Oct 19, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats safety Arryn Chenault (25) and defensive tackle Jordan Stepp (94) and defensive end Terrell Hartsfield (95) tackle Connecticut Huskies running back Martin Hyppolite (25) during the 1st quarter at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

Blogger Roundtable: Taking The Pulse Of The Team Midway Through The Season

Oct 19, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Nick Temple (43) is congratulated by teammates Howard Wilder (3) and Silverberry Mouhon (92) after recording a sack during the 3rd quarter of the game against the Connecticut Huskies at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

The Bearcats were on a bye last week so Scott King at Bearcats Blog, Matt Opper at Down The Drive, and I decided to get together and discuss some of the key topics surrounding Cincinnati’s football program. The season is essentially half-gone and there’s really no better time than now to catch our breath, take the pulse of the team, and analyze what we’re seeing with them and the program in general.

Let’s begin the roundtable but before you read any further be sure to follow Scott (@BearcatsBlog) and Matt (@downthedrive) on Twitter.

Questions from Scott: Have you felt Tommy Tuberville’s first season has been a success so far?

Down The Drive: B. The transition hasn’t been perfect, but all of the hastily articulated reasons for people to panic in the wake of the USF loss aren’t really based in any sort of rational thinking. Yes, losing to USF and Illinois in their present incarnations isn’t going to look good. Those two losses are the biggest reason why it will be hard to gain any sort of national momentum.

But the extrapolations that a small minority made based on those two results are baffling, the USF loss in particular. Its the curse of football, there are only 12 games, only 12 data points from which to make judgments on the teams. Is the USF loss bad, yes but any team who surrenders two non offensive TD’s and turns the ball over 4 times. Thats a fact that very few fans have been willing to acknowledge.

Cincy On The Prowl: I’d give it a B-. 5-2 with losses to Illinois and South Florida were definitely not conceivable to me before the season began. But I think like with before Butch Jones’ inaugural season with Bearcats fans, myself included, were overoptimistic with the state the program. Jones left the roster stocked with talented, young players but a number of those key cogs from the 10-3 2012 campaign, such as Dan Sprague, Anthony McClung, and Brendon Kay, have been injured. McClung and Kay are still yet to approach 100%. Plus coaching changes are just difficult for players to deal with, especially with the drastic change in schemes from Mike Bajakian to Eddie Gran. Still, even with those factors at play, the Bearcats never should have lost to the Bulls. I can forgive the loss to Illinois because they just got outcoached and outplayed. All we can do is tip our caps to the Illini after that. But the Bearcats hurt themselves against South Florida more than the Bulls did and a lot of it goes on the coaches. So, long story short, yes I think it’s been a success but not to the extent of what I predicted before the season began.

Bearcats Blog: I think it’s been a C. It’s impossible to get a read on this team. It’s not Tuberville’s fault, it’s just that Cincinnati has had 1 challenge all year. That challenge just so happened to be at an Illinois team who played their best game of the season and waxed them. People have shown up, there was buzz around the season despite a terrible schedule. This season comes down to the final 3 games, fair or not. There have been a couple of highs, Purdue being a sellout and a blowout, and a very low low, losing to awful, awful USF. Even Memphis will be an interesting trip because this team has played terribly on the road. 3 of the last 5 are on the road. So far, I give him a thumbs in the middle, which is a C.

Who do you think has been the breakout player of the offense?

DTD: At the halfway point its obviously Shaq Washington. He went from being projected as a fringe edge of the rotation guy to someone who is indispensable to the offense in about four weeks. All he does is move the chains and make tough catches in traffic when it matters. By the end of the year the breakout player of the offense will be Mekale McKay. His start was very slow but he is gaining momentum and confidence, and there isn’t a CB on the remaining schedule capible of containing him.

COTP: Gotta go with Shaq Washington here. From basically leaving the football program two years ago to emerging as one of the most targeted receivers in the passing game this season, he’s been an inspirational story for Cincinnati. Funny how those seem to just crop up around here.

BB: Going with Shaq Washington. I’m pretty sure he left the team during his freshman season. He barely played last year. There was talk of Max Morrison maybe getting some run. People expected Anthony McClung and Chris Moore to step up. Washington came out of pretty much nowhere. He had a breakout game against Illinois with 5-83, but even with that, he had 9 grabs in the first 3 games. He’s made 30 catches over the last 4. Washington has proven he has reliable hands and that he can get open. The quick passing game has really appealed to his skill set, which has in turn appealed to Brendon Kay. All that’s left for him is scoring a TD.

Ralph David Abernathy IV has the most carries on the team by far and has been the least productive back on the team by far. Only Brendon Kay averages fewer yards per carry among players with over 15 attempts. He hasn’t been a threat in the passing game, 9-65-0, and is averaging a career low in kick returns, 23.7 yards. He was thought of to be the most dynamic player on the team. What’s happened?

DTD: Eddie Gran is on record as saying that he didn’t watch much of the tape from last season to get a handle on the capabilities of the roster. It’s a noble approach, to give everyone a reboot and see what they can and can’t do. By and large that hasn’t caused many issues for the offense, and at this point they have more or less figured out where everyone fits in. RDA4 is the clear exception. It seems that there isn’t a spot available for RDA4 in this offense, particularly in the passing game. This is looking like a lost year for RDA4.

COTP: The issue with Ralph David Abernathy isn’t Ralph David Abernathy. It’s Eddie Gran. I’m not sure why he’s continuously trying to turn him into something he’s not but UC’s offensive coordinator needs to put RDA on the outside, in the slot, and work him against linebackers and nickelbacks all game long. At the very least, if he insists on placing him in the backfield, get him into open space on screens and outside runs. In general, if he was more involved in the passing game and ran less up the middle, we’d see bigger numbers out of Abernathy this year.

Oct 5, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats running back Ralph Abernathy (1) runs with the ball as South Florida Bulls linebacker Reshard Cliett (16) during the second quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

BB: I think the playcalling has a lot to do with the fact Abernathy hasn’t gone off like we expected. He wasn’t an every down back last year, but he broke off big runs. He’s 25 yards off last season’s total with 12 more carries. The biggest fault I see in the playcalling is why Abernathy hasn’t been utilized in the passing game. He averaged 12 yards a reception last year with 4 TDs. He made big plays happen. I’m sure we can all remember the score against Louisville. He’s not been any kind of factor through the air. On top of that, he was kind of boom and bust on the ground. When you took away his big runs, he was ineffective.

I also think that he placed a lot of pressure on himself to be the top dog. This is purely speculation. It looks like he has tried to break a lot of runs instead of just running. That leads to frustration. His last 17 carries have netted 32 yards. We know this and he damn sure knows it. With Hosey Williams and Tion Green making the most of chances, he’s got to be feeling the pressure. It’s human.

The issue is with the playcalling though.

Who has been your breakout player defensively?

DTD: Nick Temple and its not even close. He ranks 2nd in tackles, first in tackles for loss and is 2nd in sacks. His play has completely eclipsed that of the Adonis shaped figure of Jeff Luc and he has been more consistent than Greg Blair week to week. Temple has been revelatory this year, and I am very happy that he will be back next year.

COTP: Nick Temple. There was a ton of hype in the offseason around Greg Blair and Jeff Luc, and for good reason, but Temple was sort of lost in the crowd. But he’s been incredible this season. Temple is 2nd on the team in tackles with 39, 1st in tackles for loss with 8, and 2nd in sacks with 4. Dude has just been Mr. Everything for Cincinnati’s defense.

BB: I’m going with Zach Edwards. He has exploded onto the scene as a freshman. He’s currently 4th on the team in tackles, tied for the team lead in INTs and he’s among the leaders in passes broken up. We haven’t really seen a lot of youth in the secondary get a big chance to play the past few years, at least none that I remember as I type this. I’m sure that’s wrong and I’ll gladly be corrected. Edwards looks like he’s going to be a guy who is out there for the next 4 years making plays.

Questions from me: Cincinnati is on pace to have one of best attended seasons at Nippert Stadium ever. They even drew over 30,000 against FCS Northwestern State. There are clearly a lot of factors at play this year (arrival of Tuberville, schedule of very winnable games, trend of sustained success) but which do you think are the ones that stand above the rest and are pulling fans to Nippert in droves?

DTD: Its Tuberville for the most part. He sells the hell out of the program without even seeming to be selling anything. Thats a tricky thing to pull off. But I also think that there is, in general, still a ton of excitement around the program despite a rather large section of fans who see nothing but doom ahead for the program, and UC sports in general if they can’t find a way to the Big 12.

I also think that the expansion of Nippert is creating a ton of momentum for the program. I don’t know about you guys but the posts on the site about New Nippert continue to bring in decent traffic week after week. I think that I read in the enquirer that season ticket sales are at or near an all time high. I think a big reason for that is the coming renovation, its better to get in as a season ticket holder now than in the next two years when demand is almost certainly going to substantially increase.

BB: I think it’s Tuberville. When he got the job, it seemed like a lot of people bought in on him and the program that didn’t buy in when Jones was still around. I think the fact he had a major name and a lot of success in the past was attractive to the casual fan. Someone reported they are expecting 30,000 again, I assume that’s for SMU because they are going to sellout Louisville. Whether that is Louisville fans or not, that’s for the future to decide. The spike in home game interest has to have come from somewhere and I think it’s from him. UConn was going to probably be the lowest attended game of the season. They drew over 1,000 more fans than they did when UConn came to Cincinnati to close the 2011 season. That’s something.

COTP: I think the hiring of Tommy Tuberville has a lot to do with the attendance boost. Whenever you bring in a name brand coach, and one with the pedigree of Tuberville, people are going to take notice. I think if Whit Babcock had hired another up-and-comer who won championships at the MAC level like Mike Thomas did Kelly and Jones, I think most of us more obsessed fans would be able to get excited about it. But the thousands and thousands of casual fans would barely even know who he was, let alone rally around the Bearcats because of it. We talk about Brian Kelly putting UC on the map nationally but Tuberville put UC on the map in the city of Cincinnati, which says a lot.

What’s up with Tony Miliano and what, if anything, can Cincinnati’s coaches do to correct his kicking woes this season?

DTD: He is what he is at this point. Miliano is certainly better now than he was as a freshman, but unlike his predecessor Jacob Rodgers he hasn’t cleaned up his consistency issues, and he continues to have a high percentage of his kicks blocked. Unfortunately you can’t teach launch angle. It is what it is at this point.

BB: Special teams are the biggest question mark on the team. They are getting nothing out of the return game. They are getting more success from the QB than the punter in that regard. The kicking game has been a disaster. I’m a big Tony Miliano fan. We’ve seen him be good. He has been bad lately. He missed 5 kicks last year, he would have to be great to improve upon that. His kickoffs have been pretty good. It looks like his problem is just #CollegeKickers

COTP: Miliano is a junior this year and from what I’ve seen throughout his career he’s making the same mistakes now that he did as a freshman. Now, I’ve not going to sit here and pretend I know a thing about coaching kickers because I don’t. But I feel like the bad habits he’s developed just can’t be changed this far along in his career. As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. However, I’d like to see the coaches give Andrew Gantz a shot at winning the role, if anything to push Miliano to improve some aspect of his kicking game.

The Bearcats have gone with 3-WR and 4-WR sets quite a bit in the last two games. It’s resulted in staggering success for a UC passing game that was a shell of itself in the weeks prior. Do you think we’ll see Eddie Gran opt to go with these schemes for the remainder of the season or were Temple and UConn outliers in his grand plan of a run-heavy, multiple-tight end offense?

DTD: Two things, the Bearcats are basically out of tight ends, in Blake Annen and D.J. Dowdy you basically have a single healthy tight end. Travis Johnson who looked very promising is out for the year with a knee injury, he will be back as a red shirt freshman next year, which will be great for the attack next season, not so great this year.

On top of that is just makes so much more sense from a match up perspective to continue to make the four receiver sets a feature of the offense. Shaq and McClung have caught 66 balls between them for an even 700 yards with 4 touchdowns. It is clear that the slot receivers are the main protagonists in this offense, and the normal response from defensive coordinators facing a dominant receiver in the slot is to shift your best cover guy inside. That won’t work against UC.The continuing emergence of McKay will give opposing defensive coordinators fits. Between McKay, Chris Moore and Max Morrison the Bearcats command the respect of defenses on the outside. Which takes the biggest trick in the book for dealing with Shaq and McClung off the table. They can’t put their nickel back outside against Moore or McKay, they will get eaten alive. So they have to roll with a conventional nickel package. Very few teams have a third corner capible of playing Shaq or McClung straight up, so one of them (usually Shaq) gets matched up on a linebacker, and that has been an easy win for UC all year. If the defense tries to bring another DB in and go to a dime look it gives UC an advantage in the running game.

Three and four receiver sets will continue to be the norm going forward, there is simply too much easy money to be made with the four receiver sets than to try to play some Bearcat based equivalent of Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football.

BB: It’s hard to tell because the defense they play suck. That was pretty frank, but it’s true. It’ll be interesting to see what they break out against Rutgers. Cincinnati has had no offensive success against the Knights the past couple of years. I think Gran should mix and match and find out what’s best before the real competition of Rutgers, Houston, Louisville and pending bowl opponent.

Also, let me just say that Louisville losing really screwed Cincinnati’s bowl game. I’m not saying they could have gotten a great one, but they aren’t going to the Russell Athletic Bowl and the rest after that are a stream of 6th place Big Whatever teams. Bleh.

COTP: My hope is that Gran sticks with the spread-em-out, throw-it-around offense we’ve seen in recent weeks. But there are signs that UC’s offensive coordinator has a habit of falling back into his comfort zone of a pro-style offense, such as running Ralph David Abernathy up the middle because he doesn’t seem to know where the heck else to put him. But Cincinnati needs to win now and the pro-style schemes just weren’t gelling with the players. I hope Gran shelves them for this year and revisits it in the offseason.

Since the beginning of the season, the Bearcats have had a staggering 12 surgeries this year. Is this just a case of Murphy’s Law gone wild or is there are more specific reason for why so many UC players have gone under the knife this season?

DTD: Its random IMO, can’t predict or prevent injuries in football. All any of us know is that they usually happen at some point.

BB: I think one guy saw someone have a surgery, get a card, be tended on by a pretty nurse and decided he had to get surgery as well. I’m calling surgery scam for the cards.

COTP: Remember in Butch Jones’ first year when he brought in a new strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson and UC piled up an exorbitant amount of injuries that season? The reason was because of all new strength building techniques Lawson brought in. Now, long term it worked and the Bearcats were a stronger, better conditioned team because of it in 2011 and 2012 but that first year was rough. I’m curious if new S&C coach Joe Walker is bringing in new schemes that is wearing on the bodies of the players much like in 2010 and they are more susceptible to injury.

Questions from Matt: The Bearcats are ranked 13th in scoring defense, 13th in rushing defense, 12th in passing yards allowed, 21st pass efficiency defense, 8th in total yards allowed and 20th in yards per play. Yet the same defense is ranked below average in the advanced metrics. 66th in F/+, 63rd in FEI, and 76th in the S&P+,  all from Football Outsiders. So who has it right, the conventional stats guys or the nerds?

BB: I’m going with the nerds. Going off of FEI and the S&P+, Cincinnati has played 4, soon to be 5, of the bottom 16 offenses in the nation. Miami has the worst offense in every metric. Sure, some of this is directly because of Cincinnati’s defense. But Purdue, Miami, Connecticut and USF aren’t scoring on anyone. This is leaving out Temple, who is ranked in the 90s.

The best offense Cincinnati played this season was Illinois. The Illini hung 45 points and over 500 yards on the defense.

To a certain point though, you are what your numbers say you are. Cincinnati has been a very good defense. When you add in things like context, it looks worse. But you can only put up stats against the teams you play against.

COTP: I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Obviously the talent on the defensive side of the ball is there but playing true freshmen quarterbacks in an offense that features just one playmaker isn’t exactly the best litmus test for them. At the same time I don’t think they’re as bad as they showcased against Illinois, surrendering 45 points and over 500 yards to the Fighting Illini. The good news is that the Bearcats face a pretty strong offense coming up in SMU in two weeks. Then we’ll have a better idea of what kind of defense UC truly possesses.

DTD: I think that the quality of completion has certainly driven down the Bearcats numbers in the advanced metrics, because all of them factor the quality of the opposition and the offenses the Bearcats have faced to date have been dreadful, Illinois aside. But I would still peg this group as a top 20 to 35 overall group. They have become very good on third downs, at getting to the quarterback and preventing red zone touchdowns, those are three areas closely associated with winning football games.

We touched on Tony Miliano’s struggles before, but the entire special teams unit has been bad this year. The Football Outsiders have them ranked 120th, Phil Steele has them ranked 100th. Is this the new normal? Are the glory days of Kevin Huber and Mardy Gilyard gone for good?

BB: Yes. There isn’t one area where you can point and say “This is a good unit.” The kicking game as been talked about, the best, or at least most trusted, punter is the starting quarterback, kick returns are down and punt returns have been a disaster since Mardy left. I don’t know if special teams coordinators have changed a lot, but putting an emphasis on the special teams would help a lot. I like the special teams where the best players on the team want to be on them because they are going to make plays. That’s not the case at Cincinnati.

I have a feeling Cincinnati will lose a game because of special teams play directly this season. It happened last year with Toledo. I think it’s coming again.

COTP: Mardy Gilyard was a once in a lifetime player and in general good special teams units are driven by the strength of players more than the coaches. That’s why teams like Alabama have consistently one of the better special teams units year in and year out; the talent of those players are just better than everybody else. That’s also why Cincinnati seemed to dominate on special teams during the Brian Kelly era, because of the otherworldly skills of Gilyard. I wouldn’t necessarily say the glory days are behind us but it’s hard to tell if the Bearcats have another Gilyard-type player on the roster or coming into the program.

DTD: I don’t see where the turnaround comes from. The coverage teams have generally been fine, but the return game just isn’t there. It might be time to move someone else into the starting role as kickoff return man because it has been two solid years of diminishing returns for RDA4.

How impressed have you guys been with the play of Silverberry Mouhon this year? At his current pace he has an outside chance of threatening Anthony Hoke’s single season sack record.

BB: Very. There was a lot of talk about how he was ready to take over the end position and he has done that for sure. He has been very explosive. The entire line has stepped up with his game lately. Worry about Silverberry and the linemen make plays. Block the ends one on one and Silverberry is in the backfield. He hasn’t done much hell raising outside of rushing the passer, 0 tackles for loss outside of sacks, so he has more to work on. When Stewart went down last year, there was a giant void in the pass rush. It was one of my biggest questions coming into the season. The answer was Silverberry. No, I can’t type his name enough.

COTP: It’s just unbelievable what Mouhon has done this year as just a sophomore, putting up 5.5 sacks and overall creating havoc in the opponent’s backfield. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is but it appears limitless at this point. I’m really excited to see the kind of numbers he will put up not only this season but for the rest of his UC career.

DTD: Silverberry Mouhon is giving this defense the season that everyone thought Walter Stewart was going to provide last year. He isn’t as consistently dominate as Walt was before he was forced to retire, but he flashes immense talent every game.

How do you see the rest of this season playing out. Of the remaining five games how many does UC win?

BB: 3-2. I’m going with a win over Memphis, bigger win over SMU, loss to Rutgers, beat Houston, lose to Louisville. Rutgers has had Cincinnati’s number lately. Even if their defense isn’t good this year, that’s a hard place to play. I think Louisville is just better than the Bearcats.

I wouldn’t totally put it out of the relam of possibility that Cincinnati loses 3 of 5 to close the year. The Big 12 certainly is not the American, so this comparision isn’t the best. Tommy Tuberville hasn’t won a road game in November since he coached at Auburn. In 2006. The absolute latest since then was a win on October 23, 2010. His teams at Texas Tech faded. His last team at Auburn was bad. 2006 was a long time ago.

COTP: I see two potential losses out there as long as the Bearcats keep playing like they’ve been playing during the last couple of weeks. Memphis, SMU, and Rutgers don’t really scare me, even though the Scarlet Knights have manhandled Cincinnati the last two years. Still, a big part of that was UC replacing their starting quarterback a game or so before playing Rutgers. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this time around. But outside of those teams the Bearcats’ only real threats are Houston and Louisville, who are playing like conference champions thus far. Now, those teams are nowhere near unbeatable but for Cincinnati to take them down they have to play sound football like they have in recent weeks.

DTD: 4-1. I think the loss comes either at Houston or at Rutgers.

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