The Truck Keeps Rolling
One of the “burdens” of being an undefeated team is the feeling that the stakes get higher with each passing week. Whether you’re a premiere program battling for a Playoff appearance or a rebuilding team looking to make a sudden splash, the longer you’re undefeated, the more you want to stay there. The pressure of perfection tends to build.
Between this pressure, the looming bye week, and the fact that the Green Wave can be frustrating to play, I felt like Saturday’s matchup was the year’s biggest game thus far. I think momentum is a real thing in college football, especially for young teams. The Bearcats could’ve either suffered their first loss (against a team unlikely to be .500) and spent a week stewing about it. They also had the opportunity to hit a needed bye week at a stunning 6-0, rest up, and ride their wave of success into a more challenging second half.
Thankfully, it was the latter.
With a bye week and two key road matchups looming, Saturday would have been an inopportune time to fall off the undefeated train. The week off will be sweet for the Bearcats knowing they’re 6-0 and ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in six years.
Beauty In The Mess
Saturday’s game wasn’t Cincinnati’s prettiest effort this season, but I think the game’s ugliness gave the Bearcats a chance to showcase why they’re undefeated at the midway point of the year.
Desmond Ridder threw an interception in Tulane’s half of the field, Mike Warren lost a fumble before being taken out of the game with an injury, and Aulden Knight muffed a punt. Cincinnati even trailed early in the second quarter.
The Bearcats seemed to do a fair bit of messing around. Despite all of this, Cincinnati made big plays. A Mike Warren 81-yard sprint gave UC the lead and a blocked punt set up a quick-strike touchdown to Kahlil Lewis. When Warren was sidelined late, Tavion Thomas entered and didn’t miss a beat, chipping in 59 rushing yards and the game-sealing touchdown.
It may not have been their prettiest effort, but the Bearcats went out and won a game Vegas (and myself) expected to be a seven-point affair by 16 points.
The Bearcats have depth, the Bearcats have playmakers, and the Bearcats have the type of composure uncommon for a young team. All of this shows the 6-0 start, while fortuitous, is no fluke. The Top 25 Bearcats are for real, and while the next six games will be tougher than the first six, it’s hard not to be optimistic.
Desmond Ridder keeps rolling. Much like his team’s performance, the numbers may not jump off the page but the eye test is awfully convincing. He finished the afternoon “only” 15-for-25 with 174 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, and an interception. The kid makes plays though, and his 65 rushing yards—including a brilliant second half scramble—have fans daydreaming about where the ceiling could possibly be. If the 19-year-old is slicing up defenses and calmly piloting a 6-0 start this year, who knows where he’ll be by the time his run in Clifton is done. Ben Bryant was supposed to be the future, but then again, Desmond Ridder wasn’t even supposed to be the present. With a senior incumbent on the roster this year and a future talent and coaches darling waiting in the wings, Ridder was probably in danger of slipping through the cracks. After all, he was a two-star prospect when he was recruited by a different coaching staff. Through six games, however, he’s played himself into a situation where it’s hard to really envision anyone taking his job. What a six weeks it’s been.
In that backfield, running back Mike Warren continues to cement his position as team MVP. He’s #4 nationally in rushing touchdowns, #6 in rushing attempts, and #8 in rushing yards. He’s 5’10” of lighting and thunder in the Bearcat backfield and at no point was it more evident than on his second quarter run for 81 yards, the second-longest touchdown run in 131 seasons of Cincinnati football. He shook two defenders in the box and sprinted to six. If it weren’t for Heisman-hopeful McKenzie Milton of UCF, Warren would be firmly in the AAC Offensive Player of the Year conversation at the halfway point. No running back has ever won the award.
After a brutal drop last week, I thought Kahlil Lewis needed a big game. He got one. He brought in just three catches for 40 yards, but two of them went for scores. Lewis is supremely talented but has a tendency to slip through the cracks, in part because of those drops. He didn’t have many opportunities in a UCLA matchup that didn’t feature the UC passing game, and then played in a monsoon against Miami (OH) with a similar outcome. He bullied Alabama A&M, but hasn’t hit the scoreboard since. Saturday’s game was a big performance for a guy UC needs if they’re going to continue to buck expectations down the stretch. Lewis is the leader of the WR group and Saturday’s performance was huge.
Josiah Deguara is still Josiah Deguara. He led Cincinnati in receiving yet again.
The Bearcat defense had a bigger game than they’re likely to get credit for. I harped on it all week, but the Tulane “spread triple option” can be brutal to play against, especially when it’s 90 degrees and you’re dressed in all black.
A week after the Green Wave washed over Memphis with 496 yards of offense, Cincinnati held them to just 266 yards and 21 points. The usual suspects are there: Perry Young, Malik Clements, Kimoni Fitz, and Bryan Wright all stood out. Joining in on the party were newcomers Darrick Forrest, Michael Pitts, and Cam Jefferies.
Oh, and James Smith continues to be a menace. He’s #21 nationally in punting average at 45.0 yards per punt, and he averaged 49.4 on Saturday. Crazy.
I’m loving this bye week. While it’s going to be sad not watching the Bearcats this weekend, giving the team a chance to recharge after a 6-0 start feels nice. It’s been a while since the bye week has actually meant anything to this team. Before two road games, this one feels especially well-timed.
Luke Fickell got a $75,000 bonus for Saturday’s win, because it means Cincinnati will make a bowl game. He’ll get himself another $50,000 if Cincinnati can appear in the College Football Playoff Top 25 (which returns late this month). He’ll get $10,000 for an 8th win, $20,000 for a 9th, $30,000 for a 10th, $40,000 for an 11th, and $50,000 for a 12th. If Cincinnati can finish the season as the top-ranked Group of Five team, they’ll play in a New Year’s Six bowl, which means another $250,000.
UC’s #25 AP Poll ranking is their first since 2012, when they started 5-0 before a road loss in Toledo. They’re also at #25 in the Coaches Poll for any big Coaches Poll fans out there.
I wouldn’t try to make an AAC fan out of anyone, but now would be a good time to root for the American teams in the AP Poll. UCF slid up to #10 this week and USF is at #23. The conference has three undefeated teams in the rankings, which can’t possibly hurt UC. All things being equal, I’ll be rooting for the Florida teams until they play UC. If nothing else, it’ll set up big matchups for the Bearcats. I need a primetime atmosphere at Nippert this year more than I need the air I breathe.
Since there isn’t a football game to pontificate about this Saturday, I’m planning something special for the blog, and we’ll get to briefly touch on basketball in this week’s podcast. Life is good.