Of course the big story with Cincinnati and first-year coach Brian Kelly, formerly of Central Michigan, has been an opportunistic defense that has done a magnificent job of creating turnovers. By creating the turnovers, the Bearcat offense has had the benefit of great starting field position throughout the season, and has taken advantage of said field position to sprint out to early leads in many of Cincinnati's 10 games so far in 2007.
Rodriguez, facing the Bearcats for the fifth time in his seven seasons as head coach at West Virginia, sees early success as an important factor in Saturday night's Big East clash at Nippert Stadium.
"They're an explosive team," Rodriguez told the Mountaineer media on Tuesday. "They've scored a lot of points and jumped on teams early, some of it because of their offense and some of it because of their special teams, and some of it from their defense. I think they're either first or second in the country on turnovers and takeaways. They feed off of that.
"We always say this, but there is no question that taking care of the football and not giving them easy points or great field position is going to be a key, a big, big key, maybe the biggest key to this game."
Indeed it will be, but of course as always that practice is easier said than done. Though the Bearcats have an entirely new defensive staff under Kelly than they did a year ago with current Michigan State boss Mark Dantonio, much of the personnel is the same. And as always experience -- no matter what system is being played -- has gone a long way in making the Bearcats a legitimate contender for the league crown that West Virginia so preciously covets.
On top of the experience is an aggressive, go for it all mentality that has Bearcat ball-hawkers feasting on teams early and often this season, and Cincy fans will no doubt hope for more of the same on Saturday night.
"They're aggressive," Rodriguez observed. "They've got an aggressive mentality. They have some veteran players that know how to create turnovers. You can watch them go after the ball, and strip the ball when other guys are running it. They do a good job in their zone coverage of breaking on the ball, not that you have to be a veteran player to do that.
"Their safety, Nakamura, is one of the best I've ever seen at stripping the ball and getting turnovers," he said of the All-Big East candidate. "They were good at it last year, and they're even better this year."
On the other side of the ball, the Bearcats offense should not be overlooked. With Dantonio no longer running the sidelines, the Cats have gone from a conservative, establish-the-run I-Formation team to a spread attack very similar to what the Mountaineers themselves run to near-perfection at times. The big difference, of course, is that Kelly and Cincy are more apt to throwing the ball whereas the Mountaineers prefer to run out of the spread to the tune of nearly 289 yards per game through the season's first nine contests.
Just as the Bearcat defense boasts a veteran leader in Nakamura, the offense has a stable senior taking charge as well. Quarterback Ben Mauk is in a similar situation as WVU safety Ryan Mundy in that both are seniors who took advantage of an old rule that allowed graduate students to complete their eligibility at another institution without having to sit out in compliance with NCAA transfer rules. Mauk, coincidentally, broke many of former West Virginia quarterback J.R. House's high school passing records before heading on to Wake Forest.
For his final season of eligibility, the Kenton, Oh. native opted for a return to his home state, and found the perfect landing spot with Kelly's spread offense in the Queen City.
"I think he's been the key for them offensively," Rodriguez said. "He's a veteran guy, who has played in the spread. He played in it in high school and was very successful, and played in it at Wake Forest very successfully. It's not that their other quarterbacks couldn't do it, but they were able to plug in a guy who has experience running it and the shotgun spread offense."
Mauk is similar to USF quarterback Matt Grothe in that he can scramble when things break down in the passing game. While not as speedy or lethal as West Virginia's Patrick White, Mauk's running ability is certainly something the Mountaineers will have to keep in mind as they prepare for Saturday's battle.