The Bearcats (8-2, 5-1) are tied with Louisville for second place in the American, with the Cougars a game behind (7-3, 4-2) and are led by Tommy Tuberville, who's in his first season at Cinci but is 139-79 in 17 seasons with stops at Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas Tech. Known as the "Riverboat Gambler" for his aggressive coaching style, ‘Tubs' isn't afraid to unleash a trick play (or three) on his opponents as just in the past two weeks in games against SMU and at Rutgers, the Bearcats successfully executed onside kicks. They've also executed a fake punt, had a wide receiver throw for a touchdown and had their quarterback catch a pass from a receiver, as Tuberville has admitted he calls the trick plays to swing momentum of a particular game. Cougars head coach Tony Levine coached for ‘Tubs' back at Auburn as a graduate assistant so he better than anyone knows to be prepared in all three phases of the game. It seems Tuberville picked the opportune time to become the 41st head coach at Cincinnati as they're the only school in the country among the BCS automatic qualifying conferences to win four conference titles in the last five years while also being one of only four programs to have won 10 games in five of the past six seasons, joining Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon.
The Cougars offense will be facing their third consecutive Top-20 ranked defense in terms of total yards allowed and points per game surrendered. Two weeks after facing a tough UCF squad that allowed only 349 yards per game (20th nationally, 4th AAC) and 19.3 points per game (18th and 3rd) followed by an even tougher Louisville team (243.7 yards per game – 20th and 4th while allowing only 10.6 points per game which tied Alabama for FIRST in the nation), the Coogs head from the pot to the frying pan in facing a tough Cincinnati defense which ranks 10th nationally and 2nd in conference by allowing its opponents to score only 10.6 points per game and are 6th nationally (and 2nd in conference) against the run, allowing only 97.4 yards per game. While effectively stopping the run, the Bearcats back seven allows only 207.4 yards passing per game (22nd, 2nd) surrendering 304.8 total yards per game (8th, 2nd).
The key to defensive coordinator (and 29-year coaching veteran) Art Kaufman's aggressive base 4-3 scheme is the pressure his defensive line unleashes on opposing quarterbacks. Their starting front four of Silverberry Mouhon (6-feet-4 inches, 248 pounds, So.) and Brad Harrah (6'5, 258, Jr.) at defensive end along with Jordan Stepp (6'1, 285, Sr.) and Adam Dempsey (6'2, 285, Sr.) at tackle have sacked opposing QBs 19 times (as their 29 total has them ranked 14th nationally), with Mouhon and Stepp with 6 apiece while adding 28 tackles-for-loss with Harrah, Dempsey and Stepp each with 7 TFL. When they go to their nickel package, which the Coogs offense should see plenty of Saturday afternoon, Harrah usually moves inside as his quick burst allows him to fend off bigger guards.
Kaufman's crew will be facing only their third Top-25 passing team of the season, statistically speaking, against a Cougars offense led by offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, that's fallen upon hard times over the past two weeks in facing defenses similar to Cincinnati's in terms of being able to pressure opposing QBs with only its down linemen, which allows the back seven to drop back in different variations of zone coverage. The Cougars passing game has dropped from averaging over 324 yards three weeks ago to "only" 291.9 yards per game (23rd, 4th) as the Knights and Cardinals were able to fluster QB John O'Korn, who's hasn't completed even half of his passes (40-for-81) over those two games for a combined 352 yards (176 per game) with 2 interceptions to only 1 TD, this after completing 65-percent of his passes over his first 8 games. For the season the true freshman has completed 61.3-percent of his passes (201-for-328) while averaging 247.3 yards per game through the air. Subtract 107 passing yards from his first game in which he saw limited action and he's averaged 262 yards per game. Meacham needs to include more ‘quick-hitters' in his game plan, allowing O'Korn to get the ball out of his hands quicker to his receivers on various bubble or inside screens. The deeper developing passing routes just haven't been there over the past two weeks, and I anticipate the same this week, as O'Korn hasn't had enough time to stand tall in the pocket to go through his progressions.
First down play calling will be critical in terms of offensive efficiency, per Levine at his weekly media press conference this past Tuesday, via uhcougars.com, "When you look at this last game in particular it felt like on first down, we had a lot of non-positive plays. I don't know if that's (a) word, but we had plays where we either threw an incomplete pass to make it second and ten or we were running the football and losing yards and putting ourselves in second and long. That is not a favorable down offensively, regardless of (the) program. When you looked at us sustaining drives, it was being efficient on first down, getting to second and five or six, to where if we get three more yards and we're in the third and it's manageable. We're just trying to move the chains when we're efficient at first down, so that's something we're going to focus more on this week because I thought that was a big negative for us against Louisville."
After averaging over 170 yards per game rushing through the first six games of the season, the offense is now down to 150.8 per game (84th, 4th) as both Ryan Jackson (59 yards per game) and Kenneth Farrow (53 yards) have found fewer and fewer creases in running lanes leading to the minimal yards Levine talked about that have led to second and/or third and longs which are drive killers. O'Korn will also need to help get the Cougars running game back on track with his assorted moves on QB keepers and draws that have probably been the most successful weapon in their rushing game over the past few weeks. The offensive line of (from left to right): DeAnthony Sims, Rowdy Harper, Bryce Redman, Kevin Forsch and Zach Johnson will have their collective hands full yet again with a stout Cincinnati defensive front known for collapsing pockets.
The heart and soul of the Bearcats defense is middle linebacker Greg Blair (6'2, 252, Sr.), who leads the defense in tackles with 71 while adding 6 TFL, 2 passes defended and a sack. The linebackers flanking last season's Big East Defensive Player of the Year are Nick Temple (5'10, 218, Jr.) at the Sam or strongside linebacker spot and Jeff Luc (6'1, 251, Jr.) at the Will, or weakside. Temple leads the defense with 8.5 TFL, is second with 56 total tackles and adds 4 sacks while Luc adds 6.5 TFL and a fumble recovery. Luc will also drop down as an end in their nickel package replacing one of their tackles as they'll rarely come off the field as all three are athletic enough to play all three downs and in coverage. They've been known to jump short receiver routes as they all have high football IQs, according to Tuberville.
If the Cougars are somehow able to establish a running game, their receivers will have an easier time against an athletic Bearcat secondary led by their two safeties; Zach Edwards (5'11, 186, Fr.) and Arryn Chenault (6'0, 208, Sr.). Edwards is a tackling machine who plays all over the field as he's the defenses third leading tackler with 54 while adding 4 passes defended, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery while Chenault is a hard hitter over the middle who contributes 45 tackles, 5 passes defended and one interception and fumble recovery apiece. Their best cover corner is Deven Drane (5'11, 187, Sr.) with Howard Wilder (5'11, 180, Jr.) on the other side. Drane, who leads the secondary with 6 passes defended along with 3 interceptions (for 85 return yards), did not play last week at Rutgers due to a lower leg injury and was replaced by Leviticus Payne (5'9, 183, So.). Drane's status for Saturday's game is not known as of this writing. The Bearcats nickel back is Adrian Witty (5'10, 187, Jr.) who's only interception was returned 41 yards for a TD and is fifth on the team with 36 tackles while adding 4 passes defended of his own. While the members of the Bearcats secondary may be short in stature, they definitely are not in terms of being sure tacklers and hard hitters. Upon being hired as head coach last season, Tuberville wanted his defense to attack more, so he had his weight training program focus less on power and more on speed over the off-season in order to combat up-tempo offenses such as the one the Bearcats face on Saturday.
One major reason for the lack of production last week by the Coogs offense (besides facing a tough Louisville squad) was that slot receiver Deontay Greenberry left the game in the first quarter due to concussion symptoms. He practiced on Tuesday and is probable for Saturday, according to Levine. His presence over the middle is paramount to a successful Cougar passing attack as the other wideouts have played too inconsistent over the season, especially in terms of dropped passes. Fellow slot receiver Daniel Spencer needs to step his game up and hang onto catchable passes even though he knows he's going to get nailed over the middle on short crossing patterns as I'm sure Kaufman's game plan includes physically punishing Cougar receivers on anything over the middle, which later leads to ‘alligator arms' or dropped passes. On the outside one of the Cougar receivers also needs to step up against the shorter Bearcat defensive backs, whether it be Xavier Maxwell, Larry McDuffey, Markeith Ambles, Demarcus Ayers or Aaron Johnson. Reserve slot receivers Wayne Beadle and Andrew Rodriquez have performed admirably when called upon so far this season. Who I'm the most interested in watching perform will be Greg Ward Jr. as Coach Levine has said the talented freshman will see more playing time as a receiver come Saturday after seeing his first action at receiver last week at Louisville in which he caught a 7-yard hitch on a 3rd & 5 play on a Cougars scoring drive. With his explosion and speed deep he could be a key contributor the rest of the way.
If the Cougars offense is able to put points on the board, it may be able to pressure a Bearcat offense that's played great as of late. During their five game win streak they're averaging 38.6 points per game (while holding opponents to 19.8). For the season Cincinnati is averaging 35.2 points per game (30th, 4th). After losing starting QB ‘Munchie' Legaux during their second game of the season at Illinois due to a broken leg, the offensive emphasis went from more of a power run game to more of a spread passing look under the direction of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, a 26-year coaching veteran whose coached running backs the three previous seasons at Florida State before becoming the OC under Tuberville, whom he had worked for in previous stints at both Ole Miss and Auburn. The change in emphasis from rushing, where the Bearcats average 172.6 yards per game (65th and first in the AAC) to passing, where they average 306.1 yards per game (18th and 3rd), is due to sixth year QB Brendon Kay (6'4, 228). Kay, who's missed parts of three seasons due to knee surgeries and is 11-2 as a starter over parts of the past two seasons, is third nationally in completion percentage at 72.5-percent and eighth with a 167.18 passing efficiency rating as well. While averaging 240 yards per game passing for the season, subtract his first two games in which he performed mop up duty for Legaux and he's averaging over 285 yards per game in his 8 starts. Kay's not afraid to take a hit but will roll out of the pocket if pressured, though Tuberville prefers him to stay in the pocket in order to avoid hard shots, which I'm sure will be the game plan for Cougars defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who worked under Tuberville as a defensive backs coach at Auburn. The Cougars first year DC needs to do whatever is necessary in order to disrupt the Bearcats QB, who wants to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. As has been the case all season, expect tons of blitzes by Gibbs' unit, particularly from his linebackers. Disrupting the timing of their offense will be key - if Kay is allowed to stand in the pocket and go through his progressions it'll be a very long day for the Houston secondary as they'll get picked apart.
The Bearcats offense looks a lot like the Cougars as far as receiver routes look - opposing defenses will see quite a few fake screens out wide only to go over the top of attacking linebackers and/or safeties or they'll just simply pass over the middle into the wide open holes left by opposing soft zone coverages. The Bearcats will also motion their receivers across their formations as ‘eye candy' while also using them in the running game via speed sweeps as well. The screen game meanwhile acts as an extension of the run game via short gainers. Also while under center in short yardage situations, Cincinnati's QBs usually operate out of the shotgun with some pistol formations used for their run game. As far as tempo, while not necessarily an up-tempo attack per se, the Bearcats offense will line up at the line of scrimmage early in the play-clock so Gran and passing coordinator/QBs coach Darin Hinshaw (who's up in the coaching booth) can diagnose the opposing defense and then signal in the play to Kay. Look for quite the chess game between Gibbs and Gran as the Cougars DC will hold off on his intentions until right before the ball is snapped.
The Bearcats offensive line of (from left to right): Eric Lefeld (6'6, 309, Jr.), Austen Bujnoch (6'5, 290, Sr.), Deyshawn Bond (6'2, 287, Fr.), Sam Longo (6'5, 305, Sr.) and Parker Ehinger (6'7, 292, So.) has allowed only 9 sacks so far this season which ranks them ninth nationally and first in the American, and will face a Cougars defensive line that's started out games slowly against the run; allowing 147.1 yards per game (39th, 6th). Halftime adjustments have allowed them to shut down the run in most second halves this season more effectively as they've allowed almost 80 yards rushing in the first halves of games compared to 68 during the second. Ends Eric Braswell, Trevor Harris, Cameron Malveaux, Eric Eiland and Tyus Bowser must use their speed to push Kay up into the pocket while tackles Joey Mbu, Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Jeremiah Farley need to collapse the pocket allowing the Cougar linebackers, namely mike linebacker Derrick Mathews and weak side backer Efrem Oliphant to attack Bond (the Bearcats freshman center) through the ‘A' gaps - which is the quickest way to put hard shots on the Bearcats QB. Strong side backer Steven Taylor will probably see less game action against the Bearcats passing attack unless Gibbs decides to take out a defensive lineman in his various nickel packages. When in the game also look for Gibbs to use Taylor in attack mode along the line in odd defensive fronts to disguise where the blitz is coming from.
In order to loosen up the blitz the Bearcats will use a trio of running backs in order to achieve balance offensively. Ralph David Abernathy IV (5'7, 161, Jr.) starts and is a shifty back whom hides from defenders behind his offensive line before picking holes to cut through. He rushes ten times on average per game for around 40 yards with 3 scores on the ground. Hosey Williams (5'9, 199, Jr.) is the Bearcats leading rusher on the year with 491 yards (55 per game). The former teammate of the Coogs Trevor Harris at Brooklyn's ASA College is a load to bring down as he keeps his legs churning to the tune of 5.8 yards per rush and also has 4 TDs on the ground. If the Bearcats need a yard in short yardage situations, or a TD in goal-to-go situations, they usually hand the ball off to Tion Green, who's their bruising between the tacklers rusher at 6'0, 220 pounds. The junior averages 44 yards per game and leads the team with 7 scores on the ground. Also expect to see backup QB Jordan Luallen (6'3, 240, Jr.) in ‘wildcat' packages and short yardage situations as well. Luallen is most definitely a changeup to Kay as he began his career running the option at Georgia Tech and has played just about every position during his Cincinnati career; including running back, wide receiver, tight end and even some linebacker. He's been given more playing time as the season has progressed as Tuberville did not want the offense to lose their zone read option plays that were inserted into the lineup in order to take advantage of Legaux's legs.
The Bearcats passing offense has produced big play after big play as they've scored 13 TDs of 20-plus yards during their five game winning streak behind a plethora of big time receivers. Their leading receiver, receptions wise is Shaq Washington (5'9, 174, Jr.) at one outside position with 64 receptions for 604 yards. Yards wise, Anthony McClung (6'0, 177, Jr.) leads the way as he's amassed 674 yards on 52 receptions with 5 TDs from one slot position. The other slot receiver, Chris Moore (6'1, 190, So.), leads the receivers in TD receptions with 7, adding 435 yards on 32 receptions. The fourth receiver outside opposite Washington is Max Morrison (6'1, 173, So.) who has 379 yards on 24 receptions with 3 TDs on the season. With the four aforementioned receivers in which the Coogs secondary needs to worry about, the Bearcats biggest homerun threat returned last week at Rutgers with a monster game as MeKale McKay (6'6, 195, So.) averages an astounding 30.9 yards per reception, though he's only caught 13 passes (for 402 yards) with more than half of them ending up as TDs (7). Gibbs will need to mix up man and zone coverage in his secondary of Thomas Bates, Zach McMillian, William Jackson and Turon Walker at corner with ball hawking safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald, not giving the same looks to Kay as the sixth year QB has seen just about every coverage imaginable. The key (as always) with the Coogs defense will be turnovers. Last week they failed to produce at least two turnovers for the 17th consecutive game and they ended up losing at Louisville. At plus-22 the Coogs D must force strips of the Bearcats receivers as they just haven't dropped many passes this season. The Bearcats have lost 9 fumbles through 10 games while throwing 12 interceptions as well. Their Minus-4 turnover margin has Cincinnati ranked 87th and 4th in the American.
Special teams will play an important role in determining the winner of this game as Tuberville will run trick plays out of this unit, whether it be fake punts or onsides kicks as discussed in the opening of this game preview. The Bearcats are below average when it comes to kickoff returns as they only average 22.4 per game behind Abernathy's 22.5, on 15 total returns. McClung averages only 3.5 yards on 15 punt returns, though Washington averages 9.9 per on 11 returns. The Coogs continue to improve in kickoff and excel in punt coverage as they allow opponents to average 22.3 yards for the former (81st nationally) and only 4.3 for the latter (18th). The Bearcats meanwhile are 27th nationally allowing only 18.9 yards per kickoff return, but are a whopping 104th allowing 11.8 yards per punt return. Demarcus Ayers is 15th nationally averaging 27.5 yards per kickoff return but has been returning too many from deep within his own endzone, getting tackled before the 20-yard line, which gives the offense horrible field position more times than not. Ayers should be seeing plenty of balls kicked into the endzone as Cincinnati place kicker Tony Miliano has a 37-percent touchback average on 60 total kickoffs. Bearcat punter John Lloyd would be in the top-15 nationally, if he had enough punts to qualify, as he averages 44 yards per punt on only 23 this season. Kay, the QB, will also pooch punt as he's pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 6 of his 11 punts this season. Cougars punt returner Damian Payne's ability to not muff a punt will have to be good enough as his 4.3 yards per return hasn't really placed them in good starting field position for most of the season. Richie Leone needs to continue his excellent work at pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line as he has done such on 24 of his 49 punts this season (for a 42.9 yard average) to make the Bearcats use a longer field in order to score. UH Place kicker Kyle Bullard connected on his first career attempt last week from 46 yards and hit his second from 22 later in the game. Miliano has had major problems connecting on field goals as he's hit on just 4 out of 10, all from 30-yards on out.
The keys for the Cougars to achieve victory Saturday will depend on four major factors: 1.) Getting off to a fast start. Being such a young club the Coogs need to build some confidence after two heart breaking losses over the past two weeks. Add to that the fact that the Bearcats have struggled early for most of the season, last week notwithstanding, as Cincinnati's been outscored by 2 points in the first quarter this season. 2.) Defensively the Cougars must stop the run and force the Bearcats to become one-dimensional so they can pin their ears back and go after the experienced Cinci gunslinger. 3.) Offensively the Coogs must be more efficient on first down plays, as Coach Levine mentioned, leading to more manageable third down plays which will allow Meacham to use his entire playbook. 4.) Red zone efficiency; The Coogs are only 74th nationally as they've scored only 29 TDs in 48 trips inside their opponents 20-yard line, while the Bearcats are 39th, crossing the goal line on 29 of 43 opportunities. In a close, high scoring game whichever team scores more ‘7s' than ‘3s' will usually come out on top.
Final Prediction: Houston 37 Cincinnati 31