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The bad news is that the Bearcats have lost two of their first four games this season. The good news, if you allow it to be, is that both of those losses were still moral victories for a program that could use any victory — no matter the qualifier. Against Michigan earlier this month, the ‘Cats lost but showed their toughness in hanging with a Top 10 opponent on the road while flexing defensive muscle they haven’t displayed in years. On Saturday in Annapolis it was the offense’s turn, as Hayden Moore and crew continued the resurgence they saw at the end of the Miami game. Not enough went the way of the Bearcats to earn a win, but I left feeling pretty satisfied. Here’s what happened:
- The passing game is back. After exploding at the end of the Miami game last week, things continued looking strong on Saturday. I don’t know what happened to Hayden Moore, but his last five quarters of play have all but removed any sort of quarterback controversy that seemed to be reaching a fever pitch during the game in Oxford. Against Navy, the junior reeled off 381 passing yards on 28/46 passing in what many are calling the best game of his career. There’s certainly an argument there. 28 completions marked the third-most of his Bearcats tenure and 381 passing yards is a career second-best. It also marked the first time he’s logged a 60% completion rate or better on more than 34 pass attempts. Amazingly, it was also one of just three times in his career against FBS teams where he threw a touchdown without also throwing an interception. Moore was pretty spectacular. If he can be 75% of that for the rest of the season, look out.
- The receivers did their part. Sure, Hayden Moore was doing a better job of getting them the ball, but they were hanging on and racking up extra yardage. Going onto the season, we knew the Bearcats didn’t have a stellar receiving corps like they did in 2015, but we saw the potential. After struggling mightily at times, they had a fine showing on Saturday. Three players — Gray, Lewis, and Cogswell — had at least five catches and a touchdown. Pinckney had a 46-yard catch and Geddis had a 27-yard catch. Ten different Bearcats caught passes and each finished with more than 10 receiving yards. Just one week after lamenting the lack of chemistry between the QB and wideouts, they had great cohesion.
- This team does not quit. For the third straight game, their toughness has caught me off guard. After the previous staff led the culture of the program into a bad place, I think a lot of fans followed. That quick-to-quit attitude surrounding Bearcat football meshed poorly with the already fickle nature of sports fans in Cincinnati. Luke Fickell & Co. seem to have broken that trend in a hurry. After trading three-and-outs for touchdowns early, I was prepared for a beatdown. I think we all were. The players had other thoughts, and fought back on numerous occasions from what I believed to be game-clinching plays by Navy. When the Middies finally did make the game-ending play, it was as the Bearcats were inexplicably about to make it a three-point affair with more than two minutes left. They were right in this thing until the end.
- Another great offensive game plan. This take may come as a surprise to some fans, but offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has been fantastic through four games as a Bearcat. Bad performances by his QB and a slew of drops by his WRs have masked the job he’s done, but it’s there if you pay attention. Debrock doesn’t have a ton of weapons to work with on offense, and his strongest piece has missed half of the season so far. Yet, his play calls have been great. He engineered multiple big plays that failed in Ann Arbor. Last week in Oxford, he drew up a flawless touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, complete with the right play call for a two-point conversion. On Saturday, the Bearcats had two fourth down conversions — one for a touchdown. Aside from the first two drives, they seemed to always pull out the right play when they needed it. I hope Denbrock stays in Clifton for at least another year or two, because I’d love to see him work with some more firepower.
- Another solid outing for Doaks in the absence of Mike Boone. With the Bearcats playing catch-up all day, he only got 14 touches on the ground, but he turned those into 59 yards, good for a solid 4.2 average. He continued bruising the defense, and even contributed with a 19-yard reception. It proved to be another promising showing from the redshirt freshman.
- This touchdown celebration from Khalil Lewis.
- The defense looked putrid. There was a lot of talk on Twitter about what to make of the number of yards (569!) given up by the Bearcats. Some thought it was a catastrophic sign of things to come, and others weren’t phased by it. I see both sides. On one hand, Navy will do this to do. They can genuinely put up 300–400 rushing yards on any team in the country. On the other hand, Navy broke their all-time rushing record before losing it with two kneel-downs in the victory formation. Is giving up a heap of yards to Navy a reason for concern? Not really. Is Navy rushing for their most yards ever cause for concern? I think at least a little bit. The Bearcats, especially the secondary, got absolutely carved up and seemed to regress in fundamental areas they’ve excelled in so far this season. I have a hard time writing off a defensive performance that only forced a single punt when another stop or two would’ve won the game. Let’s hope this is nothing more than a bad afternoon meeting a brutal offense. I think that’s the case.
- Carter Jacobs had a… weird game. I try really hard to avoid calling out individual players on the blog, but I feel like this bears mentioning. Jacobs led the team in total tackles and forced UC’s only turnover. That being said, the optics were brutal for much of the game, especially late. Navy’s wideouts are fantastic at blocking, and Jacobs was consumed by them. By the end of the game, he was getting blocked on essentially every snap and would slowly find his footing only to watch the play blow by him. He even had two horse collar tackle penalties that he accrued trying to stop a ball carrier that had beaten him. Again, hoping this is mostly the product of an abnormal offense, because Jacobs has been pretty solid in run defense otherwise.
- When is Andrew Gantz coming back? Pasley has gotten the job done. He made his only field goal attempt on Saturday and knocked all three PATs through. However, his kicks are brutally ugly and I got the sense on a couple occasions that Fickell was avoiding a field goal attempt, especially as the stakes got higher in the second half. With how this team stacks up this year, they’re going to be in a lot of close games. Having a kicker the staff trusts is going to be important.
I don’t blame anyone for being disappointed by the loss, but those of you who expect to win every single game are simply setting yourself up for heartbreak and heartburn. When you settle for nothing less than victory, you miss the nuance that comes with a rebuilding process. The win-loss record isn’t showing it yet, but this program appears to be firmly on the right track after sliding in recent years.