The Cincinnati Bearcats are going to a bowl game! Unfortunately, they won’t be playing until Dec. 31. That means we’ve got to do something to pass the time. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Military Bowl between the Bearcats and Virginia Tech Hokies, we’ll be breaking down the matchup position by position. Today we’ll be looking at all the running backs for each side.
It’s time for a history lesson. Not an ancient history lesson. There will be no talk of Herodotus, Martin Luther’s treatises or anything like that. Instead, we’ll be taking a trip back to the recent past. The 2014 Military Bowl to be exact. For those who don’t remember, that was the last time the Bearcats and the Hokies played a game against one another. The Hokies won and a big reason why was the play of their running back J.C. Coleman, who rushed for 157 yards and a score on 25 carries. It was quite a game for Coleman, who only rushed for 533 yards that season and managed only 48 carries the next year.
Now let’s fast forward to today. This year’s Hokies are still without a game-changing back, but Steven Peoples could very well be the next Coleman as far as the Bearcats are concerned. The senior is a bit undersized at 5’9” but he is a powerful runner who averaged 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season. He finished with 760 rushing yards and five touchdowns out of the backfield, leading the Hokies in both categories, although he hasn’t found the end zone on the ground since the end of September. He also hasn’t been a complete liability in the passing game, although with just 8.7 yards per reception on 21 catches, he is rarely the primary target of designed passing plays.
Looking at his last effort of the season, it appears Peoples is still as effective as ever, as he had 78 yards on 14 carries and caught his first and only touchdown reception of the season against Marshall.
Surprisingly, for a team that features the 16th-most productive running back in the Atlantic Coast Conference as its lead back, the Hokies have run the ball more than pass this season. That is both a symptom of having a quarterback who can run in Ryan Willis and some skilled backup running backs in Deshawn McClease and Jalen Holston. McClease ranks third on the team in rushing yardage (331 yards, 4.0 YPC), but Holston is a bit more explosive, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. McClease was being used much more frequently in the beginning of the season, averaging 11.3 carries per game in the first four, but he has played a less significant role since. Holston only gets a handful of chances each game, but he makes the most of them, such as when he had 54 yards and a score on only four carries against Marshall.
In total, Virginia Tech’s trio of rushers are a talented group that will be a key to Virginia Tech’s offensive attack. It will be up to UC to stop Peoples, Holston or McClease from becoming the next J.C. Coleman.
Fifty one running backs reached 1,000 yards rushing before bowl season this season and for the first time since 2012, the Bearcats had one of them. It seems almost unbelievable considering the man pegged for the starting role, Gerrid Doaks, has missed the entire season with a lingering injury. With Doaks out, the Bearcats turned to Michael Warren and the sophomore has delivered. He ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in rushing yards (1,163) and had more rushing scores (17) than two teams in the league had by themselves. He also rushed for at least 100 yards in six games and was a decent pass-catcher to boot (24 receptions, 222 yards).
Warren carried a heavy burden all season and it may have taken a toll. After racking up 224 carries, Warren was held out out of the regular season finale against East Carolina due to an undisclosed injury. With Warren out, the run-heavy Bearcats kept to what had been working. Instead of abanding the run, they gave freshman Tavion Thomas a chance to start. Thomas had been a very good No. 2 to Warren and he excelled in a starting role as well, running for 106 yards and a score on 26 carries. He also had 79 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries the week before against UCF and has averaged 5.7 yards per carry overall.
As if having a guy like Thomas as a backup wasn’t enough, the Bearcats also employ the services of Charles McClelland, another freshman running back who has a habit of blazing past defenders for big gains. He also rushed for more than 100 yards against East Carolina — 114 to be exact — and he did that all on six carries. He has two 100-yard games this year and averages a team-high 7.8 yards per attempt.
For the Bearcats, who ranked fourth in the AAC in rushing offense this season, the run game is important. Having a healthy Warren is a key to that, but even if Thomas and McClelland are tasked with carrying the load, the Bearcats are still set up nicely.