First Look: Cincinnati
East Carolina’s season-finale matchup with Cincinnati will likely have fans and pundits alike circling the Nov. 28 bout as must-watch television that could potentially have title implications on the line. The Bearcats and Pirates met last season in an offensive showdown in Cincinnati with ECU ultimately dropping the back-and-forth affair, 54-46. The game marked the likely future rivalry of the two programs despite their geographical differences. This season, the Bearcats will travel to Greenville to close out the season against ECU in a senior night affair in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Both Cincinnati and ECU have made a name for themselves thanks to high-power offenses and both programs are yearning for national attention that just might separate them from the rest of the Group of Five. Cincinnati, fresh off of a nine-win season with a share of the AAC title, enters the season as early favorites to take the conference crown thanks to head coach Tommy Tuberville’s recruiting and coaching pedigree. His 18-8 career record at Cincinnati serves as a sign of what’s to come and with a potential All-American candidate taking snaps behind center, the Bearcats seem like a lock to find themselves once again atop the American Athletic Conference standings. Junior quarterback Gunner Kiel, the prized jewel of Tuberville’s offense and a former Notre Dame signal caller, is fresh off of a sophomore campaign that landed him in conversations as the conference’s best. With Shane Carden gone to the NFL it seems that an improvement on his 31-touchdown sophomore season, plagued by a recurring rib injury nonetheless, will seal his case for the AAC’s best quarterback. Led by Kiel, the Bearcats averaged 34 points per game last season and had nearly 6,000 yards of total offense — missing the mark by just 18 yards. This season, the junior gunslinger will have his top-seven receivers back and the duo of Shaq Washington and MeKale McKay headline the deep wide out crop. Washington and McKay had 761 and 725 receiving yards respectively last season and combined for 12 touchdowns. The senior receivers weren’t the only ones to get in on the action though as nine different Bearcats recorded a touchdown reception last season. Despite their offensive ability, the Bearcats found themselves in trouble last season on the defensive side of the ball. In total, Cincinnati’s opponents scored 354 points and averaged 27.2 points per game against the porous Bearcat defense. From an all around aspect, Cincinnati failed to stop opposing offenses, allowing 2,388 rushing yards against and 3,320 passing yards. Combine that with just 16 turnovers and the loss of Jeff Luc, who accounted for 134 tackles, and it becomes immediately clear where the team’s weakness lies. Last season, Cincinnati had three players above the 100-tackle plateau — Luc, Zach Edwards and Nick Temple. Edwards serves as the only returning player and behind his 121 tackles, senior cornerback Levicticus Payne led the pack with 57 total tackles. The losses of Luc and Edwards only make things more complicated for a defense that spent a majority of last season trying to plug holes as they appeared. The disparity between Edwards and the rest of Cincinnati’s defenders should only make things even more concerning for Tuberville moving forward. While the Bearcats possess one of the finest and most dangerous offenses in not only the AAC but the entire nation, question marks on the defense could make them susceptible to an upset or two. ECU will have the benefit of the senior-day emotions, and like last season, will be playing one of the conferences best. Pirate fans hope things will turn out a little differently this year.
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