Though most casual fans would have expected Saturday nights contest against a lowly I-AA program to be little more than a scheduled mauling for the Bearcats to prep for Miami (OH) in ten day, a frisky Western Carolina squad did their part to turn last night's contest into an all out ‘Cat fight from the start. Granted, for most of the contest that "fight" turned out to be little more than a squaring-off between a pair of toothless, declawed ‘Cats, but it was a fight until the end none the less, as UC narrowly improved to 2-1 after the contest with the 7-3 victory over the Cats.
"I knew this was a good team when we scheduled them, so I definitely didn‘t think we would come in here and blow them out" said Bearcat Head Coach Mark Dantonio, who in the end recognizes this game for what it was - a "W". "You go into games with the goal of coming out on top, and that is what we did here tonight. That Western Carolina team beat an outstanding Furman program last week, so I knew they could play, but I expected to have us come out here and play a lot better than we did offensively."
This was definitely not a stellar offensive showing by the Bearcats, as they accumulated only 273 total yards of offense over the course of their 65 snaps on Saturday night. Stumbling to only 16 first downs and converting on just 3-of-13 third-down conversion opportunities, the Bearcats were slowed from the get- go. The Bearcats managed only 33 yards during the first quarter of last night's action.
"The goal is to come in here and get a "W", and we did our job. However, for me personally, and as an offense as a whole, I was disappointed in how we performed out there," said UC redshirt quarterback Dustin Grutza, who struggled during a 10-of-24 night passing the ball for just 88 yards. "I didn't play well out there at all and you can't help but think about that when you go home at night, but you've just got to grow with each game and get ready for the next week."
All game long the 6-2 Grutza failed to hit his wideouts across the middle. Batted ball after batted ball, misread after misread, Grutza may have taken a "step back" with last night's performance according to his head coach. Grutza's main option was to dink and dunk passes down the sidelines. Utilizing Antuwuan Giddens (three catches) and Brent Celek (two catches for 23 yards) primarily, UC failed to open up the middle of the field almost entirely. On Grutza's only two real efforts deep down the field he drastically under threw his primary target down the field. On one such occasion, on a deep pass to Bill Poland in the end zone, Grutza was picked off by a "ballhawking" WCU defensive that came into the contest with nine interceptions on the young season.
Mike Daniels Fumbles Away The Football
"I think Dustin took a step back tonight, as he didn't play as well as we've been used to him playing. However, he's a young quarterback and with every two steps he takes forward he is going to take one back as well. It is a growing process and he'll move on from here, but we'll get better as a team and be ready to perform in 10 days against Miami (OH)."
Coach Dantonio Talks After The Game
Freshman Connor Barwin, who played over 50 percent of the contest when Celek went down with an injury, continued to prove himself as a big play receiving threat coming out of the slot. Barwin's lone catch (28 yards) of the night totaled nearly one-third of all the Bearcat passing yards for the game.
It was the effort of the UC running attack that kept the Bearcats in the game offensively. The lone Bearcat touchdown on the day came on a seven-yard bulldozing effort by UC running back Bradley Glatthaar late in the second quarter. Glatthaar's 19 carries for 107 yards paced a UC running attack that finished with 185 yards on 41 carries as a team. Though he had his struggled passing the ball, Grutza's legs also proved as a vital aspect UC's victory. Though his numbers were hindered by several sacks and a swarming WCU front seven, the nimble Grutza dashed for 29 net yards rushing, including an elusive 19 yard dash to convert on an important 3-and-9 conversion to close the third quarter.
Bradley Glatthaar Scores The Only TD Of The Night
While offensively the Bearcats struggled, a young Bearcat "D" maintained a "bend but not break" mentality that held the Cats to 82 rushing yards for the contest. "Coach Dantonio told the defense that if they were able to hold these guys to under a 100-yards rushing we should win this game, and that is what we did," said UC senior Adam Roberts.
Bearcats Defense Gave Pressure All Night
The Bearcats held WCU to just 284 yards overall for the contest. In fact, outside the occasional "sustained" drive by the Cats, UC was dominant defensively. Forcing three interceptions, allowing just one score in four red zone chances, and making several timely tackles for loss late in the contest helped secure the victory.
"We are really young on defense right now, but I am so proud of these guys. Last year this might have been a little difficult to swallow, but being as young as we are this was still a big growing experience for us as a team. We're learning a lot about one another on a daily basis. These guys haven't been playing college football that young, and you just see something in their eyes. I'm just really proud of them!"
Adam Roberts Talks After The Game
That young defense that Roberts speaks of was bolstered by inspired performance by five UC freshmen that started on defense. Cedric Tolbert (safety), Mike Mickens (cornerback), Corey Smith (linebacker), Trevor Anderson (defensive end) and Terril Byrd (defensive tackle) all started and played well for the Bearcats. Add in the play of another true freshman Thomas Claggett and you have over half your defense as true freshmen.
"I've seen those guys develop so much," said Roberts. "I mean, Claggett, who forced a fumble tonight, you just look him in the eyes and he is just ‘ready' to play!…and Mickens, who is 150 pounds soaking wet, will just go out there and hit anybody who gets in his way - HE'S FEARLESS OUT THERE! I've just really been impressed by the toughness of these guys."
That toughness and impressive presence that Roberts spoke of in regard to the UC freshman did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff either. Mixed with the talent displayed during their recruitment to UC, the work ethic displayed during practice and the development shown in the weight room was enough to earn these high schoolers of a year ago a chance to play in Dantonio's mind.
"We wanted to get these young guys out there and get them ready for the conference season," said Dantonio. "These guys now have three games playing college football, they need to be ready to play well every game. You've got to give guys a chance to play well and make some mistakes, and this early part of the season allows you to leave them in there a little longer and work through those ‘growing pains'."
This was particularly the case with Cedric Tolbert, who got the start over Dominc Ross at strong safety. Though struggling at times, Dantonio thought that giving his young talent a chance to gain some on-the-field teaching on Saturday night was just the key to help him along in his maturation process.
Tolbert & Bearcats Defense Bend But Don't Break
"We wanted to get Cedric out there in a situation where he thought he could be successful and see if he could play. He struggled at times, but I talked to the coaching staff and they wanted to stick with him and see how he handled himself. He did an "okay" job out there and, even though he got hurt and couldn't play the full game, this will really help him in his growth as a football player."
The injury to Tolbert gave Ross, the junior safety, a chance to shine, and really gave UC an opportunity to win. Ross came up with two key interceptions late in the game to secure a Bearcat victory. Ross' picks each came at timely circumstances, as he managed to pick off WCU starting QB Justin Clark on a goal line stand and then pulled down the game-ending pick on their final drive of the night.
Ross First INT At The Goal Line
Ross Takes To The Air For His Second INT
And Comes Down With It To Closeout The Game
It was a night for UC's safeties to shine, as Haruki Nakamura (who left the game with an apparent concussion) also picked off a Clark pass deep in the redzone to end a WCU scoring opportunity.