Match-Ups: WVU - Cincinnati

The match-up of UC's powerful passing offense vs. West Virginia's injury-ravaged defense has taken top billing this week, and has been much-discussed. We go inside Friday night's contest with a look at some other lesser-highlighted, yet just as important, confrontations. Game Scorecard
Fri 11/13/09 8:00 PM

Cincinnati, OH

Nippert Stadium
Record: 7-2
BCS: 25
Last Game
Louisville W 17-9
Radio: MSN
Record: 9-0
BCS: 5
Last Game
UConn W 47-45
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

Series: WVU 14-2-1
First Meeting: 1921
Last Meeting: 2008
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

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WVU back side defense vs. UC running back Isaiah Pead

The Bearcat passing game gets lots of attention, and rightly so. UC has piled up PlayStation numbers through the air this year, and seems to have open receivers running through the secondary no matter what the defense does. However, UC also features an effective running game, headlined by Pead and Jacob Ramsey (not to mention quarterback Zach Collaros). The running back duo has rushed for 931 yards, with many of those, especially by Pead, coming on designed cutback runs against the grain. Collaros, as well, can escape out the back side and do damage, as shown by his 6.5 yards per carry average.

As UC gets its passing game going, defenses are forced to either bring more rushers, more aggressively, in an attempt to disrupt rhythm and get to the quarterback, or drop extra defenders and try to keep pass completions to minimal yardage. UC's quarterbacks have been so accurate, however (see an item later in this column for more discussion), that the latter strategy hasn't been successful. So, when defenses come after the quarterback aggressively, they are left open for traps, draws and the backside cuts that have sprung Pead for a number of big gains this year. He and Ramsey are both averaging more than six yards per carry.

Stopping this aspect of the Bearcat attack is a difficult charge. Although West Virginia's 3-3 stack defense is built to stop the run, it will have to be very disciplined, especially on the backside of running plays. Getting a defender into each assigned gap will be critical in limiting running lanes for Pead, who is as his best (like most backs) at making one cut and getting up the field.

Watch Cincinnati's runs, and observe as they try to influence the defense in one direction, via formation overloads or initial movement, then attack the back side of the defense. If the Bearcats reach their seasonal average of 5.2 yards per carry, they will be lighting up the scoreboard again.

WVU midrange passing attack vs. UC pass defense

So you, like many, thought the Bearcat defense would be a disaster after losing ten starters from its 2008 team? Then you didn't look past the quick sound bite offered by most analysts.

Tyler Urban
The Bearcats played a lot of defenders last year, and while they aren't as senior-laden as a year ago, still boast plenty of experience. Six seniors dot the defensive starting lineup, with only a pair of redshirt freshmen earning starting jobs. The UC defense has played well this year, but has a couple of holes that might be exploited.

The first, a susceptibility to the power run, isn't something that WVU has shown a great deal of this year. Might the Mountaineers come out in the I formation and pound away in an effort to limit UC's possessions and shorten the game? It's certainly possible, but not something West Virginia is built to do. However, WVU could go after the Bearcats through the air, in the middle of the field, where UC is yielding a 60% pass completion rate.

WVU does have some weapons it could use here. Tight end Tyler Urban, who has been a bit overlooked of late, provides a nice target in the middle of the field. The promise of seeing 6-8 Wes Lyons as a target in the middle has never materialized, however. Neither have the hoped-for quick slants to receivers hitting gaps between and behind the underneath coverage. If West Virginia is to score enough points to hang with the Bearcats' high-powered attack, it must find a way to get the ball into the middle of the field. UConn did it via the run, but as noted above, that's not West Virginia's forte. It will be very difficult for the Mountaineers to run around Cincinnati's speedy defense, so they must find a way to go through it.


One of the biggest reasons for Cincinnati's success in the passing game, no matter whether Tony Pike or Zach Collaros is at the controls, has been the accuracy of their passes. And we're not talking about just completing throws, although that's impressive enough, as the Bearcats are connecting on 68.2% of their attempts, which helps put them first in the nation in passing efficiency. We're talking about putting the ball exactly where it has to be. Time after time, UC's quarterbacks hit open receivers in stride, allowing them to gain maximum yardage after the catch. Passes to receivers that are reasonably well-defended still result in completion, as their throws got to the correct side of the receiver where only he, and not the defender, can catch it.

In the college game, most quarterbacks are going to miss three or four throws on their own in each game. A wide open receiver will be missed, with the resulting loss of a potential big gain. Or a receiver that has a step on a defender will be able to catch the ball, but it will be thrown where he has to break his stride to do so, allowing a defender to make a tackle.

The very best quarterbacks, however, don't make many of those unforced errors. They're also able to stand in against pressure and find open receivers, making defenses pay for blitzing. That's exactly what Cincinnati has been able to do this year, and if that trend continues against West Virginia, the Mountaineers will be hard pressed to get the upset win. In addition to making a few plays on its own, WVU (just like every UC opponent this year) will need the Bearcat quarterbacks to play a couple of notches lower than their current near-flawless level.

* * *

There's always a certain percentage of fans and observers that want their teams to go for every fourth down, run five trick plays and "open up" the offense. While such an approach can often be counterproductive, this week might be the time when the Mountaineers are forced to do just that.

Head coach Bill Stewart's logic in protecting a struggling defense and punting the ball in some short yardage situations is understandable, if not always agreeable. But this may be the week when all stops must be pulled. If West Virginia is to put up enough points to win (the guess here is it will take at least 35), then it has to maximize its scoring chances.

In many situations, punting the ball on fourth and three from the opponents' 44 yard-line is a good call. This week, maybe not so much. UC's offense is so potent, that it's as likely to score from 85 yards away as it is from 55. Those 30 yards that make the difference against many foes might not be as much of a swing factor against a team that has already scored 47 touchdowns this year and has 78 plays of 20 yards or more.

* * *

Although Cincinnati's passing efficiency and potency have been covered almost to death, there's one aspect that doesn't get a lot of notice, and that's the way in which the Bearcats involve every eligible receiver in the passing game. While wideouts Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods are 1-2-3 in receiving yards and have accounted for a combined 134 receptions, they are not the only weapons in UC's arsenal. Ramsey and Pead have combined for 30 catches, and these aren't of the three or four-yard variety either, as both can get downfield against linebackers for bigger gains. Add it tight ends Ben Guidugli (11 catches) and Kazeem Ali (10) and you have seven of the eight Bearcats with at least ten receptions. In all, fifteen UC players have caught at least one pass this year.

What does that do to a defense? Well, it makes things very difficult. WVU could defend very well downfield, yield a dump off or short route to a tight end or running back, and be facing second down and two. Combined with UC's ultra-accurate throws, and the defense could be in for a long night. Watch Cincinnati's pass patterns as they develop, and note how all of the receivers are involved in the passing game, with four or five receivers involved the majority of the time. They put pressure on the defense to cover multiple passing zones, and are quick to take advantage of mistakes.

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