With a victory, the Bearcats (6-1 in conference, 8-3 overall) can clinch a share of first place in the American Athletic Conference with both Memphis and UCF (if UCF wins their final game of the season at UCF Thursday night). The American would recognize all three as conference champs for ‘Access Bowl’ purposes, but Cinci lost the head to head with the Tigers for their only conference loss before going on their current 5-game win streak. Memphis is 7-1 in conference and neither they nor the Bearcats have faced the Golden Knights this season. Cinci’s lost only 3 out of 15 games since joining the American under head coach Tommy Tuberville over the past 2 seasons. Overall, Tuberville is 148-84 over 18 seasons at Ole Miss, Auburn and most recently Texas Tech. ‘Tubs’ is 17-7 in his second season at Cinci. Known as “the Riverboat Gambler,” Tuberville is known for high risk taking such as going for it on 4th down inside his own territory along with various special teams calls such as fake kicks or punts. His teams play fast, hit hard and play aggressively in all three phases of the game.
Offensively, the Bearcats operate a no huddle spread under offensive coordinator and running backs coach, Eddie Gran, who’s coached under Tuberville at his stops at Ole Miss and Auburn before being plucked away from Florida State two seasons ago where he learned under Jimbo Fisher among others. Cinci averages 35.2 points per game which ranks 28th nationally. They’re more of a pass first spread averaging 295.8 yards per game (14th), with quarterback Gunner Kiel (6’4, 208, So.) leading the way. While Gran emphasizes the quick, short passing game, he’s not afraid to ‘pound and ground’ either as his offense rushes for 158.1 yards per game (71st). The Bearcats 453.9 total yards per game ranks them 30th nationally. Ranked as the top QB coming out of high school by many recruiting services, including Scout, Kiel first committed to playing for LSU before changing his mind and signing with Notre Dame. After redshirting his true freshman season in 2012, Kiel decided to transfer to Cinci in the spring of 2013 where he had to sit out again (due to NCAA transfer regulations). After beginning the current season on a hot streak, the former five star recruit has cooled down a bit due to a rib injury suffered in the middle of the season. Though he averages over 256 yards per game passing, completing 204 of his 340 passes for 2,820 yards, he hasn’t thrown for over 200 yards in 3 of his past 4 games (averaging only 177 yards while throwing for only 6 TDs over the same span). Overall he has tossed 28 TDs to only 11 interceptions. In his first season starting, Kiel’s shown to be a true gamer as not only has he played through the rib injury in which he’s taken numerous shots each game, but it hasn’t slowed down his will to run for a first down as he’s a very efficient, if not gifted, runner. Kiel has however, been gifted with an accurate and quick release, as well as the arm strength to go deep as Gran has surrounded the young gunslinger with a deep and athletic receiving core.
When forced to miss series or two over the past few games, the offense hasn’t missed a beat under Kiel’s backup. ‘Munchie’ Legaux (6’5, 200, Sr.) may not be the passer that Kiel is, but Gran does an excellent job in taking advantage of his strengths, namely his athletic ability out of the pocket. 9-4 as a starter over the course of the past 3 seasons, Legaux gets the ball to his receivers through different release points as he’s completed 43 of his 66 passes for 416 yards with 3 TDs to 1 pick on the season. The Louisiana native has also rushed 16 times for 47 yards and a score.
What’s particularly amazing about the production of the Bearcats offense this season is the fact that they’ve started SIX different combinations this season, none more than three games in a row. According to Cinci’s 2-deep depth chart, the unit (from left to right tackle) of Eric Lefeld (6’6, 310, Sr.), Ryan Leahy (6’6, 295, So.), Deyshawn Bond (6’2, 298, So.), Parker Ehinger (6’7, 315, Jr.) and Justin Murray (6’5, 295, Jr.) will be starting Saturday and would be their fourth start together. The Bearcats offensive line has allowed only 12 sacks the entire season (11th) as Gran emphasizes getting the ball out to his receiver core quickly as earlier mentioned. Lefeld is the anchor of the crew starting his 24th consecutive game at left tackle come kickoff, while starting 7 games at right tackle two seasons ago. Left guard has really been a hot mess with Leahy starting three games with Tyreek Burwell (6’5, 295, Sr.), also starting 3 games along with Kevin Schloemer’s (6’7, 315, Sr.) 5. Murray has started the past 10 at right tackle while Bond and Ehinger stabilize the middle with 8 and 11 starts respectively.
They’ll be facing a Cougars defense, under coordinator David Gibbs, which allows only 184.6 yards per game passing (11th) with 134.9 coming on the ground (31st). Only 12 other teams allow more than the 319.5 total yards per game but more importantly, only nine other units allow more than the “Third Ward Defense’s” 17.8 points per game. After losing star middle linebacker Derrick Mathews and the physical Lee Hightower at corner due to injuries during the middle of the season, many (myself included), thought the defense would regress which surprisingly has not been the case as others have stepped in to fill their void. Others namely being Efrem Oliphant (6’1, 220, Sr.) at middle linebacker and William Jackson (6’1, 185, Jr.) as a shutdown corner. Oliphant continues his 2 year run of stellar play coming from third string last summer to leading the team in tackles for the second consecutive year, with 116 (including 8.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 2 forced and 1 recovered fumble. He can also play in coverage with 2 passes defended and interceptions this season. Jackson meanwhile moved from the ‘nickel back’ last year to facing the opponents best receiver as Gibbs shutdown corner and he hasn’t disappointed with 10 passes defended along with 2 interceptions while also playing the run strong and doing a nice job of tackling in space most times. Others have stepped up at linebacker as well such as Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, So.) and true freshman Mathew Adams (6’0, 208) as Gibbs has emphasized smaller speedier linebackers that can fly all over the field in his aggressive 4-3 multiple scheme. The game is starting to slow down for Taylor, who’s second with 65 tackles but leads the defense with 4 sacks, most coming on called delayed blitzes, or cross dogs when he and Oliphant cross each other while blitzing which confuses opposing offensive linemen. In increased playing time Adams has shown his quickness as well with 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles amongst his 31 total tackles.
As good as Houston’s linebacking core has been this season; it all starts up front for the defense as the depth over the past 2 seasons has allowed Gibbs to rotate up to 9 linemen. Texas A&M transfer Gavin Stansbury (6’4, 255, Sr.) and Eric Eiland (6’2, 225, Jr.) have done a nice job ‘setting the edge’ from their respective strong and ‘stand up’ rush end spots as Stansbury leads the line with 44 tackles, followed by Eiland’s 38. Big Joey Mbu (6’3, 310, Sr.) and B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, So.) start up front at defensive tackle and though don’t have the flashy stats they hold the point of attack in the middle, occupying offensive linemen that allow the linebackers to shoot the gaps for the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Both tackles do a nice job at fighting off linemen while getting their hands in the air as Mbu has 4 passes defended with Singleton close behind with 3. Batting passes down will be important as the Bearcats will look to get the ball out of Kiel’s hands quickly on precise timing routes. In speaking of the lines depth, Trevor Harris (6’4, 230, Sr.) and Jeremiah Farley (6’0, 281, Sr.) may be playing the best ball along the line as Harris leads the line with 6 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks from his end spot with Farley adding 4.5 TFL spelling Mbu. In limited snaps, Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, So.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, So.) at end along with Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Jr.) at tackle add to the depth giving the aforementioned players frequent breathers.
The Bearcats have averaged over 200 yards per game over the past 6 games, led by two running backs who began the season as third and fourth string on the depth chart; Rod Moore (5’10, 176, Sr.) and Mike Boone (5’10, 205, Fr.). Hosey Williams and Tion Green started the season but both were lost for the year by their third game due to season ending injuries. Even though he’s smaller, Moore is the tough blue collar between the tackles rusher as he’s carried the rock 116 times for 521 yards (for a 4.5 yards per carry average) with 5 TDs in 7 starts. While Moore is better in pass protection, Boone is the more elusive runner and is the ‘big play’ threat as he’s averaging 7 yards per rush (516 yards on only 74 carries) with 6 TDs as he’s scored in six straight games. Boone and slot wide receiver Shaq Washington (5’9, 174, Jr.) will also run the ‘Wild Bearcat’ as a change of pace, though Washington only has 10 yards on 4 carries this season.
While running behind the line of scrimmage may not be his strong suit, running routes as a receiver definitely is as Washington leads the team with 56 receptions for 598 yards with 3 TDs. He’s also caught a pass in 24 straight games from the slot. It’s almost unfair as the Bearcats are loaded with big physical receivers who excel in running routes, such as outside receiver Johnny Holton Jr. (6’3, 190, Jr.), who averages 14.6 yards per catch (409 yards on 28 receptions with 5 scores). Max Morrison (6’1, 173, Jr.) is the slot receiver opposite Washington and has 391 yards on 38 receptions with 4 TDs. The big play threats of the crew are outside receivers MeKale McKay (6’6, 195, Jr.) and Chris Moore (6’1, 190, Jr.) as they average 16.5 yards and 22.8 yards per catch respectively. McKay leads with 645 yards on his 39 receptions and team leading 8 TDs, as at 6’6 he’s at least half a foot taller than any corner he’s facing most times. Meanwhile Moore has 548 yards on 24 catches and is right behind McKay with 6 TDs. With Gran it doesn’t matter if his offense is facing a third and short, he’ll go long whenever the matchups dictate as his receivers have 10 TDs of 35 yards or longer with McKay leading the way with 4, followed by Moore’s 3 and Casey Gladney (6’2, 185, Jr.), Holton and Morrison with one apiece (stat found in the Bearcats game notes online).
While taking turns alternating on defending McKay and Moore on the outside, the Coogs shutdown corner (the aforementioned Jackson), will need plenty of help from his teammates in the secondary in order to at least slow down this deep core of Bearcats receivers. After Hightower went down against Memphis, a combination of Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, So.), Howard Wilson (6’1, 176, Fr.) and Turon Walker (5’10, 190, Sr.) have stepped up at corner and have done more than an adequate job. Wilson started the season as the ‘nickel back’ and has 27 tackles, 1 pass defended and a forced fumble. Howard meanwhile (no relation), has come out of nowhere to defend 6 passes and intercept 3 balls as he uses his lanky yet physical frame to undercut routes of his receivers. The heart of the secondary is still the two safeties however; Trevon Stewart (5’9, 185, Jr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’10, 190, Jr.). What both lack in size they possess in high football IQs and great instincts, which allows Gibbs to use them all over the field. Stewart particularly will play in the box one play, cover a slot receiver the next and play deep when Gibbs goes to a cover-2 look. On the season Stewart has 44 tackles, 7 passes defended and 3 interceptions. McDonald meanwhile, does an excellent job of playing center field as his ability to read a QB combined with his reaction time in breaking on balls allows him to cover space quickly, as he’s third on the team with 58 tackles but first in both interceptions (5) and fumbles recovered (3). He also averages 29 yards per interception return, setting up the offense with great field position. Khalil Williams (6’0, 195, Fr.) has shown some potential in the five games he’s played since burning his redshirt with 7 tackles and Steven Aikens (6’0, 198, So.) has shown flashes as well as a nickel back when Gibbs goes to a 4-2-5 look in third and long situations, keeping only Oliphant and Taylor on the field at linebacker.
Defensively for the Bearcats, it’s been a tale of two seasons. After allowing 40.8 points per game through their first five, including a 50-28 loss at Ohio State, 41-14 loss at Memphis followed by a 55-34 loss at Miami, they’ve allowed only 14.3 points per game in their past 6 games. Take out a 54-46 win versus ECU 3 weeks ago and they’ve only allowed 40 total points in 5 of their past 6 games, including only 6 over their past 2 games. Of course we are talking SMU, USF, Tulane, UConn and Temple which aren’t exactly world beaters on offense. In all they allow 26.4 points per game which ranks them 65th nationally. While they’ve held both Temple and UConn to under 75 yards rushing, for the season they allow 176.7 (81st) while allowing 257.8 through the air (104th) for a total of 434.5, ranking them 95th overall.
Under co-coordinators Hank Hughes (linebackers) and Robert Prunty (defensive ends), the Bearcats run a 4-3 scheme which emphasizes pressure via cat-quick attacking linebackers with man coverage on the backend. They lead the American and are 31st nationally with 30 sacks while the hard hitting unit has also forced 16 fumbles, ranking them 3rd overall. The formula for success for the Cougars offense meanwhile has clearly been established over the last half of the season under offensive coordinator Travis Bush; run, run and if you’re not successful, run some more. Overall the Coogs are averaging 176.8 yards per game rushing, which ranks them 55thh. Over the past 6 games however, they’re averaging almost 200 yards per game (194.3), behind starter Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, So.). In the 5 victories they’ve averaged 216 yards since Ward took over, with the lone loss being to Tulane in which they only rushed for 86 total yards. Ward has rushed for 340 yards on 76 carries and 3 TDs, while running back Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Jr.) has carried the rock 70 times for 336 yards with a score. Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Jr.) has really come on strong as of late as he’s established himself as the workhorse of the three with 97 carries for 475 yards and 9 TDs over the same time span. In fact the offense has scored 9 TDs on the ground over the past 2 games alone. Farrow’s 11 TDs this season are 4 off the school record. While trying to force opposing defenses to cover the entire field horizontally by using misdirection such as the various fly sweep touch passes as an extension of the running game, along with short screens designed for medium yardage, Bush must continue establishing the inside zone with Farrow while also continuing to have Ward run read option keepers. Fullback Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 232, So.) has aided in the between the tackles rushing as he’s excelled in kick-out blocks on opposing linebackers. Playing extensive snaps for the first time in his career, McCloskey will only continue to improve with more playing time. Sprint draws and Ward’s improvisational runs will also help to keep opposing defenses off balance, as will running the read option where Ward has the ability to either hand off or keep the ball depending on how he’s reading the defensive line. This all will continue to help open up the passing game, especially the quick slants to the slot receivers once the linebackers are sucked in via play action.
As many different starting lineups as the Bearcats offensive line has had this season, the Cougars line has had only two, with the same five having started each of the past 10 games; (from left to right) Travis Cross (6’4, 290, Jr.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6’2, 295, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6’6, 295, Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Jr.). Although they’ve allowed 27 total sacks (82nd), including 15 since Ward took over six games ago, many of those sacks were caused by the fleet-of-foot QB himself as Ward ‘ran’ into many of those sacks. As opposed to the more pocket oriented John O’Korn (6’4, 220, So.), the line was use to holding their blocks for only a matter of seconds before JOK would have, or was supposed to, gotten the ball out of his hands. With Ward’s freelancing tendencies, the linemen are often clueless as to where Ward actually is on any given play. This could be dangerous against a Bearcat line led by defensive ends Silverberry Mouhon (6’4, 252, Jr.) on the strong side and Terrell Hartsfield (6’3, 246, Sr.) as the designated rush end. Mouhon leads the line with 40 tackles, including 5 for loss while adding 4 sacks. Hartsfield adds 9.5 tackles-for-loss, leads the American with 8 sacks and does a nice job of setting the edge in run defense also accumulating 3 fumble recoveries. Jerrell Jordan (6’3, 250, Sr.) and Mark Wilson (6’3, 225, Fr.) back them up as Jordan has started the past 2 games and adds 17 tackles this season. Mouhon and Hartsfield are both athletic enough to drop back in coverage over slot receivers when Hughes calls for a zone blitz, pressuring with his linebackers. The middle defensively for the Bearcats is held by tackles Brad Harrah (6’5, 258, Sr.) and Camaron Beard (6’5, 290, Sr.), whom have 5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks combined. Brandon Mitchell (6’2, 290, Jr.) and Alex Pace (6’2, 295, So.) back them up. Overall their defensive front is not big but they fill their assigned gaps well.
The heart and soul of the Bearcats defense is their linebacking unit, led by middle linebacker Jeff Luc (6’1, 260, Sr.). As the defensive team leader, Luc is their leading tackler with 114, including 9.5 for loss. The hard hitter is a true sideline-to-sideline player despite his size and has forced 6 fumbles, recovering 3 of them while adding 6.5 sacks and 3 passes defended when asked to drop back in zone coverage. Weakside linebacker Nick Temple (5’10, 220, Sr.) adds 96 tackles while using his quickness to shed blocks for his 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Leviticus Payne (5’10, 192, Jr.) is listed at Sam linebacker, but he’s really a hybrid safety which gives the Bearcats the flexibility of a 4-2-5 look. The former high school QB is used in a variety of roles, like run stuffer in the box as he has 46 tackles including 4.5 for loss, while also being used in coverage as his 4 passes defended and interception attest.
While Ward is only passing for 193.5 yards per game in his six games as a starter, overall the offense is averaging 214.5 yards, ranking them 82nd overall. Their 391.3 total yards per game is only 74th nationally. When Ward goes to the air with his 70.9 percent completion percentage, his first target will be slot receiver Deontay Greenberry (6’3, 200, Jr.). While having an inconsistent season adjusting to Ward as the new starter, Greenberry still leads the team in both receptions (59) and yards (659) by a long shot over Markeith Ambles (6’2, 201, Sr.), who has 27 for 372 with 3 scores. It would be to Bush’s best advantage in trying to scheme up Greenberry over the middle versus Luc, though the burly 260 pounder loves to send messages to any opposing receivers running over the middle on slants or crossers, via big hits which usually happen on passes that aren’t near perfectly thrown. Too many times this season Ward has thrown behind his receivers over the middle leaving them susceptible to the big hit with Greenberry and his receiver teammates adding to the frustration by dropping way too many passes this season. Wayne Beadle (5’11, 183, Sr.) and Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, So.) have had subpar years as well with Beadle catching 23 passes for 184 yards from the slot with Ayers adding 21 for 211 at one outside spot. The Cougars outside receivers will probably be played in man coverage against Bearcat corners Howard Wilder (5’11, 180, Sr.) and Grant Coleman (6’0, 176, So.). Wilder plays the run well and is a sure tackler as he has 40, including 2 for loss and a sack along with 5 passes defended, an interception and fumble recovery. Coleman meanwhile adds 52 tackles as he’s placed on an island many times by Hughes. The Bearcats safeties, Zach Edwards (5’11, 186, So.) and Andre Jones (6’1, 197, So.), are as active a duo as the Coogs’ Stewart and McDonald. Edwards is a tackling machine who lays the wood all over the field as he’s the defenses second leading tackler with 97, while adding 5 passes defended 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Safety Mike Tyson (6’2, 200, So.) – No not that Mike Tyson, and corner Linden Stephens (6’0, 185, Fr.) both add depth and play the nickel role as Tyson has 34 tackles and a fumble recovery while Stephens adds 5 passes defended. One of the youngsters may end up covering Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, Fr.) on the outside as the true freshman continues his evolution in carrying more of the load in replacing Ayers as a starter at an outside receiver spot. In limited time he’s caught 19 passes for 273 yards and is still looking for his first TD reception of the season.
The Bearcats, like the Cougars, have an average special teams unit with only the punt coverage teams standing out. Cinci allows opponents to return punts for 3.4 yards per return ranking them 12th nationally while the Coogs 4.7 is ranked 29th behind standout coverage ace and Cougars special teams captain Earl Foster (6’0, 192, Jr.). Other than that every other unit is subpar as the Bearcats return kicks for an average of only 20 yards per return (85th) and 6.6 yards per punt return (88th), behind Washington’s 12 punt returns for 79 yards and Holton’s 640 yards on 31 kickoff returns. The Coogs are worse averaging an anemic 17 yards per kickoff return (126th) and 5.7 yards per punt return (102nd) behind Ayers 22 yards on 5 punt returns and 515 return yards on 28 kickoff returns. Kickoff coverage wise, Cinci allows 22.5 yards per return (99th) while the Coogs are 92nd allowing 22 yards per. Sam Geraci (6’2, 212, Fr) averages 39 yards per punt for the Bearcats, pinning their opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 12 of his 42 punts with another 11 being fair caught while booming 7 over 50 yards. Kiel will also pooch punt on occasion as this keeps the opponents return unit off the field, allowing them to pin the ball inside their 20-yard line. Andrew Gantz (5’9, 158, Fr.) has made a solid debut for the Bearcats by connecting on 14 of his first 16 field goals, including 4 of 5 from 40 yards on out. The Coogs Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Jr.) meanwhile continues his mid-season slump as he’s connected on only 3 of his past 9 attempts after converting on 12 of his first 13 which in part was probably why head coach Tony Levine elected not to kick a 42 yarder with 3 seconds remaining before halftime at SMU last week. Houston punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Jr.) continues to improve as he averages 39.7 yards on 35 punts, with 11 pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. With a 52 yarder last week at SMU he now has 5 of 50 yards or longer while also forcing 13 fair catches.
Keys to the Game
For Cincinnati, Kiel gets in trouble when he holds onto the ball too long in the pocket, as he’s always trying to make a play, when sometimes the best play may be to chuck the ball out of bounds and live to see another down. This could be the Coogs saving grace as Gibbs defensive unit is ranked 17th in turnover margin this season, forcing 9 more than they’ve surrendered. Of particular importance is UH ranking 4th in interceptions with 19. It will be quite the cat/mouse game between Gibbs and Gran as the Coogs coordinator loves to stack the box only to back everyone off in various zone drops or sometimes only show pressure via the delayed blitz. Gran, meanwhile, will signal in a play only to have his unit look back at him as he adjusts the call based on what he sees from the defense. Gran also allows Kiel to audible as all of their running plays are tagged with quick screens. If the box is loaded and Kiel likes a particular one-on-one matchup in man coverage he can audible to a quick pass outside. Also, look to see how Stewart is playing in coverage on one of the Bearcats slot receivers as it seems he’s burned for at least one big play per game. ‘Worldwide’ has the tendency to rely on athleticism over fundamentals while in coverage at times. This goes for all the Houston defensive backs as they must be able to tackle in space against Cinci’s receivers if they hope to keep the game a low scoring affair.
The Bearcats meanwhile have 4 fumble recoveries for touchdowns so it’s vital that the Coogs offense hold onto the ball. Cinci’s defense is also the ultimate ‘bend but don’t break’ unit as they rank 10th in the nation in redzone defense, allowing opponents to cross the goal line on only 20 of 44 attempts. The Coogs offense isn’t great at converting red zone opportunities into 7s either as they’re 94th in the nation with 27 TDs on 51 trips. In a high scoring game, the Coogs defense will need to keep the Bearcats from scoring 7s as they allow opponents to score on 20 of their 33 trips (67th), while Cinci has scored on 29 of 44 trips (40th). Levine also needs to make sure his defense is aware of trick plays on special teams and 4th down play by Cinci as they have converted on 11 of 15 downs this season, ranking them 7th nationally.
Weather should not be a factor as it should be in the low to mid 50s by kickoff with a little rain occurring in the morning.