Saturday marks the 12th and final football game in Cincinnati’s regular season. At 8 – 3 the Bearcats are wrapping up yet another impressive season in their third year under Butch Jones. What’s even more extraordinary is that UC is also completing a stretch of 10 straight games without a bye week. Under normal circumstances Cincinnati would have scheduled a week off around the end of September then another around the end of October to give players and coaches a chance to collect themselves and nurse injuries.
But because of TCU and San Diego State, for lack of a better word, screwing Cincinnati this season they were forced open the year with a bye then place their only other one in the middle of September. Without a day off it’s a minor miracle that Butch Jones hasn’t dealt with a laundry list of injuries going into the final game of the year. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Bearcats should be 100% healthy this Saturday aside from a few minor bumps and bruises. It’s a good thing too because UC faces perhaps the most physical team in the conference in the UConn Huskies.
Often underrated, but for this year those projection were pretty spot on, the Huskies constantly boast huge offensive and defensive lines and battering-ram linebackers. As a result they constantly force opponents to scrap for every yard they earn and more often then not those teams, win or lose, emerge from the contest limping to the ice baths. So despite the records I expect Cincinnati vs. UConn to be a dogfight. For the Bearcats to emerge victorious they should stick to the following five keys.
1) Stellar Offensive Line Plan
Despite it being the final game of the season Cincinnati’s hogmollies up front have been relatively injury free. The Bearcats will start the same five guys on Saturday (Lefeld, Bujnoch, Sprague, Longo, Ehinger) as they did 10 weeks ago against Virginia Tech. And for the most part they’ve been exceptional. But there’s no doubt they’re getting worn down and will have a tough test against perhaps the most physical front 7 in the Big East. UConn boasts an athletic defensive end in Trevardo Williams (13.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks) and an extremely active linebacker in Yawin Smallwood (111 tackles, 15 TFL, 3.5 sacks). The Huskies are going to blitz and create situations where these two can make plays against the run and the pass. The Bearcats’ line will have to play extraordinary ball this Saturday to keep the UC offense moving.
2) Don’t Give Up On The Rushing Attack
UConn’s front 7 is talented and have led the charge in making the Huskies the best statistical defense in the Big East against the run. However, against traditionally strong rushing attacks such as Temple and Syracuse they’ve given up over 200 yards on the ground per game. Cincinnati is the best team in the Big East at running the football and shouldn’t be afraid of the Husky defense despite the numbers. The Bearcats can gash these guys on the ground, if they stay patient with the running game.
3) Neutralize The Ground Game
The UConn Huskies are a run-oriented football team. Given their massive offensive line and talented runningback Lyle McCombs this isn’t all that surprising. But when the Huskies get out of the element and are forced to pass the ball they get into a world of hurt. UConn’s passing attack is flat out horrible. They have least passing touchdowns (9) in the Big East, have thrown the most interceptions (15), and given up the second most sacks (29). The fact is the Huskies are again leaning on an inexperienced quarterback in Chandler Whitmer and don’t have many playmakers around him to which he can distribute the football. It’s a less than ideal situation that could play right in to the hands of Cincinnati’s ball-hawking defense on Saturday if the Bearcats force them to pass by stopping the run.
4) Continue To Blitz On Third Down
If I had a nickel for every time I launched myself through my television after watching a Bearcat opponent convert a third-and-long against soft coverage I’d have a million dollars. And enough to buy a bunch of new TVs. On third downs this year Cincinnati has given up the most first downs (46) through the air. On these downs, opponents have completed passing plays of 15 yards or more 18 times this season, which places UC second to last in the Big East. The reason? Well in recent weeks the Bearcats, after pressuring so much on early downs, have gone into a shell on third downs. To me this makes little sense considering Cincinnati is so light up front with the departures of Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, and Walter Stewart. They need to blitz to get to the quarterback and history as well as statistics have shown that UC is vulnerable to giving up big plays when they have an opportunity to kick the opposing offense off the field.
5) Play Keep Away With Nick Williams
The Huskies are explosive on special teams and boast a dynamic return man in wide receiver Nick Williams. The senior is averaging over 12.5 yards per punt return which ranks him the 18th best in the country and he’s taken two to the house this year. Williams isn’t particularly large but like all great returners he is quick, has good vision, and plenty of speed. My gut tells me this won’t be a high scoring game or at the very least both teams will play each other close. The Bearcats shouldn’t tempt fate kicking to this guy and giving him a chance to swing all the momentum in the direction of the Huskies. Take note, Pat O’Donnell.
Big East Games – 2012 Record: 38 – 15 (71.7%)
Rutgers vs. Louisville: Tonight’s game will determine the Big East championship. If Rutgers wins they will claim a conference title for the first time since joining the Big East. If Louisville wins, everybody wins a Big East title. It basically comes down to that. Oh I forgot to mention that both of these teams are leaving for greener pastures so I could really care less who wins this game. But here’s a prediction anyways. Rutgers 24, Louisville 20
South Florida vs. Pittsburgh: The Bulls finish off another disappointing regular season by celebrating Senior Day against the Pitt Panthers. While it might be nice to send the graduating class off with a victory I don’t think USF can pull it off especially with the way the Panthers are playing right now. Pittsburgh 38, South Florida 17