Statestify: The Cincinnati Bearcats Must Achieve A More Explosive Running Game In 2014

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When Tommy Tuberville hired Florida State head coach Eddie Gran, it was anticipated that he would bring the Seminole’s version of the pro-style offense with him from Tallahassee. In that, we would be seeing far more ace, I-formation, and multiple tight end sets in the new offense than ever before during the Butch Jones and Brian Kelly eras. Those assumptions became reality when the Bearcats rolled out these pro-style schemes during the first five games in the 2013 season.

But the new offense struggled to get off the ground. With six years of the spread ‘em out schemes of Jones and Kelly, Cincinnati had a whale of a time adapting to what Gran was trying to do. It was the exemplification of trying to cram a square peg in a round hole. The tight ends on the roster were built for catching passes over the middle of the field, not blocking defensive ends and linebackers at the line of scrimmage. Plus there wasn’t a fullback on the roster to speak of. Finally the offensive linemen had only been learning new blocking schemes for a few months

As a result, Cincinnati scored just 17 points against Illinois and 14 against Miami (OH). Each of those teams allowed over 35 points per game in 2013.

So Gran mercifully scrapped the pro-style offense after the South Florida kerfuffle in favor of the spread that we all know and love. The Bearcats responded well, and particularly in the passing game.

  • First 5 Games: 65.8% weighted completion percentage*, 254 yards per game, 8.6 yards per attempt, 2 touchdowns per game
  • Last 8 Games: 66.4% weighted completion percentage, 335 yards per game, 8.8 yards per attempt, 2.3 touchdowns per game

*Weighted average applied to completion percentage to get a truer average.

However the running game did not.

  • First 5 Games: 200 yards per game, 4.7 yards per attempt, 2.2 touchdowns per game
  • Last 8 Games: 149 yards per game, 3.9 yards per attempt, 2.1 touchdowns per game

Seeing the average yards and touchdowns per game drop off after the change in offense isn’t surprising nor particularly concerning. The Bearcats were essentially trading yards and touchdowns gained on the ground for yards and touchdowns gained through the air. Plus the offense as a whole witnessed an uptick in production, averaging 30 more yards and 0.2 touchdowns more per game post-switch.

However the drop off in per carry production is concerning. On the surface, you would expect a regression when the schemes move away from those that are supposed to favor the running game (ace, I-form, etc. as mentioned above) and towards the spread. But, in fact, Cincinnati boasted one of their most dangerous rushing attacks in years during Butch Jones’ final season at UC, where the Bearcats averaged 5.3 yards per carry and rushed for over 2,600 yards in 2012. This from an offense where the quarterback was operating out of the shotgun more times than not.

There are a couple of reasons why production dipped over the course of the season:

  1. Cincinnati never established a #1 runningback. UC actually had a dual-runningback system in 2013 and you could argue the Bearcats had a three runningback system when Tion Green was heating up. That lack of a “main guy” hindered the ability of any single ball carrier to get into the tempo of the game. As a result, it always took him a play or two to get up to speed after spending time on the sideline.
  2. Eddie Gran insisted on using RDA IV in non-RDA IV favorable situations. If you didn’t know who Ralph David Abernathy was and saw him in street clothes on campus, you probably wouldn’t recognize what kind of a gifted athlete he truly is. The guy just isn’t all that large. He looks more like a track star than a football player. But despite his 5’7″, 161 lbs frame, Eddie Gran continued to run him up the middle on isolation plays that saw him get stuffed over and over again. That really brought the collective average of the runningback corps down considerably.

This needs to change in 2014. On paper the passing game will be as explosive as ever with nearly every wide receiver returning to the team next season and Gran turning the offense over to former 5-star recruit Gunner Kiel. But the running game needs to be more explosive to achieve balance when it matters the most.

In addition to a dismal 3.9 rush yards-per-attempt average down the stretch, the Bearcats averaged just 96 rushing yards during meaningful minutes last season. That is good for 83rd nationally according to Football Outsiders. Put a different way, when the game was close, Cincinnati was one of the worst teams in the country at grinding out yards on the ground. Not only that, UC averaged 58 rushing plays that went for 10 yards or more which ranks 86th nationally and just 17 plays of 20 yards or more (63rd nationally).

In the end, it comes down to balance and pace. A consistent rushing attack can take pressure off of a young quarterback who has never taken a snap in a live collegiate football game. Instead of frequent 3rd-and-longs, Kiel is tasked at manageable 3rd-and-shorts and 3rd-and-mediums. This effect amplifies if that rushing attack is reeling off plays of 10 or 20 yards or more. As these start piling up, the defense over commits to stopping the run, thereby allowing Kiel to find easy passes over the middle.

When both the running and passing game are working perfectly, it’s a recipe for recurring offensive success. When balance isn’t achieved due to an over-reliance on the aerial attack, the Belk Bowl happens, the quarterback spends more time on his back than on his feet, and Cincinnati crosses the goalline only twice.

So while UC’s passing game should theoretically be as explosive as ever next season, the running game needs to seriously improve. Balance in any offense is key and establishing a consistent rushing attack that can reel off 4-5 yards per game while gashing defenses for 10+ yard gains every now and then will make the task of scoring that much easier. If Cincinnati can accomplish that in 2014 they’ll be well on their way to their first AAC Football Championship.

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