The outcome was never in doubt. When you bring in a DI-AA school for your opener, you're basically guaranteeing a season-opening win.
The Bearcats had no intention of looking past Southeast Missouri State Thursday night at Nippert Stadium in front of 20,223 in attendance. The Brian Kelly era of Cincinnati Bearcats football started with a 59-3 thrashing of the SEMO Redhawks.
Senior quarterback Ben Mauk , making his first start as a Bearcat, led the offense to an impressive display of firepower. Mauk went 18-of-27 for 244 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw an interception in the red zone early in the game, but otherwise managed the offense like you'd expect a seasoned veteran to.
As the story has been told numerous times, Mauk is returning from shoulder surgery and is attempting to lead Brian Kelly's Bearcat Attack offense.
"When I'm out there, I'm not really thinking about my shoulder or getting hurt," Mauk said. "I'm just trying to make a play and it felt good to get that first hit and get the cobwebs out of my head."
Mauk's first touchdown pass came on a rollout as he found Marshawn Gilyard wide open behind the defense for 56 yards and an easy score. The second TD pass was a 13-yard toss to running back Butler Benton .
"I thought he (Mauk) got the rust off him. I was happy for him, personally, as a young man who was coming back from the devastating injury to be out here playing the game. I was really excited for him. But, he's got a long way to go. We didn't expect him to go out there and be flawless, he needs some work, but he some pretty good things," Brian Kelly said.
If tonight is any indication, the Mauk-Gilyard connection could be a dangerous one. Gilyard ended the game with eight receptions for 134 yards and the one score. It's been a miraculous turnaround for Gilyard, who was thrown off the team his freshman year by former coach Dantonio. But, Gilyard was given the opportunity by Coach Kelly and so far has made the most of it.
"He (Gilyard) hung in there under very adverse circumstances. He was dropped from his scholarship. He had to pay his own way. He had to work all summer (doing construction)," Coach Kelly said. "As a person, he's made great strides in the dedication that he's shown in paying his own way to get this opportunity."
When you win by such a lopsided score, obviously many things go right. Between Ben Mauk and Tony Pike (6-9 for 57 yards), the Bearcats got good quarterback play. The defense forced six turnovers (four fumbles, two interceptions) and Mike Mickens returned one of the interceptions for a touchdown. The offensive line opened many holes for the running backs as Butler Benton (12 rushes for 101 yards and a TD) and Jacob Ramsey (16 for 76, 2 TDs) ran wild. And the offense as a whole out-gained SEMO 615-262. In fact, the 615 yards were the most for a Bearcat team since they racked up 647 against Miami-Ohio in September of 1986
However, not all went right for the Bearcats Thursday night. Typically, the first game of the year is very sloppy. Thursday's game was no exception. The Bearcats were flagged for 11 penalties for a whopping 94 yards. The special teams as a whole weren't very impressive. The kickoff coverage team allowed SEMO an average of 20.3 yards a return and when you figure due to the new rule where college kickers start from the 30 and don't kick very deep, SEMO regularly started their drive past the 30 yard line.
In addition, the defense, although they kept SEMO out of the end zone, will need to clean up some things before taking on Oregon State next Thursday.
"We did not tackle very well. You're always concerned about that with the way we practice where we don't tackle a lot," Kelly said. "We don't put our kids in compromising situations (by tackling during training camp), so you're always a little bit nervous about that in your opener."
Another dark spot was the place kicking. Not only did freshman Jake Rogers have a bad night, so did junior Brandon Yingling . Rogers, playing in his very first game for the Bearcats, would probably like to start the game over as he missed two extra point attempts and his only field goal try. Yingling wasn't immune from missing extra points either as he sailed one wide right as well. This was an area of concern all summer and game one didn't do much to ease anyone's tension.
"We might have some kickers come in if we can get them off the free-agent wire," Kelly said. "I expected some bumps in the road, but I didn't expect the meltdown that we got (Thursday). Jake's got to bounce back from it. It was a bad day. It can't happen again. The next day he has like this, he'll probably be playing soccer."
If not for some sloppy play, the score might have been even worse. Kelly clearly does not accept turnovers from the offense. "All of our mistakes were self-inflicted and I thought we changed that in the second half and we took great care of the football," Kelly said.
But 'a win is a win' as they say. "It's good to get a win," Kelly said. "When you play Division I football, winning is hard. I told our football team to enjoy the win. We've got a lot of work to do. There's a lot of things we have to get better at in a very quick period of time. But I told them (the players) to feel good about the win, but I also told them the things we've got to work on as we move forward from one week to the next."
Brian Kelly's first official regular season game as Head Coach went off without a hitch as the Bearcats now take aim at knocking off the Oregon State Beavers next Thursday on national television.