When the Cincinnati Bearcats and UConn Huskies squared off at the close of the 2017 regular season, a genuine thriller ensued. With both teams playing for nothing more than pride, the game came down to the final play, as the Huskies lined up for an extra point attempt after Hergy Mayala caught a game-tying touchdown pass from David Pindell as time expired. The Huskies were down 22-21 before the kick and they remained that way when it sailed off course.
This year’s matchup has a much different feel to it. Instead of serving as UC’s final game of the season, it is the league opener. Additionally, the Bearcats already have four wins (and zero losses). They didn’t get to four wins last year until after that final extra point was off the mark. UConn is not having as much success (1-3), so the expectation is that the Bearcats will win and not need a miracle to do it this time. For everything to go according to plan, UC will need to be on the winning side of a few matchups within the matchup. Here they are.
Cincinnati’s linebackers vs. David Pindell
Ohio’s Nathan Rourke had a field day against the UC defense last weekend. It wasn’t exactly with his arm, but his running ability was on full display. The Ohio signal caller rushed for 96 yards, including a 37-yard scamper on the final drive. He eluded pressure quite frequently, but was perhaps most frustrating is the number of times he danced out of potential tackles. While the entire defense is at fault for allowing breakdowns, the linebackers were especially flummoxed by Rourke’s mobility.
That brings us to this weekend when the Huskies will rely on their own mobile quarterback in Pindell. The senior signal caller has already tallied 410 yards and four touchdowns on the ground through the first four games. UC’s defense, especially the guys at linebacker, really need to wrap him up and keep the big gains to a minimum.
A good scoring defense vs. a bad one
This isn’t exactly a matchup, since UC’s defense won’t be on the field when UConn’s is, but the difference between the two is too epic to ignore. UC is first in the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game. Even if they were lit up a bit by Ohio (30 points), the Bearcats have still managed to keep most offenses in check.
On the other side, UConn is not only dead last in the AAC but the country as a whole in scoring defense. The Huskies have let up 54.5 points per game and are also last in the nation in defensive S&P+. They have managed to avoid being the bottom of the barrel in red zone defense, but considering UC has scored touchdowns on 14 of 15 red zone trips, that probably isn’t going to make a big difference.
Cincinnati vs. getting off to a good start in AAC play
This is the Bearcats’ 2018 AAC debut. Now that they have started 4-0, league title hopes are more plausible than they’ve been in quite a while. Speaking of long waits, the Bearcats are riding a pretty bad streak in league openers. They have not won one since 2012 when they topped Pittsburgh 34-10 in the first game of the season as a member of the Big East. It’s not just the opener’s either. UC hasn’t won a league game in September since that 2012 season and went 0-4 to start the conference schedule just last year. Immediately carrying over the winning ways into the AAC will help the Bearcats on their quest to contend.
The Bearcats vs. penalties
The Ohio game ended beautifully, but there was a lot of ugly under the surface. The most reprehensible stat in the box score was the penalty count against the Bearcats. They were flagged for 14 penalties total and they weren’t all small infractions. UC lost 150 yards because of all those flags and have been the most penalized team in the AAC this year. More discipline is a must.
Kahlil Lewis and company vs. Tyler Coyle
UConn’s defensive woes have occurred despite the play of safety Tyler Coyle. The redshirt sophomore leads the Huskies in tackles (41) and is easily the best player in the secondary. Actually, make that the best player on the defense as whole.
With Coyle roaming in the defensive backfield, the Bearcats will have a challenge when it comes to throwing the ball, at least in areas where Coyle is stationed. That means that the sudden resurgence of the wide receiving corps must be more than a passing fancy. Lewis has been at the forefront of the improvement, with 143 yards on nine receptions in his last two games combined. He had all of 20 yards combined in the first two games. Ensuring that he and fellow pass-catchers like tight end Josiah Deguara and wideouts Rashad Medaris and Jayshon Jackson stay involved should be a priority.