Cincinnati Bearcats improved to 5-1 on Saturday, completing the first half of their 2019 schedule with a road victory against Houston (2-4).
It’s hard to describe this game. Bearcats got out to a quick 14-3 start, but seemed to struggle for most of the 60 minutes on both sides of the ball. Despite the “struggles”, Cincinnati produced over 400 yards of offense and 4 touchdowns and defensively, forced 5 turnovers.
At this stage, through 6 games, the Bearcats are who they are and aren’t going to magically flip a switch and change their identity.
That means they are,
- Going to commit 10 penalties per game. There is no hope that they will clean it up and magically become undisciplined over night
- Held back by poor play calling. Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock has done, if not poor, than a weird job all season calling plays
I personally had this game pegged as a loss before the season and even all week, I was nervous. The reason was the potential for a letdown following last Friday’s emotional win over UCF. My concerns were certainly proven to be accurate as the crowd was not a factor and the team seemed to lack the energy and intensity they showed last week.
Houston’s not a bad team. Their 2-4 record is bad, but they lost non-conference games to Oklahoma and Washington State and lost at Tulane, who is arguably the best team in the AAC West. Cougars were also coming off a bye, while the Bearcats poured everything they had into last week’s game.
A win is a win. Road wins are hard to come by. Conference wins are significant. And Luke Fickell has his first ever victory against Houston.
How did it happen?
Every game, there are questions and shrugs about the play calling. Every week fans are left waiting for the problems to get fixed and they never do. I think it’s fair that after 6 games, Cincinnati’s offense needs to overcome the fact that it holds itself back at times.
Despite the questionable play calling, Cincinnati produced their second highest scoring output of the season (38 points). QB Desmond Ridder had an awesome game. After going 10-14 passing in the first half, he completed 14 passes total, throwing for 263 yards and threw 3 touchdowns, ran for 1 and also ran for 50 yards. He did throw one interception. The pass wasn’t a good idea, but it did go off the hands of WR Malick Mbodj, so it wasn’t necessary all his fault.
The usual suspects stepped up for Cincinnati, which includes RB Michael Warren II, TE Josiah Deguara, and WR Alec Pierce. WR Rashad Medaris also had a huge game (more on him below).
Warren ran for 68 yards and had 1 catch, which was an 11 yard TD reception. Deguara caught just 2 passes, but one of them was for a touchdown (he almost had a second TD, but dropped the ball after absorbing a big hit). And Pierce caught two passes for 59 yards, including a 44 yard catch on the second play of the game.
One area where Cincinnati really struggled early on was third downs. They ended up converting 5-12 third downs, but only 2 out of their first 8. The 12 accepted penalties (a continued issue) were a new season high.
Remember that outstanding defensive performance last Friday against UCF? Yeah, this wasn’t that.
Bearcats defense was thoroughly outplayed and this was easily their worst performance of the year (outside of the Ohio State game). They gave up 424 total yards to Houston. Among Houston’s 3 touchdowns, two of them were passes of 50 and 69 yards, each.
But when they really needed to, they came up big. Defense did force 5 turnovers, 3 of them courtesy of Ja’Von Hicks, a late interception from Coby Bryant and a pick six by Perry Young, off a Bryan Wright deflection.
Freshman speedster Tre Tucker averaged 35 yards on two kick returns. One day, he is going to break one for a touchdown (and likely more than one, throughout his career).
Kicker Sam Crosa had a field goal blocked in the second half (second time this year) but did hit a clutch 32 yarder in the fourth quarter, that allowed Cincinnati to extend their lead to 8 points.
Punter James Smith continued his Ray Guy dominance, averaging 41.2 yards on 5 punts, pinning 2 inside the 20.
Players of the Game
Offense - Rashad Medaris
Warren, Deguara, and Pierce have been the Bearcats most consistent weapons on offense in 2019. But Medaris, a senior wideout, had the best game of his season and arguably career. Medaris tied a season-high with 3 catches and a career-high 121 yards, which included a 75 yard touchdown. This was just the second time in Medaris’ career, he went over 100 yards receiving.
Defense - Ja’Von Hicks
This might seem like the easy way out, as Hicks had the flashy stats with three turnovers (2 INT, 1 fumble recovery). But he also did a good job in coverage. Hicks has been filling in admirably for the injured James Wiggins and deserves a ton of credit for his development this season.
Making Hicks the player of the game isn’t an easy choice. DT Marcus Brown had a couple of huge tackles for loss early on. LB Bryan Wright tipped two passes, including one that led to a touchdown for fellow linebacker Perry Young, who also could have been considered. Arquon Bush also made some nice plays in the secondary.
Cougars offensive game plan was....well I don’t know what it was, actually. It was reported this morning that QB Clayton Tune had an injury and was considered doubtful. Tune started and completed just 9 of 27 passes. He threw 3 of the team’s 4 interceptions. Logan Holgorsen also took snaps at QB (0-2 passing) and WR Bryson Smith played a little wildcat and also completed his only pass of the game for a 50 yard touchdown.
Continually rotating QBs never seemed like the answer and it felt like coach Dana Holgorsen spent more time yelling at the referees and fixing his visor than he did mentoring his young quarterbacks.
Notable news and notes
- Cincinnati RB Tavion Thomas did not make the trip with the team to Houston. There is reportedly no injury issue so the reason for his absence is currently unknown.
- Houston punter Dane Roy was a major star in the first half. Roy punted a total of 4 times, with 3 punts pinning Cincinnati inside the 10 yard line.
- On one of Cincinnati’s first half possessions, they ran the ball three straight times with backup RB Gerrid Doaks. It was an odd sequence and forced the Bearcats to punt. I like Doaks and he deserves carries and playing time behind Warren, but running three straight times for less than 9 yards, doesn’t seem like the best offensive strategy
- Desmond Ridder picked up 3 first downs from scrambling. One of those first downs came on a 3rd and 18, Ridder seemed to come up just short as he was running out of bounds. Houston defender shoved Ridder, what seemed simultaneously to him going out. The ref threw the flag for a late hit and it ultimately led to a Bearcats touchdown.
- On the Deguara touchdown drive, they only ran three plays and all three were clever - an end around to Tre Tucker, an option pitch play to Warren and a play action short toss to Deguara, who ran it in. Drives like this are why fans question the play calling. They need to be more consistent with the creativity.
- One thing that certainly plagued Houston was drops. Specifically, at the end of the first half, WR Bryson Smith dropped a 50 yard, would have been touchdown.
- Cincinnati dominated the first quarter, leading 14-3 and putting up 185 yards of offense, compared to just 24 for Houston.
- The offense scored 21 points off turnovers.
- Coming into the game, WR Malick Mbodj has just one catch all year. He caught 3 balls for 24 yards on Saturday.
- The under/over win total, set by Vegas before the season was 6.5 (5.5 in some places). Bearcats are 5-1.
What’s Next for Cincinnati
Bearcats return to Nippert Stadium next Saturday at 3:30 to take on Tulsa. Down the Drive will have plenty of coverage on Tulsa and on that game.
There is an off week following week 8 and then Cincinnati plays at East Carolina, UConn, at South Florida before a challenging final two games against Temple and at Memphis.