The Bearcats won a thriller on Saturday night. It was exhilarating finally witnessing a UC football team get over the hump by taking down a national powerhouse football program. However, amidst my excitement, I came away with major questions about the Cincinnati coaching staff. By and large I trust Butch Jones and think he is the best possible fit to lead the Bearcats. He’s done a lot of good things at Cincinnati; bringing in the best recruiting classes in UC football history, establishing leadership from top-to-bottom among his players, winning games and championships, and outright bettering the football program in general. The same goes for he and his staff’s in-game play calling; focusing on a balanced attack, the creativity on offense from Coach Bajakian, and the aggressiveness on defense from John Jancek.
But I can’t for the life of me understand some of their motives against Virginia Tech. The Bearcats won, yes, but Jones and his staff’s decisions nearly gifted the win to the Hokies despite Cincinnati controlling the pace of the game. This edition of Statestify dives into those three questionable moves and how they nearly cost the Bearcats a chance at one of the biggest wins in school history.
The Fake Field Goal
Jones claimed the Bearcats had been practicing this play all week and the staff was just itching to try it against the Hokies. I’m sorry but I just don’t buy that. Sure teams practice trick plays like this but Jones or whoever was in his ear convincing him to run this play was caught up in the moment and wasn’t thinking with his head. The first quarter (it was only the first quarter when they tried this!) was winding down with UC in complete control of the game. Know this, the Bearcats had 100% of the momentum with Virginia Tech doing absolutely nothing on offense. They hadn’t converted a single first down and had only tallied 15 yards of total offense. There was no need to allow the Hokies to get an emotional boost from stopping an unnecessary trick play that early in the ball game and especially in front of a pseudo home crowd.
Plus there’s nothing saying Tony Miliano wouldn’t have made the field goal. Cincinnati was up 3 – 0 on the Virginia Tech 19 yard line. That’s a 36 yard field goal from that spot, well within Miliano’s range. Since taking over the starting role in 2010, the UC kicker is nailing 76% of his field goals within the 40 yard line which is solid for a true sophomore and would place him in the top third of kickers nationally. If Miliano shanks the kick, fine, the Hokies are forced to drive a long field. But the fake punt not only came with a ton of risk but it gave Frank Beamer and his staff the ammunition to claim Cincinnati needed trick plays to match up with his team (See: Cincinnati – Florida, 2010 Sugar Bowl). Of course we know the Bearcats are pretty evenly-matched talent wise with the Hokies but it sent the wrong message and absolutely got Virginia Tech going.
Not Running the Ball More
It’s obvious to anyone who has been remotely following the Bearcats since Zach Collaros graduated that this was going to become more of a run-oriented team. This makes sense with explosive runner Munchie Legaux quarterbacking this team and, in small part, how shaky #4 is as a passer. That’s okay because UC has been stellar at running the ball in 2012. Before Saturday the Bearcats were running the ball 59% of the time, which is perfectly appropriate for a team ranked 12th in the nation in this area. It was clear the offense was going to be carried by the rushing attack especially with Legaux, George Winn, and Ralph David Abernathy leading the charge.
But for whatever reason the coaches went completely away from Cincinnati’s competitive advantage and elected to pass the ball at an inordinate pace, nearly flipping the ratio by throwing it 57% of the time against the Hokies. Way to not play to the strength of your team, Butch. There was even a stretch of 15 minutes (~9 min left in the 2nd until 11 min left in the 3rd) when the Bearcats didn’t run the ball a once. That’s sheer insanity for a team as good Cincinnati is at running the football.
Remember, Virginia Tech was only 83rd in the country against the run coming into this game and even though the Hokies stacked the box it doesn’t mean the Bearcats should have substituted what they do best for what they are comparatively worse at. This is especially true for a UC team boasting a big, experienced offensive line even without 6’9″ Mt. Hooey in the lineup. The key is balance and the Bearcats got 64% of their rushing yards in the second half. As a result of finding better success on the ground the Bearcats were able to open up the passing game as reflected by over 69% of their passing yards also coming in the second half. No wonder Cincinnati was able to score 21 points after halftime despite just 6 in the first thirty minutes of play.
Way Too Many Five and Seven-Step Drops
Munchie Legaux has been living in an ice bath for the past three days. I have no evidence to support that claim but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true considering the kind of beating he took against the Hokies. Going back and rewatching the game last night I noted over a dozen times in which Munchie dropped back into five or seven-step drops in the first three quarters alone. And nearly every time Virginia Tech sent 5 or 6 defenders who either hit Munchie or got in his face. This speaks to the poise of UC’s quarterback who has matured quickly in the starting role by absorbing the hits and getting up each and every time.
But it also raises the question as to why Cincinnati’s coaching staff continued dial up long-developing plays that required him to drop back so far instead of letting him complete short passes to make the Hokies think twice about blitzing. The idea is that if Virginia Tech opted to send their linebackers and UC kept quickly throwing to the space where they vacated to nullify the blitz, the Hokies would eventually wise up and stop blitzing. Jones is lucky Legaux didn’t get seriously injured given his frame and how often VT defenders were continuously driving him into the ground.
Even more so this is another example of the coaches playing away from the strength of this team. The Bearcats weren’t built to go deep play after play, not since Brian Kelly left anyways. Jones has recruited more quick, agile receivers to take advantage of one-on-one matchups inside instead of the tall, downhill sprinters that work the seams. He’s signed a few of them but Cincinnati’s bread-and-butter is between the hash marks with guys like Abernathy and McClung, only occasionally throwing bombs down the sidelines.
All day Saturday I was asking the same questions; Where were the slip screens to Abernathy? Where were the drags to McClung? Those were the kinds of short passes that UC’s offense has made its money on this season. Abernathy and McClung have turned those 4-5 yard completions into easy first downs and sometimes plays of 20 yards or more because of their elusiveness and ability to outrun linebackers and nicklebacks. But that duo combined for just three catches against the Hokies on a handful of targets. The strength of this passing game is making Legaux drop the ball off to his agile playmakers and letting them turn a short pass into a 10, 15, or 20+ yard gain.
So while the Bearcats escaped FedEx Field on Saturday with a victory the end of the game could have been very different, specifically with a Virginia Tech win and yet another UC loss to a marquee opponent. In general I love what this coaching staff does game after game so I’m not going to get on them too much for a few mistakes. But they could have been costly and it’s my opinion that the Bearcats won in spite of its own coaches.
Thankfully it didn’t come back to haunt this team. Now everyone is entitle to having an off day but I know this staff is among the nation’s best and throughout the season will make the right decisions to lead Cincinnati to victory.