Through the first three games of the 2018 season, the Cincinnati Bearcats have executed largely to perfection. They have won both the overall and individual matchups each week, and that’s why they are 3-0. Against UCLA, that meant contending with Chip Kelly’s new offense. In week two it meant traversing inclement weather and shutting down what can be a strong Miami-Ohio passing game. Finally, in week three, Alabama A&M proved to be no challenge in any phase.
In order for the Bearcats to earn another win this weekend, they need to finish the game with more points than the Ohio Bobcats, but its not exactly that simple. There are some more important meta-narratives that need to be won in order for UC to earn the final result they desire.
Cortez Broughton vs. Nathan Rourke
Desmond Ridder and Michael Warren have both gotten a lot of attention in the early going for the Bearcats, but because the defense has been so good, there should be more hype going to guys on that side of the ball. In the first three games, no player has been more dominant defensively than Broughton. The senior defensive tackle already has 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, which are both team-highs and a key to a renewed emphasis on creating pressure.
Broughton needs to replicate that type of work this weekend, but it won’t be easy. Rourke, Ohio’s junior signal caller, is a dynamic threat, regardless of if he throws or runs. Broughton’s ability to anticipate and recognize plays, along with his pursuit of a quarterback as elusive as Rourke, will play a large role in determining how well the defense plays.
Cincinnati’s ball security vs. Ohio’s ability to force turnovers
Say what you want about UC’s offense, but there is no denying that it has done a great job in limiting mistakes. With only two giveaways through three games, the Bearcats are tied for the seventh-fewest in the country. Ohio is also tied for seventh (along with a bunch of other teams), but what we care about is its ability to force turnovers. With eight turnovers gained in only two games, the Bobcats have made a habit of inducing opponents into coughing up the ball. This weekend, something has got to give, and depending on which way it goes, the game could ultimately be decided by turnover margin.
Tyrell Gilbert vs. Papi White
Gilbert has asserted himself as the No. 1 cornerback on UC’s very talented defense. While James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are breaking out at safety, Gilbert has been the lock down corner limiting opponent’s top receiving options to non-factors. Gilbert has a team-high three pass breakups and is tied with Wiggins for the most passes defended (three). He was primarily responsible for covering Miami-Ohio’s James Gardner two weeks ago and even though the RedHawks star had seven receptions for 80 yards, Gilbert made him earn each and every one of those catches, while disrupting several potential ones.
Papi White is Ohio’s version of Gardner. In only two games, the redshirt senior has accumulated 285 yards and two touchdowns on 14 catches. Gilbert will need to keep White in check in order for the UC defense to succeed.
Cincinnati’s rushing attack vs. Ohio’s front seven
Even as Ridder continues to improve as a passer, its clear that the Bearcats are going to rely heavily on the run game. Thanks in large part to the 409 yards they rushed for against Alabama A&M, the Bearcats have racked up 791 yards on the ground this year, while calling 157 run plays. Even if you take out the plays when Ridder escaped for a run on a called pass play, the run game would still be the predominant mode of ball movement. UC has run the ball 157 times compared to 63 pass attempts.
With Warren already getting tons of work and Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland both exhibiting their readiness this past weekend, the Bearcats have plenty of options when it comes to handing the ball off. How well they fare depends partially on Ohio, which is a team that has shown a little bit of resistance against the run. While the Bobcats are allowing 132 rushing yards per game, they’ve at least held foes to 3.8 yards per attempt. If they do even better than that, then the Bearcats could be in trouble.
Ohio’s defense vs. giving up tons of points
There’s a reason Ohio is only 1-1 despite scoring 69 points combined in the first two weeks. That’s because its defense has been too malleable when it comes to stopping scores. The Bobcats have given up 77 points, including 32 to Howard in their season opener. W
What could help Ohio here is that the Bearcats have not been an offensive juggernaut, at least against FBS programs. Yes, they hung 63 points on Alabama A&M, but in their two games against FBS teams, they have averaged 23.5 points per game. That mark would rank second-to-last in the American Athletic Conference. So the Bearcats can be thankful for the Alabama A&M game but they also need to take advantage of a porous scoring defense from Ohio.