such a big spot. While he can’t be blamed for that entirely, the Bearcats need Gilbert (or Coby Bryant) to shut down Brown, who is easily the Pirates’ best wideout, more than doubling any of his teammates in receptions (68) and receiving yards (1,030). Brown is the key to ECU’s AAC-best passing offense and Gilbert may be the key to stopping him.
James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest vs. Holton Ahlers
East Carolina’s passing attack isn’t just made up of Brown and some spare sofa cushions. It was provided with new life when Ahlers claimed the starting from Reid Herring. The freshman quarterback isn’t the most efficient passer, completing a hair shy of 50 percent of his attempts, but he isn’t afraid to take shots down field. He is averaging 7.2 adjusted yards per attempt and is a perfect fit for ECU’s offense, which relies on passes of 10 or more yards. The Pirates lead the AAC in that category (130) and with Ahlers, bigger plays are always on the table.
If Ahlers is scanning 10, 15 or even 20 yards down field, he will be trying to throw it into Wiggins’ and Forrest’s part of the field. UC’s defense has some cracks in the secondary, as evidenced by its struggles against UCF. However, Wiggins’ ability to create mayhem from the safety position is not up for debate, and Forrest is no pushover himself. Wiggins has a team-high three interceptions this year andfive pass breakups to boot. Meanwhile, Forrest has an interception, fumble recovery and three passes defended. Both safeties need to keep their eyes on Ahlers to anticipate where the ball is going to be, otherwise the freshman Pirate might keep his nearly perfect touchdown-to-interception ratio (11:2) in tact.
Controlling the clock
The Bearcats might have lost to UCF but they beat them in time of possession. So take that, Knights! Obviously that didn’t make a difference, but usually it has served UC well. Only Navy has averaged more minutes with the ball this season among AAC teams, and with their strong running game, the Bearcats are easily able to control tempo and keep opposing offenses off the field.
That may be more difficult to do this week. Despite being a pass-heavy offense, the Pirates actually do a good job of taking their time (and time away from foes). They average 31:44 minutes of possession time per game, which is fourth in the conference.
As both teams vie for more time with the ball (and thus opportunities to score), this game could come down to one of two things: either whichever squad eats up more clock or, conversely, whichever team is able to make quick strikes with their offense.
UC’s turnover issues vs. ECU’s ... turnover issues
Despite Wiggin’s ballhawking and Ahlers’ lack of interceptions, these teams are both near the bottom of the AAC in turnovers margin. The Bearcats’ problem is with holding onto the ball, as 18 giveaways have outweighed 13 takeaways. ECU’s problem is with creating turnovers. In 10 games they have mustered a paltry three fumbles recovered and four interceptions. That’s why a team with a healthy, but not unreasonably awful, 17 giveaways is stuck with a minus-10 turnover margin. It’s entirely possible that neither problem will appear, with UC’s tendency to cough the ball up passing ECU’s inability pry it away like two fumble recoveries in the night, but its also possible that one team’s problem makes things a lot worse for itself.
UC’s red zone offense vs. ECU’s red zone defense
Nearly flawless red zone execution in the first few weeks of the season has normalized as we reach the regular season finale for the Bearcats. In fact, at a 76.74 percent success rate, UC is now closer to the bottom than the top of the league. They only scored on 1-of-2 red zone tries against UCF and will certainly hope to improve on that this week.
That shouldn’t be a problem since the Pirates have yet to make a stop in the red zone this season. It hasn’t all been touchdowns (five teams were forced to settle for field goals), but with 28 scores allowed in 28 chances. the Pirates could certainly used some extra help. Without any, the Bearcats should not only finish drives with points, but the game with a win.