It’s a rivalry that needs no introduction, probably because it doesn’t deserve one. It’s the Cincinnati Bearcats and the UConn Huskies in football. While there have been some hotly contested and nationally significant games played between the two men’s basketball programs within the last couple years, the football teams have been dragging behind. In the past two seasons, neither team has gotten past four wins.
Yet in the midst of all that losing, the showdowns between these two programs were at least competitive to the end. That doesn’t mean the brand of football was exciting or efficient or any positive adjective you can think of, but the games were, at the very least, close. In 2016 UConn won out at home 20-9 during one of the ugliest contests these eyes have yet seen. Last year a missed extra point with no time left allowed the Bearcats to escape with a 22-21 triumph on the final day of the regular season.
This weekend, the two teams are set to face each other once more, but their prospects are different. Cincinnati (4-0), which is embarking for its American Athletic Conference opener, is off to its best start since 2012 when it went undefeated in its first five games, ultimately finishing 10-3. A minor miracle was required to lift the Bearcats over the Ohio Bobcats last weekend, but James Wiggins was happy to oblige.
Speaking of miracles, you could say that’s just what has kept the Huskies from being 0-4. At 1-3, they owe their one win to an offensive track meet they won against Rhode Island. Every other result has been lopsided to epic proportions. Now in their second season of the second Randy Edsall era, the Huskies are as close to rock bottom as you can get.
Slow and steady wins the race. Last week it also won a football game for the Bearcats. A complete lack of any offensive punch had them on the ropes and down 21-0 during the first half, but they finally got things going and finished with a respectable 424 yards of total offense. That still leaves them as a largely middle-of-the-road offense in the AAC, as they rank seventh in total yards (425.5 PG) while being listed 87th in offensive S&P+.
All of that might not matter against UConn, which has been an absolute disaster on defense. Not only are the Huskies dead last in the country in defensive S&P+, but they have allowed an unfathomable 54.5 points per game. Even FCS Rhode Island hung 49 points on them. That is all music to the ears of UC’s skill position players.
Michael Warren, he of eight rushing touchdowns and the third-most rushing yards in the league (435), should easily produce his fourth 100-yard effort of the campaign, especially since we still don’t know when to expect Gerrid Doaks back. Warren was exceptional against Ohio, scoring the winning touchdown and compiling 124 yards on the ground.
As much as they might want to run the ball with Warren every play, the Bearcats need to throw the ball as well. Desmond Ridder was outmatched at first against Ohio, but he bounced back and now has four games of relatively solid passing work to lean on. He has completed 63.5 percent of his passes and has six touchdowns to one interception. He’s given the Bearcats the opportunity to take more shots down field, averaging 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt, while being a mobile threat as well.
Going hand-in-hand with Ridder’s development has been the rise of tight end Josiah Deguara. While Kahlil Lewis leads the team in receiving yards (163), Deguara is tied for the most catches (13) and has brought in more touchdown grabs than anyone else (2). He has made the tight end a key part of the offense, which hasn’t been seen much in Cincinnati for a while.
This isn’t the same bland offense we’ve come to expect from UConn. This team has a bunch of talented skill position players and an attack that can be effective. They are 74th in the country in offensive S&P+, which isn’t all that impressive, but is at least much better than what the defense has done.
The game plan begins and ends with dual-threat quarterback David Pindell, who is completing 66.4 percent of his passes and has also run for 410 yards and four scores. After what Ohio’s Nathan Rourke did against UC last weekend, Pindell could be the key to a potential upset. Elsewhere, UC can’t forget about running back Kevin Mensah (361 yards, 2 TDs) and wideout Hergy Mayala (16 receptions, 140 yards, 2 TDs).
Considering how the guys on defense went from scapegoats to heroes last week, there is reason to believe two things: the Bearcats can shut the Huskies down or fall prey to Pindell’s mobile magic. The degree of difficulty is higher because linebacker Perry Young is listed as questionable after missing the Ohio game.
Thanks to the play of defensive tackle Cortez Broughton (8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and linebacker Bryan Wright (3.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks) there has been more pressure from UC this season. Additionally, Wiggins has been the leader of a revamped and improved secondary. While they may have fallen to 44th in the country in defensive S&P+, the Bearcats are the best scoring defense in the AAC (13.5 points allowed per game) and have the talent to decimate any offense, including UConn’s.
Three Numbers That Matter
54.5 - I feel like we’re not talking about this enough. UConn’s scoring defense could set records but not in a good way.
14 - That’s how many rushing touchdowns the Bearcats have this year. According to the UC athletic department, that’s already more than they had last year (11) and the year before that (8).
15 - UC is still a perfect 15-for-15 on red zone trips this season, with 14 touchdowns and one field goal.
Players to Watch
Cincinnati - Jarell White, LB
White had the play before “the play” against Ohio. His tackle for loss near the goal line set up Wiggins’ game-winning interception. Perhaps that will be a launching pad for the sophomore after a slow start to the season. The Bearcats will certainly need him to make some tackles behind the line and in the open field with a QB like Pindell on the other side.
UConn - David Pindell, QB
Unless they have just been joking around for the first four games, the Huskies’ defense can’t hope to win a game for them. That means Pindell has to do it with his arm, legs or both.
With Pindell’s playmaking ability, the Huskies are more dangerous than they seem. However, the absolute lack of any type of defensive resistance means the Bearcats should be able to keep up with anything Pindell does. If UC’s defense bounces back from an uneven performance against Ohio, then the Bearcats won’t even need to be all that offensively dominant. They probably will be anyways. Cincinnati 38 UConn 20