In a couple of days the Bearcats begin their most critical stretch of the season that sees them take on three teams in the top half of the AAC. The first of those opponents is SMU. This team worries me more than the others. Over the last month or so Cincinnati has faced AAC opponents with major question marks on offense. They were either starting freshmen quarterbacks, boasted only one or two playmakers on that side of the ball, or both. UC’s defense feasted off of that and, by traditional statistical measures, ranked among the best in the nation as a result.
But I’m not sure those numbers alone necessarily paint the picture of a “strong defense”. We’ll find out on Saturday, though. SMU boasts an offense with three legitimate receiving threats and the argument could be made for a fourth. Additionally, the Mustangs have a veteran quarterback who knows the system and is excelling in it this season. The last time Cincinnati faced a similar personnel make up was Illinois, who ran the Bearcats out of Champagne with their tails between their legs.
While the systems are slightly different (Bill Cubit at Illinois likes to stretch the field horizontally, Hal Mumme at SMU goes more for the vertical passing game), it was blatantly obvious that the Bearcats had some speed issues on defense. Now, Illinois was over a month ago and UC’s defense has improved since them despite facing awful offenses. Still I’d need to see their performance against a team that knows how to score points before showering them with praise.
Let’s get to the keys to the game.
1) Play Blair Or Luc, But Not Both
Greg Blair and Jeff Luc are talented football players. They have the size and strength to stuff any opponents’ running game but have been exposed this year by their lack of horizontal speed. Illinois, Memphis, even Temple exposed this weakness. Blair and Luc are just slower linebackers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but opposing offenses will exploit them every chance they get. It’s not inconceivable to think that Art Kaufman will be implementing Nickel and Dime packages against the spread looks of SMU, opting to sub out a linebacker for an extra defensive back. At that time, I’d hope he keeps Nick Temple on the field most of the time, as his speed will greatly help in these situations, and insert either Blair or Luc, not both. If Mumme sees them on the field at the same time, expect him to attack the pair in hopes of exploiting their lack of speed.
2) Step Up, Freshman!
That brings me to my next point. One of the players who will be tested on Saturday is true freshman Zach Edwards. He’s been more than impressive this season even earning AAC defensive player of the week honors after his performance against Memphis. But he will probably take more reps at nickelback against the Mustangs than any prior opponent, including Illinois. Additionally, like the rest of the defense, he’ll be facing an overall stronger offense than the others. Man-to-man, Edwards and the rest of the secondary will be lining up against their toughest collection of wide receivers this season. As the youngest of the group, the true freshman nickelback will likely be targeted by Mumme early and often. Let’s hope he’s up to the task.
3) Contain, Contain, Contain
One of the major weapons the Mustangs have this year is quarterback Garrett Gilbert and not necessarily because of his arm. He is SMU’s leading rusher in 2013 and his ability to slip out of the pocket and pick up 10, 15, or in some cases 58 yards has shocked defenses this season. Gilbert isn’t doing anything special but just exploiting a defense’s focus on the receivers. You see, when SMU goes into 4- and 5-WR looks then sends them on deep routes, it sucks the defenders several yards off the line of scrimmage. Sometimes there isn’t anyone in the no man’s land between the LOS and the next closest wide receiver who could be 30 yards upfield. This is the area that Gilbert takes advantage off. Essentially he waits a few seconds for his receivers to clear out space then sprints for a few yards and/or a first down. Cincinnati’s defensive ends need to prevent this from happening by making sure they don’t “overrun” the pocket so he doesn’t have gaps to slip out of on the edge. Additionally, UC could spy him with a linebacker to prevent him from picking up easy yards with his legs underneath.
4) Feed Shaq!
The Mustangs have a propensity to blitz, getting as much out of their front seven as they can to shield the deficiencies in their secondary. While Brendon Kay might get beat up in the process (when hasn’t he this season?), the Bearcats could take advantage of this with short passes to Mr. First Down, Shaq Washington. The sophomore continues to put up impressive numbers in the passing game. He’s second on the team in reception yards but does most of his damage in the short and intermediate passing game. Shaq could see his stats balloon on Saturday as Brendon Kay’s “bailout” option with defenders closing in on him fast. And I’m sure the young wide receiver will take advantage of that to move the chains for the Bearcats.
5) Get Abernathy On The Edge, In Space
I’m not sure how much longer I can harp on this but as far as Eddie Gran has come as an offensive coordinator in the last two months, he revert back to his old habits of using Ralph David Abernathy in questionable ways. Scratch that, not questionable ways. Mind bogglingly, frustrating, I WANT TO TEAR MY HAIR OUT AND BURN IT ways. Yea that’s more like it. There is no better time to take advantage of a weak secondary, give Kay an outlet, and expose an overall poor defense by putting Abernathy on the edge and/or in space against SMU. Please, for the love of God, freaking make this change already, Gran.
AAC Games – 2013 Record: 34-7 (82.9%) – Phew! Gave me a scare there, Rutgers.
UConn v. Louisville: The Cardinals are going to eviscerate the 0-7 Huskies. Louisville 52, UConn 13
Memphis v. Tennessee-Martin: The Tigers have played tough this season but can’t seem to get out of their own way. But they get to take a nice little break from their AAC schedule, during which they haven’t won a game, to face the FCS Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks. Unless they have monumental breakdowns on both sides of the ball, the Tigers win. Memphis 40, Tennessee-Martin 10
Central Florida v. Houston: Arguably the best AAC game of the weekend comes on Saturday night on ESPN 2. I really can’t say much about this game as both teams seem to be clicking on all cylinders right now and have pretty similar styles. Just by way of a coin flip, I’ll take the Knights at home. Central Florida 38, Houston 35