Prime time football is on tap at Nippert Stadium this weekend. While College Football Gameday isn’t in town, this is still a pretty major event, as the Cincinnati Bearcats will host another contender for the American Athletic Conference crown in the USF Bulls.
A nearly flawless season from the Bearcats (8-1, 4-1 AAC) will hang in the balance the next two weeks, as they face the two Florida teams in the conference. UCF is obviously the premier program in the league, but USF is another Sunshine State squad that is pretty good at winning football games. UC has been as well, pulling off back-to-back wins after losing by a hair’s width against Temple. With a victory on Saturday, the Bearcats will reach nine wins for the first time since 2014.
I may have just said that USF is good at winning football games, but if you just went with the last two weeks as your sample, you’d think otherwise. Back-to-back routs at the hands of Houston and Tulane torpedoed a 7-0 start for the Bulls. They are still well on their way to a bowl game but dangerously close to being eliminated from AAC title contention. That makes this a must-win for them. Motivation like that will make the Bulls all that more formidable.
The Bearcats are a top 30 team by S&P+ standards, but its not really because of their offense. They rank 78th in the country in offensive S&P+ and are fifth in the AAC in total yards per game. However, paired with their excellent defense, they have managed to dominate more than a few opponents and create a lot of scoring chances. That’s how they’ve cobbled together a 35-points per game average.
A lot of the scoring has been done by sophomore running back Michael Warren. With 14 rushing scores this year, Warren is averaging 9.3 points per game on his own, which ranks third in the conference. He found the end zone two more times last week against Navy, but did miss out on the 100-yard mark for the second-straight week. However, his per rush average in each game (4.8 and 4.5) were both still in an acceptable range, and he is now only 69 yards away from the first 1,000-yard season for a Bearcat since 2012.
Warren has been asked to do a bit less as the offense has evolved this season. At first, Warren was getting every single carry, but now the Bearcats have become slightly more comfortable working in other backs. For example, Charles McClelland had 85 yards and a touchdown on six attempts against Navy. He is averaging 55.3 yards per game during the last three weeks. He may be getting only 5.3 carries per game in that stretch, but his big play ability has earned him a chance to give Warren at least a few breaks. Those breaks can be invaluable.
Both Warren, McClelland and Tavion Thomas (11 carries for 46 yards vs. Navy) should get plenty of work this week, since USF is not a particularly stout team against the run. In fact, the Bulls are second-to-last in the AAC in that regard, letting up 248.2 yards per game. Such porous run defense has weighed them down to 68th in the country in defensive S&P+. You can blame a little bit of that on the 52 attempts and 365 yards they gave up against Tulane last weekend, but even with that game taken out, the Bulls have allowed 225.8 rushing yards per game. That’s still not great.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, they are facing a more multi-faceted offense in UC, as the Bearcats can also move the ball through the air. Desmond Ridder has shown he can throw for a ton of yards when needed, or just be an efficient game manager when the time is right. He completed 13-of-17 pass attempts for 178 yards and a score in a blowout last week. His favorite receiver is usually Kahlil Lewis (36 receptions, 453 yards, five touchdowns), but tight end Josiah Deguara and wideout Rashad Medaris have been standouts at different times as well.
I mentioned something about an excellent defense for the Bearcats. I wasn’t just blowing smoke either. They are the No. 17 team in the country in defensive S&P+, powered by an incredibly deep and talented defensive line.
Defensive tackle Cortez Broughton is a bully up front and makes it exceptionally difficult to run up the middle. Just ask Navy, which saw its usually potent rushing attack grounded to 124 yards a week ago. Broughton sheds blocks with ease and is able to create pressure and negative plays in kind, with 15.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks on the season.
Broughton’s stellar work is the headline, but the Bearcats are also getting great play around him from Marquise Copeland, Kimoni Fitz and Michael Pitts. The linebackers have helped encourage UC’s illustrious run defense, with Perry Young, Malik Clements and Bryan Wright racking up tackles and showing real skill in pursuit.
The talent extends into the secondary as well. James Wiggins is the standout at safety with his ability to make game-changing plays. On top of three interceptions, he’s also broken up four passes and recorded seven passes defended. USF quarterback Blake Barnett can’t just hope to avoid Wiggins either, since cornerbacks Coby Bryant, Cam Jefferies and Tyrell Gilbert are all pretty solid in coverage and can make plays on the ball. Considering Barnett has already been picked off nine times, his evening will be difficult.
As for USF as a whole, its offense is better than its defense. The Bulls are 33rd in the country in offensive S&P+ and they can rely on a top rusher in Jordan Cronkrite, who is nearly at the century mark himself.
Three Numbers That Matter
5 - UC just doesn’t make it easy to score on the ground. With only five rushing touchdowns allowed this season, the Bearcats are tied for the third-fewest in the nation. Add in their 3.24 yards per carry allowed average and you’re looking at one of the best run-stopping units around.
31 - That is the average margin of victory for USF during its current three-game winning streak against the Bearcats.
146 - These are the two most penalized teams in the AAC, as they have been called for 146 infractions combined. USF (75) and UC (71) are actually the only teams in the league to have 70 or more flags on their record.
Players to Watch
Michael Warren, RB - Due to how big a part of the offense he is, Warren is always someone to watch, but that seems especially true this week against USF’s weak run defense.
Jordan Cronkrite, RB - Even though he has amassed more than 900 rushing yards overall, Cronkrite was awful against Tulane, finishing with a season-low 13 yards. USF’s offense is solid, but it can’t hope to survive if Cronkrite is bottled up again.
Don’t let USF’s recent struggles fool you. This is still a very good team, with talent on both sides of the ball. With that written, the Bearcats have a major edge on defense, and if they can contain Cronkrite and put pressure on Barnett, they will open up chances for the offense to go out and win the game. With a home crowd behind them, accomplishing those tasks is more than possible — its probable. Cincinnati 33 USF 24