The No. 22 Bearcats' spread offense, installed by first-year head coach Brian Kelly, is a more balanced package than that of the No. 6 Mountaineers, arguably the originators of the spread power run game. UC (8-2, 3-2 Big East) has taken advantage of a smattering of solid receivers and the mobility and experience of quarterback Ben Mauk. The senior, a transfer from spread squad Wake Forest, has thrown for 2,033 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for 279 and two scores. He has solid awareness and a run-pass ability matched in-conference, outside of Pat White, only by South Florida quarterback Matt Groethe. That skill set has allowed Kelly to utilize Mauk in an offense that creates chances both downfield and within the run game and sets up scramble opportunities.
Add in the plethora of packages – Cincinnati is similar to West Virginia in that it runs a variety of plays from many different alignments – that seem much more complex than they are, and UC creates as much offensive confusion as any team WVU will play this season. The Mountaineers (8-1, 3-2) must read and react quickly, dropping into coverage and locating wideouts while also eyeing Mauk, and do it all at a quicker pace than it has this season.
"What they are trying to do is speed you up and give you all kinds of different formations," WVU safety Eric Wicks said. "They mix the formations up so that you think you're getting this, but you're really getting that. They don't give you enough time to think out the concepts. If we practice it at a fast pace as we have and make sure you understand the calls faster (it's fine). We work off the offense. It depends upon what the offense calls, that's our defensive lineup. If they go fast, it's a lot harder for us to go fast. They are trying to stretch us."
Mentally and physically. The Mountaineers do have a better crop of athletes than any team Cincinnati has faced. Kelly said West Virginia resembles South Florida athletically, in that both teams make plays in space well and can tackle and prevent elongated gains. The defensive plan will be containment all over: the pass game, the run and against Mauk. The line assignments will be similar to that of facing Rutgers tailback Ray Rice. Move upfield for limited penetration, and keep the back inside the tackles, forcing him to go north-south into the linebackers and safeties. Mauk is at his most dangerous when he escapes and has the run-pass choice. That's also when defenses typically break down and lose their assignments, blowing a coverage in an attempt to make a play.
That's lethal with Cincinnati's receivers, and especially so since West Virginia should be able to slow a run game that averages 165.4 yards per game but lacks a marquee tailback. UC has survived by involving a triage of runners. Butler Benton (6-1, 220) has started seven games and is the team's leading rusher with 434 yards and two touchdowns. Greg Moore (6-2, 225) has started one game and tallied 402 yards on 71 carries (5.7 yards per rush) and two touchdowns. The projected starter against West Virginia – which is limiting foes to 94 ground yards per outing – game is Jacob Ramsey (6-1, 230), who will make his third consecutive start. He has 342 yards and three TDs.
With that area the lesser of two evils, WVU has turned to the passing game. Mauk is averaging 263 yards per game and burned then-No. 13 Connecticut for three scores in a 27-3 win last week. One was on a rollout, and another came on a solid sell job on play action. Both were blown coverages by a defense that had limited past passing foes, like Louisville. The difference is Mauk's legs and UC's packages.
"The major difference is that they have thrown the ball more than we have," West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Some of their formations are very similar. We probably have a more variety of runs and more quarterback-centered runs than they have; they have a lot more route packages. Our secondary quarterbacks and linebackers really need to work hard to pick those up."
Cincinnati, in its three- and four-receiver formations, will send wideouts along the face of linebackers and, unlike some spread teams, use the tight ends to exploit underneath routes. Sixteen different receivers have caught passes this season, including three tight ends. Earnest Jackson, a converted wide receiver, has 12 catches for 138 yards. Connor Barwin (19 rec., 215 yards) and Doug Jones (three rec., 21 yards) are more traditionally-sized tight ends. Jones also carries the ball, and scored his second rushing touchdown against Pitt.
The most explosive threat is receiver 6-1, 210-pound Dominick Goodman, who caught eight passes for 127 yards and the clinching touchdown against Connecticut. The junior is a returning starter and has 49 catches for 612 yards and six touchdowns. The 61 yards per game average doesn't impress until one realizes that two other wideouts, Marcus Barnett and Marshwan Gilyard, also averaged more than 50 yards per contest. They have caught 39 and 36 passes, respectively, and are part of an offense that averages more than 20 completions per game. A redshirt freshman, Barnett's 6-4 frame is a difficult slot matchup, and Gilyard's speedy improvement since the sophomore's transition from cornerback has Cincinnati seemingly set at the positions for the next two seasons.
"One thing you notice about the receivers, they go get the ball," West Virginia free safety Ryan Mundy said. They are extremely athletic. They can score on almost every down. I think their spread offense differs from ours in that they pass the ball a little more where we are a running team. We definitely have to stay on our toes in the secondary. If we do shut the run down, then they are going to chuck it all over the place and as a secondary we have to be ready."
The downfield attack has been revived by Kelly, who understands his team lacks athletically in comparison to some foes and, unlike West Virginia, must fool teams with more disguise at times to win. The Mountaineers rely upon a steady feed of zone reads within the run and routes down the seams coupled with bubble screens. That works because of superior talent and the threat of Steve Slaton and Patrick White. The Bearcats don't have marquee talent, and so are wringing everything out of the playbook in looking more like Oregon than WVU.
That will press West Virginia and force it to make reads and react with the right movements and flow, both toward and away from the football. It will be a check of the Mountaineers' assignment ability in a game where the odd stack defense will have to show restraint in staying within their job and trusting teammates to do the same. Getting out of position and attempting to do more than is allocated simply allows Cincinnati to exploit such actions.
"They empty out and have a lot of route schemes," WVU linebacker Mortty Ivy said. "There will be a man open if we don't do what we are supposed to do and execute. Mauk is able to run, so we have to watch him as well. We can't just key on the receivers."