The #20 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats' will revisit their days from Conference USA when UC takes on Southern Mississippi in the second annual PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama on Saturday, December 22 at 1 o'clock EST. The game will be televised on ESPN2 with Dave Sims and John Congemi as the announcers.
This year's bowl match-up will be the fifteenth meeting between the two past C-USA rivals but the first since the Bearcats got a very meaningful win over the Golden Eagles on November 6, 2004. On that day, the Bearcats were 4-4 needing a season ending winning streak to become bowl eligible, but Cincinnati was facing a Southern Mississippi team that was ranked #21 in the country, and the game was being played in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mark Dantonio and his club got the amazing 52-24 upset win on its way to becoming bowl eligible and went on to defeat Marshall in the 2004 Forth Worth Bowl.
The Bearcats and Golden Eagles have squared off seven times as C-USA members from 1996 to 2004, and only that 2004 upset had a lopsided outcome. However, this year's bowl game will represent somewhat of a reversal of fortunes for the two institutions. In those seven previous match-ups, Southern Mississippi was nationally ranked four times while the Bearcats were never able to crack the Top 25 polls. But the Golden Eagles have not been able to climb back into the polls since Cincinnati's defection to the BIG EAST Conference, and the Bearcats come into this game boasting the national ranking.
The 7-5 Golden Eagles have been a disappointment after being the preseason favorite to win Conference USA, and the administration's disappointment apparently led to head coach Jeff Bower's resignation almost immediately after the final regular season victory over Arkansas State. In his seventeen years as the USM head coach, Bower has posted a 119-82-1 record to go with fourteen straight winning seasons and ten bowl appearances in the last eleven years. The PapaJohn's.com Bowl will be his final game as Southern Mississippi's head man. Bower is 6-4 in bowl games with a three game winning streak. Last year, Southern Mississippi defeated Ohio University 28-7 in the GMAC Bowl.
Southern Mississippi has a reputation for always having a strong defense to go with a solid rushing attack. That is again the case this season.
The Golden Eagles defense against the Bearcat offense will be an interesting match-up. The Southern Mississippi defense is rated #47 in the country giving up 364 yards a game while Cincinnati averages 436 yards of total offense. Southern Mississippi gives up an average of 224 yards through the air and 140 yards on the ground. Cincinnati's offense led by Ben Mauk will certainly test the Golden Eagles' pass defense since the Bearcats are #23 in the country throwing for 282 yards a game. Cincinnati averages another 154 yards on the ground for the #28 ranked offense in the country.
If the Bearcat offense is to continue its impressive season, it will need to somewhat neutralize four 1st team All-Conference USA defenders. With all good defenses, the personnel has to be strong up front, and that is the case with the Golden Eagles. Two of their defensive lineman, Matthew Chatelain (6' 2"/247) and Martavius Prince (6' 3"/287), get a good push at the line of scrimmage. Chatelain leads the team in tackles for loss with 14 while also getting 5.5 sacks. Prince leads the squad in sacks with 6.5 and has 11 tackles for loss.
Accompanying the two senior defensive linemen on the 1st team is C-USA's "Defensive Player of the Year" Gerald McRath (6' 3"/212). The athletic sophomore leads his team with 131 tackles and also picked off five passes. McRath has recorded double digit tackles in seven games this year including an eye popping performance against UCF where he made 21 stops. Rounding out the S. Mississippi 1st team all-league members is senior defensive back Brandon Sumrall (5' 11"/195) with 91 tackles and another five picks. Redshirt freshman C.J. Bailey (5' 10"/182) with 36 tackles and two interceptions is a member of the league's all-freshman squad.
The Golden Eagles' offense is ranked #61 in total offense and will go against a Bearcat defense ranked #52 in total defense. It shapes up as an interesting match-up on paper. Southern Mississippi's strength is running the football where they average 200 yards a game, good enough to be ranked #20 in the country, but the Bearcats are statistically strong against the run giving up only 106 yards a game to earn its #16 national ranking.
Senior offensive linemen Chris Clark (6' 5"/290) and Nick Dean (6' 3"/284) are 2nd team All-Conference USA picks, and sophomore running back Damion Fletcher (5' 10"/175) joined them on the squad. Fletcher has run for over 1,000 yards in both his seasons in Hattiesburg and this year rushed for 1,431 yards and 15 touchdowns. Senior tight end Shawn Nelson (6' 5"/240) was also a 2nd team choice after making 30 catches for 433 yards and four scores this season.
The Bearcats will want to make the Golden Eagles throw the football and keep the ball out of Fletcher's hands. Senior quarterback Jeremy Young (6' 3"/215) has taken most of the snaps when he's healthy but has hit on only 53% of his throws for nine touchdowns and has had five balls intercepted. His back-up is Stephen Reaves, also a senior who transferred to USM from Michigan State in 2005. Reaves has thrown eight interceptions compared to only three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Torris MaGee (6' 2"/204) provides Young with a sizable target. The two have hooked up for a team leading 42 catches for 617 yards this season. No other USM receiver has more than 32 catches. The USM passing game is rated #92 in the country, but the Cincinnati passing defense is rated even worse at #102.
The Bearcat defense has shown itself to be very opportunistic all season getting 39 turnovers, and compared to Southern Mississippi's 24, Cincinnati would seem to have a big advantage in creating take aways.
Special team kicking looks to be a strength for the Golden Eagles. Southern Mississippi's sophomore punter, Britt Barefoot, deserves an award just for his name, but Barefoot's 43 yard punting average was good enough to get him named to the 2nd team all-league squad. Freshman place kicker, Justin Estes, also received Conference USA recognition by making the All-Frosh Team. Estes, a true freshman from Marietta, Ohio, was 15 of 22 on field goals this year with his longest from 43 yards out. He also hit on 36 of 38 PAT's.
The Golden Eagles finished in fourth place of the Eastern Division of Conference USA with a 5-3 record. Their only win over a team that posted a winning record was a 28-21 victory at East Carolina on November 15, and the Pirates ended up with an identical 7-5 overall record. The one common opponent for these two schools is Marshall (3-9). The Golden Eagles beat Marshall 33-24 in November while Cincinnati trounced the Thundering Herd 40-14 earlier in the season. Four of USM's five losses came against good opponents like Tennessee (9-4), Boise State (10-2), UCF (10-3), and Memphis (7-5), but a home loss to Rice (3-9) in early October was a big disappointment.
The season opening game against Tennessee-Martin meant that the Golden Eagles have already played against Tirrdell Byrd, the twin brother of Cincinnati's Terrill Byrd. Tirrdell made only one solo tackle in the USM's 35-13 win, but Southern Mississippi will be facing a much tougher challenge in keeping Terrill away from the football on December 22.
Key State: When Southern Mississippi was tied or losing at the half this season, they lost all five of their games.
Papajohns.com Bowl Preview
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