When the “Halloween” music echos from the speakers of Nippert Stadium all of Clifton knows the situation; the Bearcats have forced the opposing team into a third down. And most of the time said music sends chills down their opponents’ spines because they are facing a ravenous Cincinnati defense in a pressure-packed situation.
Well the Halloween theme song still scares the bajeezus out of teams when they are forced into a third down in Nippert but the Bearcats’ defense isn’t scaring anybody this year. Not the front 7 at least and especially on the interior. Consider the raw numbers for a second. Pittsburgh, offensive line issues and all, rushed for 137 post-sack yards on a UC defense that is a year removed from boasting the 6th best rushing defense in the nation allowing just 95 yards on the ground per game. The biggest discrepancy is the sheer size of the 2011 defensive tackles and the 2012 version. You can evaluate the technique and intelligence of seniors Derek Wolfe and John Hughes all you want but when it boils down to it the Bearcats are just smaller up front.
Last year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, and Jordan Stepp formed a powerful three-man rotation along the defensive line with Camaron Beard seeing some playing time in early games. They measured in at an average of 6’3″ 291 lbs. On Thursday, Cincinnati displayed a four-man rotation between Adam Dempsey, Camaron Beard, Jordan Stepp, and John Williams with Elijah Shuler lining up inside for a few snaps as well. This bunch is averaging a much smaller 6’2″ 271 lbs, clearly having lost an inch and 20 lbs between the two seasons.
Whats more is that Pitt generally won at the point of attack on plays up the middle. They are clearly taller (offensive linemen usually are) but they are bigger as well. The Panthers’ starting OL average 317 lbs per man, about 45 lbs heavier than UC’s defensive line, including an impressive four players over 300 lbs.
Yikes. No wonder Cincinnati got manhandled up front.
There is little technique required in creating holes up the middle. At least, it’s one of the easiest things for a lineman to accomplish; jump out of your stance and push the person across from you out of the way. That’s basic offensive linemaning. Even Pitt’s OL lacking experience and fundamentals can accomplish this. Well the numbers tell the same story especially on third and short* when both teams know that Pitt is usually going to run the ball. With the Halloween theme waning in the background, just see how different the Panthers’ conversion numbers are on third and short, third and medium**, and third and long***:
|Height - Weight||5'11" 185 lbs|
|247 Sports||*** - 87|
|Rivals||*** - 5.6|
|ESPN||*** - 74|
**Third and Medium = Between 3rd-and-4 and 3rd-and-8
***Third and Long = 3rd-and-9 or longer
Pitt’s offensive line isn’t the best in college football (it could very well be the worst) but the Bearcats rarely got much penetration up the middle. For obvious reasons offenses are going to experience a diminishing probability of successful conversion the further they get from the first down marker. But Pitt converted 75% of their 3rd and short opportunities into first downs and 100% of the time they ran it in these situations they moved the sticks. I was actually surprised to see Pitt pass the ball so much in 3rd and medium when draws to the halfback can catch the defense off guard. If they had considered that the Panthers may have converted more first downs.
Anyways, the sample size is small but signs (smaller size, Pitt’s high conversion rate) aren’t encouraging for the interior of UC’s defensive line. It’s a good bet that outside of the FCS games against Delaware State and Fordham, Cincinnati will be facing better offensive fronts in their upcoming schedule.
On the flip side, the Bearcats are going to be deadly in 3rd and medium and 3rd and long situations. Again, the sample size is small and Pitt’s offensive line is a mess but it’s clear Walter Stewart, Dan Giordano, and Brandon Mills are going to again be a force this Fall. In 3rd and 5 or longer situations, the Bearcats allowed the Panthers to convert just 25% of their opportunities, sacked Tino Sunseri twice, and picked him off once (h/t Greg Blair). That’s dominance.
We’re just one game into the season and it seems like a storyline to keep an eye on is the performance of the defensive line especially in 3rd down situations. Cincinnati will be vulnerable to the run on 3rd and short so look for the Bearcats to focus on keeping offenses in 3rd and medium/3rd and long situations. It sounds obvious enough but without Derek Wolfe and John Hughes creating penetration up the middle it is especially important to minimize gains on first and second down. If the Bearcats do force opponents to play in more 3rd and 5-or-greater situations, watch out, because Walter Stewart and crew are going to pin their ears back and tee off on opposing quarterbacks.