(Aaron Doster — USA Today Sports Images)
The Bearcats (finally) got back in the win column on Saturday night with a much-needed victory over the Pirates of East Carolina. Both teams entered winless in the AAC, but it was the Bearcats that were able to turn the ship around with the help of some homecoming home field advantage. I have plenty to be happy about, so this will be more fun than I’m used to. Here are the highs and lows:
- Gunner Kiel is back and firing. Finally, the fans got what they wanted and the redshirt senior got his first start of the season. Aside from being a feelgood moment, it paid dividends on the field. Kiel finished the night at 23-for-40 for 348 yards to go with four touchdown passes. This ECU team isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain, but it was still a very sturdy performance. In one night, Kiel quadrupled the total touchdown passes of freshman Ross Trail and threw more than half of sophomore Hayden Moore’s season total. More importantly, he did it without throwing an interception. I’m so proud of this kid. I can’t imagine this season has been easy, but he remained positive on the sidelines, waited for his shot, and made the most of it. Nobody knows why someone with this potential was been benched for the first half of the year, but he’s back now and appears to be in a groove.
- Khalil Lewis had his coming out party. There were many voters in my season predictions poll that saw Lewis doing this kind of thing all season. While I disagreed, I knew he had the potential, and I’m happy to see him cashing in on it so early. 11 catches for 150 yards and three touchdowns is a massive day for any receiver, especially a sophomore who entered with 352 yards and two touchdowns in his career. After three quiet games to open the season, Lewis has turned in four straight impressive outings. He’s now a proven threat, and if Saturday is any indication, he’s the favorite target of Kiel. Look out.
- Devin Gray continues to amaze. I knew Gray would be a nice contributor right out of the gate, but I didn’t imagine he’d be doing this. I don’t think many did. Straight out of junior college, he now leads the Bearcats in receiving yards through seven games. If you’re willing to round up on some 97- and 98-yard games, he now has four outings of 100 yards or better. He’s turning into Shaq Washington. He’s piling up catches and yardage, but is lagging behind in trips to the end zone, punching it in just once (vs Houston). I’m excited to see if his numbers see an uptick playing with Kiel, who proved to be a more reliable passer on Saturday than the Bearcats have had so far this season.
- The backs got their swagger back. After a rash of underwhelming outings culminating in the UConn stinker that saw the team run for a total of two yards, the running backs turned things around on Saturday against a lackluster ECU rush defense. Mike Boone had 14 carries for 88 yards and Tion Green had 15 carries for 71 yards. Neither scored a touchdown, but they did enough to open up the passing game for Kiel, who took advantage.
- The defense continues to be tough. On Saturday they allowed 503 yards to a tough Pirates offense. What matters is they didn’t break, allowing just 19 points and forcing three turnovers to offset the yardage surrendered. The play of the game came late in the fourth quarter. After a disappointing three-and-out by the Bearcats, ECU got the ball back, threatening to score and take the lead. On 4th-and-1, the defense stuffed running back James Summers to get the ball back to the offense, who responded with a touchdown to seal the victory.
- The turnover margin was positive again. The Bearcats forced three turnovers and didn’t give the ball away, which is likely the difference in this game. The turnover margin per game is now +0.7, which is good for 26th in FBS. Last season it was -1.5, which was 124th (out of 128 teams.) Part of this is due to the offense playing smarter, but it’s mostly a defensive effort. The Bearcats defense is 7th in the country in takeaways per game (2.5). Last year they were 113th. That will make a huge difference, especially when your offense is doing enough to win like they did yesterday.
- Where on earth was this six games ago? Tuberville knew this was coming when he gave the start to Kiel, and now we’re experiencing it. After the team struggled through six games largely due to bad quarterback play, we finally got to see the proven senior that everyone has been begging for, and he turns in the best game of the season and picks up the first conference win. Say what you want about injuries and practice reps and playbook knowledge, I’ve been saying that there’s no way I’m willing to believe that a freshman deserves to start over a proven senior. Saturday proved it, as Kiel did more in his first half than Trail did in two games. I still don’t understand it, but I’m happy we finally get to see the veteran instead of the over-his-head freshman or the hobbled-and-inconsistent sophomore.
- Too many yards. I mentioned this above, but 503 yards is just too many. Timely takeaways and a good outing from Kiel saved them, but you can’t bank on those against tougher competition. This ECU offense ranks 18th nationally with 485 yards per game, so Saturday wasn’t super alarming to me. However, I worry about that number coming from a defense that looked like the bright spot for six games. We need them to remain sharp if we’re going to turn the season around, and allowing 503 yards is not a great sign.
- Whatever this is.
- The penalty that brought back the 100-yard kick return by Boone. It didn’t end up making a difference, but I was excited to see the first kick-off returned for a touchdown since Ralph David Abernathy IV in the 2011 Liberty Bowl vs Vanderbilt.
Saturday was the first time I felt really good about a game since Week 2 against Purdue. Following that win, the Bearcats went 1–3 with the only victory coming against lowly Miami. There wasn’t much to feel good about until Saturday happened.
The fans needed that. The players needed that. Lord knows the coach needed that. More than anything, Gunner Kiel needed that. The #GunShow is back, and I couldn’t be more excited to see how he fares next weekend against one of the country’s stingiest pass defenses. Temple is ranked 13th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, and they’ll provide an early test for Kiel. I think he’s up for it.