The 53rd titanic struggle for the Keg of Nails trophy is set for this Thursday night at Nippert Stadium, and with Louisville set to join the ACC next season, it could potentially be the last one we see for a while. For the first time in the history of the 84-year-old rivalry, both Cincinnati and Louisville had a chance to come into the game ranked. The Bearcats were #28 in last week’s BCS standings. After losses by the 21st, 23rd, and 25th ranked teams last Saturday, it looked like the Bearcats would climb into the BCS Top 25.
However, disappointment ruled the evening on Sunday night, as Texas jumped UC and claimed the #25 ranking. Despite checking in at #23 in this week’s Coaches’ Poll, UC’s weak schedule kept the ‘Cats computer rankings low enough to be caught by the Longhorns. Meanwhile, Louisville moved up one spot, and will roll into Nippert ranked 19th.
Even though we won’t see a matchup of ranked opponents, there is still a lot riding on this game for UC. The Bearcats will be looking for their tenth win of the season – potentially the sixth such season season in seven years. More importantly, a win would keep UC’s slim conference title and BCS bowl hopes alive. For the third time in four games, Central Florida managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat and survive a major scare on Black Friday. With UCF still clinging to a 1-game lead in the American Conference, the Bearcats must win on Thursday night and have Central Florida lose to SMU next Saturday to win the conference and go BCS bowling. A 5-6 SMU team will have bowl eligibilty to play for in that game, so hopefully June Jones will have his kids fired up.
UC’s offense has been absolutely on fire as the Bearcats have put together a six-game winning streak. Since the disappointing upset loss to South Florida, Brendon Kay and Co. have been lighting up scoreboards across the American Conference at an astonishing rate of 515.2 yards per game. As Chris Bains mentioned on Thanksgiving Day, a TON of credit for this transformation rightfully belongs to Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran. It was no secret during Spring Ball, Summer Camp, and the first few games of the season that Gran and Head Coach Tommy Tuberville wanted to implement a pro-style, smashmouth offense – the one that worked so well during their days at Auburn. After a 3-2 start, it became clear that the personnel of this 2013 Bearcat team was not suited to run that system. So what did Tubbs and Gran do? They changed. They let Brendon Kay play get out from under center and air it out.
That’s a mark of great coaching: Make your system fit the players’ strengths, rather than forcing the players into your system – Something Butch Jones didn’t understand. Jones stubbornly insisted on running his “patented” zone-read with improper personnel, even after a slow start. The result? He lost the locker room, and the Bearcats scuffled to a 4-8 finish in 2010, losing 5 of their last 6. Sound familiar, Tennessee fans? That’s why the 5-7 Vols won’t be going bowling this year, either. Once Tuberville and Gran get a few recruiting classes of hulking O-lineman and bruising tailbacks, we will no doubt see smashmouth football in Clifton. But right now, the staff saved the 2013 season simply because they aren’t stubborn.
- Home Field Advantage – The game was officially declared a sell-out late Tuesday morning by the UC Athletics Department. A capacity crowd for a night game at Nippert should help the Bearcats as they take on their rivals from Louisville. “Come Early, Be Loud, Wear Black!“
- Both Teams Hot – On paper, this game is a toss-up. UofL’s 4-game win streak looks a lot like the Bearcats’ 6-gamer. A close win against Houston by a TD, a few blowouts of lesser opponents, and a late scare after seemingly pulling away in one game (UC vs. SMU mirrors UofL vs. Memphis). Over their last six games, UofL’s offense has been averaging 405 yards per game (not as much as UC’s 515 YPG, but still very good). However, Louisville’s offensive production has tailed off later down the stretch, while UC’s production has gone into overdrive. Last year’s game turned into a shootout, with the Cards taking the Keg 34-31 in OT. With the way UC and Louisville’s offenses have both been playing, it looks like this year could be the same type of game. Offensively, I give UC a slight edge since the Bearcats offense has been so red hot of late.
- Drane On The Mend – Defensively, UC should get a boost stopping Bridgewater if Senior CB Deven “Dreadlock” Drane can get back to full strength. Drane missed the win at Rutgers with a bad hamstring, but returned in a limited capacity against Houston. While Sophomore Leviticus Payne has filled in admirably in Drane’s abscence, hopefully the 12-day break between games will give Drane the time he needs to get healthy.
- Quarterback Play – The difference in last year’s matchup was quarterback play. We all remember Munchie Legaux declaring that he was “better than Teddy Bridgewater,” only to toss 3 INTs, including the one that lost the game in OT. Bridgewater quietly let his play do the talking, and threw for 416 yards and 2 TDs. Brendon Kay is not better than Teddy Bridgewater, but Kay may be playing better during this 6-game hot streak. He certainly has the capability to outduel Bridgewater on Thursday night. Kay is completing 70% of his passes this year, and that figure skyrockets to 81% when he plays at home in Nippert Stadium. The forecast calls for a cold, light rain (possibly snow) throughout the game, something Kay and the UC offense handled pretty well last time out in Houston. If Kay can stay hot and avoid the costly turnovers that plagued Muchie last year, UC has a great shot to win this one at home.
- Kicking Game – An X-factor could be the kicking game. Cincinnati K Tony Miliano’s struggles have been well documented. He is a dreadful 5-of-14 on FGs this year. Louisville K John Wallace has been much more reliable than Miliano (16-of-20), but Wallace has not made a kick of over 39 yards this season (his career long is 45, but Wallace is just 2-of-9 in his career from 40+ yards). While Miliano has been a bit of a head case this year, he does have a bigger leg than Wallace, as he is 16-29 career from 40+ yards. This season, Charlie Strong has only let Wallace attempt two kicks from 40+ yards. This leads me to believe that Strong has zero confidence in Wallace’s ability from 40+. Basically, Louisville has to reach the red zone in order to be in Wallace’s range. If Miliano can come out with his head on straight and hit a few from 40+ when needed, it could be a huge advantage. Will he? Who knows – that’s why it’s the X-factor. (Also, this means beware of the Cards going for it on 4th Down, or trying a fake FG in they are on the fringe of Wallace’s range.)