It has been a long, and mostly fruitful journey through the regular season for the Cincinnati Bearcats. Despite falling way short of stunning UCF a week ago, this team has nothing to be ashamed about. They have already more than doubled their combined win total from the previous two seasons and are now set to do something for the first time since 2012. All that remains to be done is to host the East Carolina Pirates at Nippert Stadium on Friday afternoon.
If you are reading this on Thanksgiving, then give thanks for the second year of the Luke Fickell era. If you’re reading it on Friday, well still give thanks. The Bearcats (9-2, 5-2 American Athletic Conference) are just one win away from their first 10-victory campaign since 2012. The fact that they were one of the featured teams on ESPN’s College GameDay last week shows just how quickly UC has gotten back into the upper echelon of the AAC and, with a few more quality years, the college football world itself.
Opposing UC’s potential exclamation point on a brilliant regular season is ECU (3-7, 1-6). In their third year under Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates have remained stagnant. You’ll notice that when a team continually wins 10 games, it is labeled as consistent. When a team goes 3-9 in back-to-back seasons and enters the end of the third on the verge of only winning three games again, well that’s when adjectives like stagnant get tossed around. The Pirates still have an exciting passing attack, but little else has been worth discussing.
Losing to UCF exposed a lot of weaknesses in the Bearcats’ offense. For starters, there was a disturbing lack of creativity in terms of play-calling. Constant handoffs from the shotgun are great when Michael Warren is racking up 100-yard games and the points are flowing, but they look too conservative in the face of an offensive juggernaut like UCF.
With that written, the Bearcats aren’t helpless offensively. Warren is more likely to rush for 100 yards than not. He’s already done so in six games while producing a total of 1,163 yards and 17 rushing scores. Even in a forgettable game against the Knights, the sophomore running back still found his way to 81 yards on 18 carries. Support for the Bearcats’ offensive anchor has been inconsistently utilized, but Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland are both runners who can get into the open field and make plays. They just need the chance to do so. UC’s rushing game is further supported by the man under center, as Desmond Ridder has rushed for 567 yards and five touchdowns, including a 70-yard effort against UCF.
UC’s running game can be lethal, especially since Ridder shows great instincts on read-option plays, but when its not working, it brings the whole operation down. UCF’s unrelenting pressure really hampered Ridder’s passing (11-for-26, 127 yards), as he threw for fewer than 200 yards for the third-straight game. Ridder doesn’t back down from stepping up to make throws in the pocket, but when the pocket is constantly collapsing, there’s no where to do that.
It is also difficult for Ridder to find a rhythm when only one wide receiver is ever open. Kahlil Lewis caught five passes for 75 yards against the Knights. The rest of the Bearcats’ wide receivers and tight ends combined for two catches and 27 yards. Both Jayshon Jackson and Rashad Medaris are excellent playmakers who can really burn a defense, but they can’t do it unless the ball is in their hands. It’s possible that both will need to step up in an even bigger way this week as Lewis is listed as questionable after injuring himself against UCF.
Interestingly enough, ECU is a team that has found more success on defense than offense, which is a rare sight for the Pirates. They rank 85th in the country on defense and 100th on offense in terms of S&P+. In fact, the Pirates are fourth in the AAC in total yards allowed (398.2 YPG). The problem is, they can’t get stops in the red zone (opponents are 28-for-28 in such situations) and they’ve managed a grand total of seven forced turnovers all season.
I just told you that the Pirates aren’t great on offense, but that doesn’t mean their isn’t greatness to be found on the roster. As long as they have Trevon Brown lining up at wide receiver, the Pirates are always a threat to score. Brown is the only player in the AAC to be averaging more than 100 yards per game (103) and his receiving totals (68 receptions, 1,030 yards, nine touchdowns) tower over those of his teammates.
With Brown in the mix, it only makes sense that the Pirates are the most prolific passing team in the AAC. The Bearcats are more built to stop the run, but they have still had some success against the pass, ranking third in the AAC (185.3 YPG). They can still get the job done. Health may play a role in that, as starting cornerback Tyrell Gilbert was injured against UCF, but assuming he is healthy, the Bearcats do have talent in the secondary, especially at safety with James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest.
Of course, the defense takes its cue from the front four, who dominated UCF for most of the first quarter before the Knights took over. Cortez Broughton was also hurt against the Knights but played through some pain. The Bearcats need him to be his usually disruptive self in the middle of the line, where he has produced 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Defensive end Kimoni Fitz is another key playmaker up front and someone who doesn’t get enough credit. The senior is quietly second on the team in tackles (50), which goes nicely with his 9.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Even after a rough outing against UCF, the Bearcats are still a top 20 defense in the country and they are equipped to deal with the Pirates. Expect them to double cover Brown and challenge freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers to beat them with other pass-catchers. Ahlers has been solid since taking on the starting mantle (1,601 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions passing and 571 yards, six touchdowns rushing), but he hasn’t faced a defense like UC yet.
Three Numbers That Matter
90 - ECU kicker Jake Verity has connected on 18-of-20 field goal attempts this season, which equates to a 90 percent success rate, the best in the AAC. The Bearcats are the worst field goal kicking team in the league, with only five makes in 12 attempts.
130 - That’s ECU’s league-leading number of pass plays that have picked up at least 10 yards. The ball will be flying all afternoon in this one, and it won’t just be short throws.
6 - UC had defeated the Pirates six-straight times before taking a 48-20 loss against them last season. Could revenge spark another long winning streak?
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Kahlil Lewis, Tyrell Gilbert, Malik Clements, Hayden Moore, Chris Murphy, Marquise Copeland, Tinashe Bere, Kevin Mouhon, Kimoni Fitz, Keith Minor, Kyle Trout, Dino Boyd, Garrett Campbell, Chris Ferguson and Cortez Broughton
These are all the senors on the team, many of whom have been key contributors to a program turnaround. They deserve your attention.
East Carolina - Trevon Brown, WR
The Pirates always seem to have one of the best wide receivers in the conference and Brown is the next in line. Even though the Bearcats would prefer a quiet game from the senior, that’s probably not going to happen.
The hype for this game isn’t as elevated as it was last week, but the Bearcats will still have plenty of motivation as they try to prove their resiliency. Expect Brouughton and the Bearcats’ pass rush to make it difficult for Ahlers to get off passes cleanly and for UC’s rushing offense to punch its way to victory. Cincinnati 33 East Carolina 17