In his first season, Kelly has installed a spread offense, forgoing a pro set that failed to allow the Bearcats to get as many preferential match-ups as easily. Now, No. 22 Cincinnati (8-2, 3-2 Big East) is primed to play the spoiler role, and stay in the chase for its first Big East title. It has done it with an opportunistic offense and a defense that is near the top of the nation in creating turnovers.
"From a talent stand standpoint, we don't go out there and intimidate anybody, I'll tell you that," Kelly said. "But we go out and play hard. I think again we are in a must-win situation. Our team responded last week (in a 27-3 home win over Connecticut) with our best all-around effort. I came in knowing full well that the Big East, top to bottom, was the most balanced BCS league in the country and to win a championship you have to go through West Virginia. It's rounding out to what I thought it would be."
Cincinnati is in the middle of the pack in nearly every conference statistical category save the turnovers, where they have forced 35 and given up all, both the most and fewest in the Big East. UC was able to core early and jump ahead of UConn, making it difficult for the Huskies' ball control offense to get back in the game. Aside from turnovers, which have plagued the No. 6 Mountaineers (8-1, 3-1) in their closest two games (USF 20-13L and UofL 38-31W), Kelly doesn't se any way to really get ahead of West Virginia enough to feel any security. WVU has averaged 40 points per game, and is allowing just 16, right at the average of the Bearcats' defense.
"The most important thing was to get up early (against Uconn) and get cores at home to get the fans into the game," Kelly said of Nippert Stadium, which is sold out for the 7:45 p.m. match-up on Saturday. "I think we all have been in this long enough to know the great players are going to rise up and make great plays. The defense, though, will have to play a huge role, especially in stopping the run on both sides. The defenses will have a huge impact on the game. A shootout with West Virginia, you get into a situation where there are so many points scored on both sides that there is so much uncertainty. I don't want to get into that situation."
Which equals more ball control from Cincinnati's offense and a run defense that limits the pass. That' seemingly the recipe for success in nearly every upset, and the underdog Bearcats will try to utilize it again.
"We put our playmakers in a position to make plays on defense," Kelly said. "We don't play conservative. We try to go out and force the issue defensively. I think we got away from that a bit at the mid-point of the season (loses to Louisville and Pitt) and got back to doing it the last couple of weeks. Pat (White) and Steve Slaton are the two guys everyone points to, but I think they are as athletic and gifted overall as South Florida, and we hung in there pretty good. But you get (Noel) Devine and Slaton and White, they can go the distance. You have to make sure you are fundamentally sound and no give up. They have great skill on both sides, similar to South Florida."
Kelly did address concerns that his team is the most penalized in the Big East, while West Virginia is the least. The Mountaineers, however, were flagged for 116 yards last week, a season-high. Entering the game, WVU averaged just 46.
From the offensive perspective we have made a lot of progress," said Kelly, whose team has converted 39 of 44 red zone chances. "In going from the pro style to the spread, I did not think we would be this clean. We have been very efficient and effective in the red zone. Your players are certainly not as gifted, and don't have the same athletic gifts from an athletic standpoint, so that allows you to be creative and give the kids a chance to win. I have won two national championships and competed for four, and every year we were the most penalized team in the nation. We won one MAC championship with the most penalized team. As long as we are not being unsportsmanlike or taunting, those things don't bother me."