Everything is at stake on Friday for the Cincinnati Bearcats football team.
Regardless of what happens on Friday, the Bearcats will play in the AAC Championship Game for the first time on 12/7. The big question is - will they play at home or play in Memphis for a second straight week? If they play in Memphis, it means the Cotton Bowl is not an option. If they play at home, it likely means they need to beat Navy for the chance to play on 12/28 in Dallas, Texas against a team like Florida or Baylor.
No pressure, Bearcats. It’s either going to be a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl on national television against a top 10 team or it’s going to be a lawn mower bowl or a bowl game in Birmingham, Alabama against a fellow “group of five” team and no one will care or watch.
I think the Bearcats are going to win. Despite having the odds stacked against them, despite no one thinking they can do it, I think Cincinnati will beat Memphis on Friday.
Who is Memphis?
Well, there are many ways to answer this question. One way, is to refer to Memphis as Cincinnati.
Both teams are the same. They are very good but have also gotten lucky, at times. Memphis should be 11-0. They also could easily have lost a couple more games along the way.
Don’t mistake this for disrespect. Memphis is an excellent football team. They can compete with 65% of the “power 5” teams are are a few notches above Boise State or Appalachian State. At this point, they are better than Cincinnati.
But they have had a very similar season in some ways to Cincinnati based on who they have played and some of the comparable results along the way.
- Both had an opening week win over a bad “power 5” school - Cincinnati beat UCLA and Memphis beat Ole Miss.
- Cincinnati beat Temple by 2 at home. Memphis lost to Temple by 2 on the road.
- Cincinnati beat 4-7 ECU on the road 46-43 because of a last second made field goal. Memphis beat 3-8 Tulsa on the road 42-41 because of a last second missed field goal.
- In their prime-time moment, Cincinnati beat UCF 27-24 at home. Memphis beat SMU 54-48 at home.
- Cincinnati won at Houston 38-23. Memphis won at Houston 45-27.
- One major difference - Memphis won at USF 49-10. Cincinnati won at USF 20-17.
Cincinnati is a good football team. Memphis is a good football team. But Memphis lost to Temple and they should have lost to Tulsa and could have lost to SMU. They are very good and they have dominated most opponents. But they are beatable.
Three keys to the game
Before explaining why they are going to win, it’s perfect to share what they must do to win.
Protect the ball
Desmond Ridder has thrown 8 interceptions this year after only throwing 5 last season. He has only gone four games without throwing one. He must be careful and make the safe plays. We’ve seen a bad version of Ridder for the past month or so and it’s important that, if he can’t go out and make big plays and win that game, that he not lose the game either.
Cincinnati cannot afford to let Memphis have extra possessions by turning the ball over. Their offense is too good and too dangerous. Cincinnati’s defense is awesome but they can’t be put in a position to defend all game because the offense can’t move the ball or gives the ball up early in drives.
Protect the quarterback
Offensive line has done well run blocking, but pass protection has not been a specialty. If these guys can hold off the Memphis pass rushers and give Ridder an extra couple of seconds, it could go a long way to helping him make plays.
Clean up the penalties
11 games into the season, it’s pretty obvious that this team is who it is. It will continue committing roughly 10 penalties a game. My solution is let’s avoid them when the defense gets a stop on third down or stop putting the offense in situations where they need 20 yards for a first down. I’m not sure when the right time to commit a penalty is, but against a team as good as Memphis, the penalties will cost them this game.
Why Cincinnati Will Win
Now you have the 3 keys to the game, here are the 5 reasons that Cincinnati will win on Friday against Memphis.
Bearcats’ offensive strength is running the ball
Memphis has 1 loss this season, losing to Temple. In that game Temple threw 37 times and ran the ball 48 times. Those 48 runs went for 193 yards. Temple split carries between two running backs and the quarterback ran 7 times. This sounds like an offense I know.
Bearcats need a healthy (literally and figuratively) dose of Michael Warren and Gerrid Doaks. Memphis’ defense is allowing 166 rushing yards per game and the Bearcats’ offense averages 197 yards rushing.
Bearcats’ defensive strength is defending the run
While running the ball is the strength of the offense, defending the run is the strength of the defense. Cincinnati allows the 35th fewest rushing yards per game (133.7 ypg). Memphis is averaging 197 yards per game, led by Kenneth Gainwell and his 6.8 yards per carry and 1,294 yards. Him and Patrick Taylor form an excellent duo and the Bearcats need to force the Tigers into more throwing situations.
If Gainwell gets into space, it’s going to be a problem. But if Cincinnati can contain him, it will be up to Coby Bryant, Ahmad Gardner, Cam Jefferies, Ja’Von Hicks, and Darrick Forrest to successfully defend against Brady White and the passing game.
Ridder’s running ability
Obviously Ridder has not thrown the ball well. But what if he didn’t have to be perfect throwing it? Ridder has the ability to move outside the pocket and move the chains with his legs.
Continuing with the theme of running the ball against Memphis, here is a look at what some quarterbacks have done against the Tigers defense:
- Tulane QB Justin McMillan ran 15 times for 89 yards and a TD.
- Houston QB Clayton Tune ran 10 times for 65 yards and a TD.
- Temple QB Todd Centelo ran 7 times for 44 yards.
- Louisiana-Monroe QB Caleb Evans ran 18 times for 112 yards and 2 TD.
- Southern QB Ladarius Skelton ran 15 times for 75 yards.
- Navy QB Malcolm Perry ran 22 times for 91 yards and 2 TD.
That final bullet for Navy is sort of an outlier, because that’s their entire offense, but you get the point. Quarterbacks have had success running the ball against Memphis’ defense. It hasn’t translated to wins for those teams, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t.
The Bearcats defense has 14 interceptions, tied for the third most in the country. Memphis QB Brady White has only thrown 7 INT this year.
I mentioned above that one of the keys to the game is protecting the football on offense. That should be a key for Memphis too, because if Cincinnati is able to win the turnover battle, they will win the game.
Special Teams Are Special
Cincinnati has blocked a kick in 5 straight games. Last week against Temple, they blocked an extra point and returned it 97 yards for a touchdown, which turned out to best the difference in a 15-13 win.
Whether it’s a blocked field goal or punt, Cincinnati will make it 6 straight weeks with a blocked kick.
This also might even be the week that they finally get a kick return TD. Freshman kick returner Tre Tucker is averaging 23 yards per return, but has been getting closer and closer to breaking a big one.
I still have faith in Desmond Ridder. No, he’s not the reason that Cincinnati has won 21 of 24 games, but he hasn’t lost them any games over that stretch either. I noted earlier on this week’s podcast, the offense as a whole needs to improve. It’s not just Ridder. I could see Luke Fickell getting more involved in the offensive game planning this week, to make sure there are some new and improved wrinkles in the playbook.
If Cincinnati can control the tempo and run the ball and complete quick, short passes, they will be fine. The defense needs an A+ game and they will have to make a big time play again on special teams.
This team has lost 3 times since the start of last season. Ohio State in week 2 this year, who is the best team in college football. And last year they lost to UCF in their big College Gameday prime-time moment and lost to Temple in a game where pretty much nothing went right.
I have faith that these players and these coaches can overcome anything and for the 22nd time in 25 games, find a way to win. It won’t be pretty. We’ll all hate ourselves for 60 minutes of action. But this team will find a way.