The new year begins tomorrow but a new era in Cincinnati Bearcats football already began in 2018. Following three years of dismal results on the field and infuriating action on the sidelines, the Bearcats finally returned back to relevancy this fall. That’s putting it mildly, as the Bearcats won 10 games in a season for the first time since 2012 while lining up one of the best defenses in the country.
The renaissance of sorts has all led to Monday when the Bearcats will face the Virginia Tech Hokies of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 2018 Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps. Memorial Stadium. It is UC’s first bowl appearance since 2015 and the latest in the year they have played in one since 2011.
All of the sentences above indicate that this year has been a success. There’s no denying that. However, the Bearcats are nowhere near finished. A win in the Military Bowl is now the No. 1 priority and the crown jewel for a program that has already taken a giant step forward.
Standing in UC’s way is Virginia Tech, a program that had a more middling year despite being ranked as high as No. 12 in the AP poll. Led by Justin Fuente, the former Memphis head coach who is in his third season as the successor to Frank Beamer, the Hokies barely even made it to the postseason. They were 4-6 entering their last two games of the season but salvaged things by taking down rival Virginia and Marshall squads in the final two weeks. For them, the hope is that the momentum will carry forward.
The Bearcats’ offense is a mix of the old and new. It is fueled by a smash mouth running game, but formations are generally out of the shotgun and there is plenty of freedom for quarterback Desmond Ridder to improvise. For the uninitiated, Ridder has developed into an outright star as a redshirt freshman. Ever since taking over the starting gig early in the season opener, he has been nothing short of exceptional. He completes passes efficiently (62.5 percent), takes shots down field (8.3 adjusted yards per attempt) and avoids throwing interceptions (19 touchdowns, five picks). In addition, he is a dangerous player when he tucks the ball down and runs, piling up 574 yards and five scores on the ground.
While Ridder is excellent at orchestrating the offense, it is running back Michael Warren who dictates how well (or how poorly) the Bearcats play. Thankfully, he has generally provided positive results, as he became the first Bearcat since George Winn in 2012 to rush for more than 1,000 yards. He surpassed 100 yards in six games and found the end zone 17 times on the ground while adding 222 yards and a score through the air. The Bearcats were without Warren in the regular season finale, but with backups like Tavion Thomas (490 yards, six touchdowns) and Charles McClelland (483 yards, four touchdowns), they are always in good hands. They should be at full strength on Monday, as Warren is projected to start. He should be given plenty of room to run with all-conference blockers like Dino Boyd and Garrett Campbell leading a fully healthy offensive line.
All of that would be a problem for any team, but that may be especially true for Virginia Tech, which is allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground and is ranked 79th in the country in defensive S&P+. If the Hokies are somehow able to contain the run game, then the Bearcats can air it out to top pass catchers like wide receiver Kahlil Lewis (55 receptions, 768 yards, nine touchdowns) and tight end Josiah Deguara (37 receptions, 465 yards, five touchdowns).
A perfect storm of breakout performances, speedy development and splendid coaching allowed the Bearcats to produce one of the best defensive seasons of any team in the country. UC ranked eighth nationally during the regular season in total defense, allowing a paltry 291.9 yards per game. The metrics backed the Bearcats up, as they ranked 19th in the country in defensive S&P+.
Cortez Broughton and the front line make for difficult days behind the line of scrimmage for opposing offenses, while the secondary has a bunch of playmakers that are constantly at the point of attack. Broughton was named to the All-American Athletic Conference first team after piling up career-highs of 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Broughton’s secret weapon are his active hands, as he can pull ball carriers down, but is even a force when a quarterback gets a throw off, having knocked down five passes at the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Kimoni Fitz (4.5 sacks), linebacker Bryan Wright (4.5 sacks), “JACK” Michael Pitts (4.0 sacks) and nose tackle Marquise Copeland (3.5 sacks) have all contributed to a reinvigorated pass rush for the Bearcats.
The two players that Broughton and company will be focused on are Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis and running back Steven Peoples. Willis took over as the starting quarterback when Josh Jackson was lost for the year to injury. The redshirt junior, who transferred from Kansas, did well for himself, throwing for 2,497 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing nearly 58 percent of his passes. Willis can also run a bit (321 yards, three touchdowns), but Peoples produces the most in that area. The senior running back averaged 5.1 yards per carry this year, compiling a total of 760 yards and five scores. Considering UC ranks seventh in the nation in rushing defense this season, Peoples has his work cut out for him.
If Virginia Tech hopes to keep UC’s run defense honest, it will turn to Willis’ arm. The passing attack may be more effective than originally expected, as second-team All-ACC wide receiver Damon Hazelton appears to be healed from an injury suffered earlier this year. Of course, throwing against the Bearcats isn’t always easy with safety James Wiggins and corner backs Tyrell Gilbert and Coby Bryant in the defensive backfield ready to pounce on any errant passes.
Three Numbers That Matter
5 - The Bearcats have not had the best kicking game this season. Freshman Cole Smith made only 5-of-12 field goal tries this season. Those five made field goals were the fewest by any team in the country.
91.9 - By scoring on 91.9 percent of their red zone trips, the Hokies were one of the most efficient teams in the country. However, they only ranked 102nd in the nation in red zone attempts (37) and UC actually scored touchdowns on a greater percentage of their chances (72.3 percent) than Virginia Tech (70.3 percent).
33 minutes, 31.75 seconds - The Bearcats like to control the ball and dictate tempo. They are often very successful, ranking seventh in the country in time of possession per game this season.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Cortez Broughton, DT
Broughton is the anchor of UC’s defense. If he plays well, then the Hokies will struggle and the Bearcats will win.
Virginia Tech - Damon Hazelton, WR/PR
If Hazelton is able to play, he will dramatically change how UC defends and how Virginia Tech attacks. Not only is he the team’s top pass-catcher but its primary punt returner.
It all comes down to this. All the success the Bearcats have enjoyed will not be washed away if they lose, but it will certainly take some of the shine away. UC has a brutally effective defense that destroys the run game and forces teams to pass. Willis has the skills to work the passing game, especially with Hazelton back, but if UC’s front seven can break through and make him uncomfortable, the Hokies’ already pedestrian offense will stall out. In response, Ridder, Warren and Lewis are a trio brimming with the potential for huge performances. Something tells me at least one of them will have such a game on Monday. Cincinnati 33 Virginia Tech 28