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Anticipating Pressure, Protecting Warren Critical for Cincinnati Against Alabama A&M

Playing an FCS program should be a bit easier than battling Miami-Ohio in a storm, but there are still challenges ahead.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

From afar, it would appear that the Cincinnati Bearcats are going to coast to a 3-0 start to the season. Even if they have struggled with FCS opponents in the last two years, the Bearcats are playing much better than those teams ever did and this weekend’s opponent, Alabama A&M, isn’t exactly an FCS powerhouse.

When you push aside what is a large disparity in overall talent, there is still football to be played. The Bearcats can’t just step onto the field and expect to win. They will need to win in all three phases and to perform particularly well in key categories. Here are the matchups that will determine if the Bearcats pull a Mississippi State or a Kansas.

UC blockers vs. Armoni Holloway and Yurik Bethune

You probably haven’t heard of Holloway or Bethune, but their names should ring out on Saturday. Bethune is a senior linebacker who already has 4.5 tackles for loss. Holloway, a junior cornerback, has 1.0 tackles for loss. (Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Holloway had 3.0 tackles for loss. We apologize for the error). Both players will be a key to the Bulldogs’ attempts at stopping the Bearcat offense. Since that has been built primarily on running the ball, making sure two playmakers like Holloway and Bethune don’t get easy shots at ball carriers is an important imperative.

Desmond Ridder vs. anticipating pressure

After starting (and winning) his first career start, Ridder has to be the answer at quarterback going forward. Even if his passing numbers weren’t great against Miami-Ohio (6-for-11, 45 yards), a lot of that can be blamed on the rain. The 100 yards he rushed for certainly made up for it, and its that escape artist ability that makes him such a versatile option under center. However, it would be much easier for him to develop if he doesn’t have to worry about being pursued by opposing defensive lines. Alabama A&M isn’t the best group the Bearcats will face this year, but it does have 23 tackles for loss and six sacks already. If Ridder can start to recognize when pressure is coming, he can be more comfortable in the pocket and complete a few more throws.

UC’s defense vs. Alabama A&M’s third down offense and, conversely, UC’s offense vs. third down opportunities

This is always a big deal, but as the Bearcats have won their first two games, they have not seemed to fix their offensive woes on third down. They have converted only 11-of-33 third down tries, which has them positioned above of only SMU among American Athletic Conference teams in terms of success rate. For context, SMU has been outscored 88-35 during its 0-2 start. Alabama A&M has allowed just a 21.7 percent success rate on third down, but that was against less than impressive competition. Perhaps UC can see what succeeding on third down looks like in a more forgiving environment and translate that down the line. Or maybe Alabama A&M is actually an elite third down defense and I’ll be eating my words about “less than impressive competition.”

In the same vein, Alabama A&M has been good on third down offensively, converting on nearly 47 percent of their opportunities. UC’s defense is one of the best in the country right now, and a 37.5 percent opponent success rate on third down is one of the ingredients for that recipe. Something will have to give here, and the smart money is on Alabama A&M’s offense suddenly finding third down much more challenging.

UC wideouts vs. getting open

Yes, it rained on Saturday. Yes, the Bearcats are breaking in a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Still, the absolute lack of production from the UC wide receivers has been painful to watch. Kahlil Lewis is the only wide receiver with more than two catches, but his four receptions have yielded only 20 yards. Tight end Josiah Deguara is developing as Ridder’s favorite target, but the guys on the outside need to get themselves into positions to catch more passes.

Michael Warren vs. fatigue

There is absolutely zero concern about Warren’s talent and ability to carry the offense. It’s just that expecting him to literally carry everything is not fair. Through two games, Warren has run the ball 64 times. Tavion Thomas’ one carry this past weekend is the only other attempt made by a UC running back. Warren’s five touchdowns and 233 total rushing yards make it easy to forget that a 32-carry-per-game pace isn’t easily sustainable, but it is just that. We’re still waiting for Gerrid Doaks to be healthy enough to get back out there, but until he is, the Bearcats have to find a way to get Warren some more rest.