Expectations are high for the Cincinnati Bearcats in the upcoming football season. There’s good reason for that because the program made drastic improvements in just about every phase of the game last season. The defense was more effective, the offense produced better and the Bearcats even made inroads on special teams. However, no season is perfect and considering the Bearcats fell short on their quest for an American Athletic Conference title and possibly more, there are certainly things they can do to make the 2019 season better than the 2018 version. In the first of a three-part series, we’ll look at a few things they can do on offense to put themselves in a position to succeed once more.
More production through the air
The Bearcats ran an offense that relied heavily on the ground game last season. With the depth they have at running back and the success they had last fall, its unlikely that they will turn away from that entirely. However, with Desmond Ridder entering his second season as the starting quarterback, the Bearcats could afford to give the redshirt sophomore a bit more responsibility when it comes to making plays, particularly in the passing game.
Ridder showed an exceptional ability to complete his passes last season, ranking third in the AAC in completion percentage (62.4 percent). He was also intercepted only five times while throwing for 2,445 yards and 20 touchdowns. Despite those impressive marks, the Bearcats were conservative when it came to throwing the ball. They ranked eighth in the AAC in pass attempts and only averaged 219 yards through the air per game. Those are certainly numbers they can improve on if they give Ridder more opportunities.
Ramping things up in the passing game won’t be easy, however, as top wideout Kahlil Lewis has moved on but the flashes of upside displayed by Jayshon Jackson and Rashad Medaris, not to mention all-conference caliber tight end Josiah Deguara mean the Bearcats could supplement their punishing ground attack with an even better aerial assault. If that thought doesn’t scare the rest of the AAC, then I don’t know what will.
Better work on fourth down
Going for it on fourth down isn’t just for games of “Madden” anymore. Even with all-conference punter James Smith, the Bearcats can afford to be aggressive and use all the downs they are given to move the ball. They were still hesitant to do so last season, attempting to convert on fourth down only 23 times and their success rate was the second-worst in the conference (47.8 percent). However, head coach Luke Fickell knew when to pick his spots, such as when Warren was given the ball on fourth-and-goal in the final minutes against UCLA to seal the victory in the season opener. For the Bearcats to improve here, they don’t need to avoid punting all together, but be a bit more effective when they are in such situations and perhaps be a bit more aggressive.
Be more consistent in the red zone
This isn’t entirely fair. The Bearcats were actually very good in the red zone for much of the season. They put points on the board in their 18 of their first 19 trips to the red zone last season and scored the fourth-most red zone touchdowns of any team in the AAC. However, their efficiency slipped as the season went on, especially as the the kicking game let them down on the occasions when they were forced to settle. They had only three field goals in the red zone and actually ranked 10th in the league in red zone efficiency (80 percent). If a few more kicks go through the uprights and the Bearcats get better at consistently finding the end zone from in close, they’ll be even more difficult to stop.
Create some big plays
For all the success they did have on offense in 2018, the Bearcats were a very station-to-station kind of team. It was partially a symptom of their reliance on the run, which lends itself to fewer massive yardage gains, but the Bearcats didn’t have a ton of “big plays,” especially through the air. Only 17 passes went for 30 yards or more and the Bearcats fell near the middle of the conference in total plays of such a distance. This area can be improved along with the passing game and really should be. The Bearcats have some serious home run threats, particularly Medaris, and Ridder didn’t seem afraid to launch the ball, averaging 8.4 yards per adjusted attempt, which was the highest mark by a UC quarterback since 2015.
The Bearcats were in a neutral position in terms of ball security last season, finishing with as many turnovers gained as turnovers given up, with 20 of each. Ridder may have been effective at avoiding interceptions, but he and the rest of the team struggled with some fumble issues. Only Tulsa (14) had more lost fumbles than the Bearcats (13) among AAC teams and Ridder was responsible for seven of those. It’s understandable since he has the ball in his hands more than anyone else, but it will take a team-wide effort to improve in this area for the Bearcats to see real results.
Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, GoBearcats.com and Sports-Reference.