I’ve never been a tremendously big fan of moral victories, but games like Saturday are a reason they exist. I’m not sure it’s possible to feel much better about a loss than I do about this one. The Bearcats entered Ann Arbor having won just three of their previous 11 games against FBS opponents. The Wolverines sat in the Top 10 of the AP Poll and were favored by five touchdowns. Despite those nearly insurmountable odds, the Bearcats had the game within a field goal late in the third quarter. I can never be fully elated with a loss, but it’s hard not to feel pretty good about what happened in Michigan.
- The defense was outstanding. After a dismal showing last season, the average fan was probably expecting a defensive performance akin to what unfolded at Ohio State in 2014. In that game, the UC offense was helpless trying to keep pace with a Buckeye attack that tore through the Bearcats like wet tissue on its way to a national championship victory a few months later. On Saturday, the Bearcat defense kept the Wolverines at bay for much of the afternoon, allowing just 20 points as a unit while surrendering fewer yards than a Top 20 Florida team did the week prior.
- The individual defensive performances were fantastic. Jaylyin Minor led the way with 11 total tackles, 9 solo tackles, and a tackle for loss. Grant Coleman, who is off to a great start this season, added 7 and 6. Copeland, Gilbert, Clements, Broughton, and Stephens all joined in with praiseworthy afternoons.
- Mike Boone looked solid. It kind of felt like another game where we only got a “B” performance instead of the “A” we’d hope for, but Boone shouldn’t be ashamed of this outing. He didn’t get as much action as he’d like, but when you’re facing an immediate deficit and your offensive line is getting eaten alive but a fantastic Michigan front seven, the running game gets thrown out the window. He still plowed his way into the end zone in a goal line situation and even picked up a ridiculous unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for reminding the crowd who he plays for.
- We scared everyone in the Big House. Regardless of the outcome, it always feels good to see the dominant favorite scared for a moment. This was one of my goals for the Bearcats this week, and they certainly pulled it off. On the season preview episode of the podcast, Zach Edwards recalled The Horseshoe falling silent after Chris Moore’s third touchdown catch of the night in 2014. While UC’s performance Saturday wasn’t as explosive as their Columbus trip, their third quarter touchdown to bring the score within three was enough to have Michigan fans worried. That was cool to watch.
- Bearcat fans travelled well, again. We could see them on ABC and we even heard them in the third quarter.
- The game was the second-most watched game of the weekend. UC and Michigan garnered a 2.8 overnight rating. For comparison’s sake, the Wolverines played another AAC team (UCF) in the Week 2 noon time slot last season and saw ratings that were 27% lower. There are so many factors at play that it’s difficult to compare ratings from one game to another, but that’s as close as you can possibly get to a fair comparison. Bearcat fans travel well and tune into games. Anyone who watched the game, saw the stands, or checked the ratings will be impressed by what UC was able to do, especially in a season that consists of mostly rebuilding the program.
- What was the coaching staff doing in regards to clock management? I felt Fickell and company called a nearly perfect game from an Xs and Os standpoint, but the clock management was abysmal. Multiple timeouts were discarded without reason and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock (or maybe someone else on the sidelines) hung a clearly-terrified Hayden Moore out to dry multiple times, changing the play at the line of scrimmage without nearly enough time to get the snap off. Don’t get me wrong, some of this falls on a quarterback who routinely seemed unaware of the play clock, but when the coaching staff has 10 days to prepare for a game, it’d be nice to see some decisiveness when it came to the game plan. The two most alarming moments came on special teams. First, just before the half, the Bearcats got far too cute with the clock and essentially passed up a 46-yard field goal attempt in favor of a 51-yard try that felt like a Hail Mary. In the second half, the offense was sent onto the field on a fourth down Fickell clearly had no intentions of attempting to convert. A timeout was wasted and the punting unit was still late to get onto the field, resulting in a surprise snap that punter James Smith had no choice but to smack out of the end zone for a safety.
- The team gave up too many big plays. First it was the 43-yard touchdown on the opening drive, then the 28-yard pick six later in the opening quarter. In the second half, Michigan scored on a 33-yard touchdown to regain control and later put the game away with a brutal unforced safety and a 24-yard pick six. It’s frustrating when the defense has a strong performance and the opposition is still able to tally 30 points on “big plays,” especially when two are given up by the offense and one is coughed up by the special teams. The defense really only had two or three major missteps all afternoon and the Wolverines still found their way to 36 points. That’s not a great formula for winning, regardless of the opponent.
- The offense left a lot on the table. Mixed in with two handfuls of bad throws from Hayden Moore was an overthrown pass to Khalil Lewis (who had a step or two on the defender), and drop from Lewis later in the game on Moore’s best toss of the afternoon. Throw in the first quarter pick six that was intended for a wide open Devin Gray and you’re looking at two or three strong touchdown chances that were left on the table.
- Michigan tried to lose this game. Looking back, this will be the one thing that really eats at me. The Bearcats had a fine showing, but they wasted plenty of mistakes from a Top 10 team. The Wolverines had two miserable turnovers and seven penalties — many of which were costly — for 68 yards. Somehow, every time the Bearcats were the benefactor of one of those mistakes, they looked lost. Missed throws, dropped passes, turnovers, poor clock management, etc. On paper, it’s hard to say the Bearcats should have won this game. However, looking back at the tape I think that’s almost the case. Had the Bearcats made the most of what Michigan gave them, I think they leave with a huge statement win.
The Bearcats take a continuously improving defensive unit into Oxford, Ohio next weekend for their annual game with Miami. They find themselves as the underdog for the first time in 12 years, by my research. This is a game Cincinnati probably should win, and I’m excited to see how they perform against a more evenly-matched opponent in an environment that will consist largely of Bearcat fans.