I am repeatedly failing basic adult time management as I just barely get this week's opponent preview-ish thing written before Friday is technically over.
But the #25 Cincinnati Bearcats are worth a written piece as UH has their first home game against an FBS opponent in 11 months, in a game that'll certainly define 2019 Cougar football one way or the other.
1.) Sixpence None the Ridder
This entire written piece was an excuse to use this mash up of New Braunfels, Texas’ own Christian alt-rock band Sixpence None the Richer and Cincy QB Desmond Ridder. I won’t apologize for it.
But Ridder has been the Bearcats’ answer at QB since taking over midway through the first game of his redshirt freshman year against UCLA. In a way, the Bearcats’ conservative run-first offense was absolutely perfect for Ridder. He finished 2018 with just over 3,000 total yards and 25 pass/rush TDs and was the team’s 2nd leading rusher. Maybe the most impressive stat from that season was Ridder only throwing an interception around every 62 attempts.
This season’s been a bit more challenging for Ridder, as he’s throwing an interception around every 32 attempts. Outside of the Marshall game Ridder has a somewhat pedestrian 6 to 4, TD:INT ratio and his rushing numbers are down from his 2018 pace. I say all this not to downgrade Ridder as an opponent. He’s still a big dual-threat QB with room to grow.
I think any drop in yardage or increase in interceptions has more to do with Ridder’s supporting cast (specifically an offensive line we’ll get into later). Both Ridder and the Cougar defense come into this game with question marks, but even more than the ‘sexier’ UH offense vs. Cincy defense match up this could swing the game’s outcome.
2.) Fickell Fortune
Whether you believe in the importance of a head coach being a ‘cultural fit’ for a region or not, Tommy Tuberville wasn’t a ‘cultural fit’ at Cincy and his time ended with a terrible 2016 season.
UC leadership went the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the Deep South Tuberville and hired the most Ohio coach humanly possible: long-time Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell.
Its important to note that like any state of a decent size, not all parts of Ohio are the same and Fickell admitted in an interview this summer with Stephen Godfrey that his specific ties to the Cincinnati area were minimal when he took this job before the 2017 season.
Even acknowledging that inconvenient truth, Fickell’s appeal as a hire was that he is just about the most Ohio coach you can find. He played at Ohio State, and other than a brief pro stint with the New Orleans Saints, spent nearly his entire coaching career prior there as an assistant coach and briefly the interim head coach.
Under Fickell, the Bearcats have done well in recruiting and getting mid to high 3-star kids in a 100-mile radius of their campus to stay closer to home. The Bearcats’ 2018 class was the best-rated group in the AAC according to 247Sports and featured 5 of the state of Ohio’s top 20 players. It’s a recruiting model that’s not too different than what UH wants to do with their new staff.
Maybe the most critical thing for a first-time head coach though is building a good staff and Fickell hit a home run with his. Marcus Freeman, the Bearcats’ defensive coordinator, played under Fickell at Ohio State in the mid-00s and coached in the region before joining Fickell’s staff in 2017. Mike Denbrock, the Bearcats’ offensive coordinator, was on Brian Kelly’s staff at Notre Dame from 2010-16 and has built a deliberate, run-first attack not too dissimilar to Jim Tressel-era Ohio State.
There are still questions to be answered, but Fickell has won 15 of his last 18 games and the Bearcats look like the program they should be at this level.
3.) The James (Trench) Gang
Over the last 4 or 5 years I have truly enjoyed the influx of Australian guys roughly my age (late 20s to early 30s) coming over to play American college football, specifically to punt. By this point I’d guess around half of the AAC and a large percentage of all Division 1 teams have an Australian as their punter.
This is an odd way to start a section that’s at least partially about Bearcat starting offensive lineman Morgan James. He is neither Australian, nor is he a punter. James is actually from the good ole US of A, Highland, Michigan specifically. But James has a story that’s just as unlikely and interesting as the Australian punter trend.
Unbelievably, James hadn’t even played organized football until he joined the Bearcat football team in 2015. His chosen sport was hockey, a sport he played professionally from 2010-12 for the Columbus Cottonmouths and Louisiana IceGators (among others). His hockeydb.com page lists him as 6 foot 6 and 250 pounds, a frame that he’s added 75 pounds onto at present time. By 2018 he was an every-game starter and he’s started all 5 games of the current season.
The Bearcat offensive line has been a weakness, such as this Cincy team has weaknesses. Desmond Ridder has taken a surprisingly high 13 sacks and a school-record rushing attack last year has regressed dramatically. Besides James, there aren’t many guys with starting experience from before this year. Lorenz Metz is a 6’8” German redshirt freshman who’s started all 5 games at Left Tackle. That’s a cool story, but it’s also not ideal to have a redshirt freshman protecting Desmond Ridder’s blind side.
Between the Cougars and Bearcats, somebody’s inexperienced offensive line is going to do well enough to likely swing this game’s outcome.
4.) No Free(man) Yards
I can’t believe I’ve gotten to my 4th bullet point and not really gone in-depth on an incredible Bearcat defense. The 2018 unit set the bar absurdly high with the nation’s lowest completion percentage allowed and only 17.2 points allowed per game.
The 2019 numbers are a little down, but that’s largely due to the outlier of playing a top 5 Ohio State on the road. The Bearcats also lost All-AAC safety James Wiggins right before week 1 to an season-ending injury, but still largely haven’t skipped a beat. Last Friday against UCF, the Bearcats held the Knights to nearly half of their season points average in a 27-24 win.
So far, the Bearcat defense has allowed only 5 opponent TD passes in 5 games and 2 of those TDs came against Ohio State. They’ve been stingy against the pass, stingy against the run and have only allowed 4.7 yards per play as a team. I couldn’t come up with a weakness with this defense even if I tried.
I’ll be interested to see if Cincy DC Marcus Freeman gets a look as a head coach sometime in the next few years.
5.) Spirit in the Skyline
As a way of tempting a Universe that enjoys making me intentionally or un-intentionally embarrass myself, before I traveled to Cincinnati for the Coogs’ regular season ending game I made a guarantee: if UH beat Cincy I would eat a big bowl of Skyline Chili. If you are lucky enough not to know, Skyline is a local chain that serves chili cheese dogs and their specialty: a big bowl of pasta, low grade ground beef and liberal amounts of shockingly yellow shredded cheese.
I wasn’t dying to eat Skyline, but it was a sacrifice worth making for a hypothetical Cougar win in a place that’d been a house of horrors in recent years. Fortunately for everything but my stomach, the Coogs ran the Bearcats out of Fifth Third Arena and ruined the last men’s basketball game played that season at Fifth Third Arena.
After my euphoria from this shocking road win wore off (and I’d been sworn at by Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees) I realized my obligation and found a Skyline location on the way to the airport in Covington, Kentucky. My moment of reckoning was here and I was served a big plate of something I’d spent many years. I quickly came to a disturbing realization… this wasn’t terrible.
It was the kind of thing I could’ve seen myself cooking in my younger, less reputable days and delivered about the same quality as several of my thrown together kitchen creations.
That and my unbelievably attentive and friendly waitress left me feeling very strange. I’d staked so much of my online reputation on consistently mocking Skyline Chili and here I was willingly eating a big bowl and not hating the experience!
I will never say that meal at Skyline was one of the best I’ve experienced on my roadies, but it made me realize that life is lived by experience strange new things… even when the new things are low-grade, regional fast food.