There are still many days left in November, but this Saturday could decide how important the rest of the month is for both the Cincinnati Bearcats and the USF Bulls. The two teams will meet this weekend in a game with a great deal of influence on how the American Athletic Conference championship chase will shake out. It’s really the start of a mammoth two-game stretch for the Bearcats, but they have to stay focused on this single game.
Now where was I? Right. The importance of this game. UC (8-1, 4-1 AAC) is currently tied for second in the AAC East and a game back from first-place UCF. USF is right on the Bearcats’ heels at 3-2 in league play, but another loss will definitively end their chance at winning the conference, even if that chance is pretty slim at this point anyway. A loss for the Bearcats could be equally as devastating, so there is extra incentive on both sides to win on every down and every matchup. The most important ones are as follows.
James Wiggins vs. Blake Barnett
If you haven’t read or heard anything about the Bulls since the Bearcats last played them, then the first thing you should know is Quinton Flowers is no longer their quarterback. That role is now being filled by Barnett, a junior from Corona, California. Barnett hasn’t entirely replicated Flowers’ production, in fact, he’s been far from it, but he presents at least a facsimile with his ability to throw and run. Barnett’s biggest problem as a starter has been avoiding turnovers. He has been intercepted nine times, including at least once in the last five games.
Wiggins is one of a number of ball-hawking defensive backs that could make Barnett’s life miserable on Saturday. The sophomore safety has three interceptions this season, including two game-winners, and will be a key for UC’s pass defense once more. If Wiggins can read USF’s plays and anticipate Barnett’s decisions, he will be able to capitalize on some mistakes and help UC win.
Kahlil Lewis vs. Mike Hampton
We may never see Lewis be a 1,000-yard receiver, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still the best pass-catcher on this UC team. A week after his monster game against SMU, Lewis was more of a possession receiver against Navy, catching five passes for 39 yards. He leads the Bearcats in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches and is quarterback Desmond Ridder’s No. 1 target on the outside. That means that standout USF cornerback Mike Hampton will get Lewis as his assignment this week. Hampton has built himself a convincing all-AAC case with 11 pass breakups and two interceptions.
If the Bulls are smart (and they are), then the No. 1 goal for their defense will be stopping the run and forcing UC to win through the air. If they can make that happen, then the Lewis/Hampton battle could determine the success rate of UC’s offense.
USF vs. its own losing streak
Even with a more than respectable 7-2 overall record, the Bulls are limping into this game. That can be taken both literally and metaphorically, as they have been cursed with a slew of injuries and have lost back-to-back games, neither of which was particularly close
First, they gave up 57 points and lost by three touchdowns to Houston. If that was the only blemish, it could be understood. Houston has a pretty great offense and is one of the better teams in the AAC.
The red flags shot up much more prominently when the Bulls were handed a 41-15 beatdown at home by a below .500 Tulane team this past Saturday. That is particularly troubling for USF, which should have kept the game within striking distance at a bare minimum, because it now faces a UC squad that topped the Green Wave 37-21 earlier this season.
Cortez Broughton. vs Jordan Cronkrite
No team in the AAC can defend the run as well as the Bearcats. I can recite all the stats that back that up (like how they’ve allowed five rushing touchdowns all year), but perhaps the most ringing endorsement of that fact is what they did to Navy last weekend. The top rushing team in the AAC, the Midshipmen are averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground. They had all of 124 against the Bearcats. A big reason for that is the play of the defensive line and Broughton is the anchor of that unit. He had 1.5 tackles for loss in the Navy game and now has 14.0 for the year, which ranks second in the conference.
USF is a more well-balanced offense than Navy, but it still likes to run it a bit. Cronkrite does the majority of that work and has generally had success. He is second in the AAC in rushing yards and that’s even after he managed only 13 in the Bulls’ loss to Tulane. Broughton is going to try to meet Cronkrite as often as possible. If he gets his wish, the Bulls will need to find another way to move the ball.
The Bearcats vs. USF’s recent dominance against them
During the last three years, the USF game has been one to fear for the Bearcts. Not only have they lost three-straight to the Bulls, they’ve lost badly. A 33-3 setback last year made for the third-straight loss of at least 25 points and put the average scoring margin at a robust 31 points per game. This year’s Bearcats are a much different team than those other three, so this matchup shouldn’t feature a similar result. Obviously, it is imperative that it doesn’t for UC to win.