It is hard not to be a little pessimistic after the shellacking the Bearcats received at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners. After all the Bearcats lost the game 52-26 and it took a late touchdown to make it that close. The defense was caught off-guard by the speed and intensity of the Oklahoma Sooners scoring machine. They looked completely overmatched almost the entire game. The offense had its moments, but in the end still made costly mistakes when they could have gotten points. And to top it all off, Dustin Grutza was knocked out with a broken ankle. I doubt Dustin will ever take another snap as the University of Cincinnati Football Quarterback.
So what did we learn at Oklahoma?
Interestingly enough there were parts of that game that encouraged me. In fact, if the Bearcats made a few less errors, or a few more plays it is an entirely different ball game. A few plays in particular stick out in my mind:
1) The interception Grutza threw on first and goal. It was inexcusable. UC was going to get points, they were likely going to get a touchdown…do not force the ball into coverage on first down. Throw the ball away.
2) The personal foul on Dominick Goodman late in the half. UC completed a 42 yard pass putting them in field goal range (it was also a touchdown with a better pass but lets not get too picky). Goodman fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Sooners. He committed a personal foul for hitting the Sooners player late. The fumble was reversed, but the personal foul took UC out of field goal range. From where the Bearcats would have been without the personal foul, they could have really put the pressure on Oklahoma and possibly tied it up before half time. Just an all around bad play when UC was trying to close the gap before the half.
3) The 43 yard pass to Ryan Broyles on third and 9 after the Marshawn Gilyard runback. This was a devastating play and the point at which the game turned. The worst part of this play was the Bearcats hit Bradford for one of the few times that game and had double coverage on Broyles. I was sure watching it live that UC would get the interception or at the very least knock it down and make OU punt to them with all the momentum in a one possession game. Instead Broyles makes a spectacular play (and the UC defenders make a poor play) and Oklahoma scores a TD a few plays later. That TD basically set up the next play which put the game out of reach.
4) The fake punt. I do not blame Coach Kelly in the least for this. The defense could not go right back on the field. They just were too gassed and were getting gashed all game long. And if I asked the immortal Herm Edwards, "Why do you play?" He would calmly respond, "You play to win the game." Honestly, it was open, it's just for everything that Kevin Huber is to the Bearcats he is not one of the 35 quarterbacks on the roster. The pass was short, it was deflected and the game was effectively over. You change those four plays above and we are looking at a completely different game…and you know what, this Oklahoma team might be the best team in the country.
So where does that leave the Bearcats?
What do they need to do to become Big East Champions? The conference is wide open. West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Rutgers all appear very vulnerable. South Florida has looked great for stretches and very beatable during stretches. UC gets Pitt, South Florida and Rutgers at the Nip. These are games they could win, maybe even should win. Over the next three weeks, before Big East play begins, there are a few questions I think we need to answer. If they are answered positively I think UC can be one of the favorites to win the Big East.
Can Tony Pike be an effective quarterback in Brian Kelly's offense? Will Kelly try anyone else?
Of all the questions, I think this is the biggest. The Bearcats have a ton of weapons andI was very impressed with the offensive line against the Sooners. I thought for the most part they opened up holes and gave Grutza some time to throw the ball. The times they got beat seemed to be when we let the play clock run down to the end and they could time the blitz. We already knew Goodman and Barnett were big time receivers, but Mardy Gilyard has been unreal this season. He is explosive and can make plays in space. He is as good as any Bearcat I have seen since Ladarius Vann at turning a 3 yard pass into a 30 yard pass.
I have been somewhat encouraged by the running game. All in all I think that this offense needs a quarterback. Tony Pike has all the physical tools. He is tall, has a big arm, and has reasonably good mobility; however, we have yet to see him in game action with the first team. If Pike can deliver good passes on time and make good decisions the offense should continue to be explosive and put pressure on opposing teams. If not Kelly will have to find an answer from somebody else and it is sounding like Demetrius Jones is next in line.
Are UC's defensive ends good enough to consistently get pressure on the quarterback?
Against Oklahoma they got almost no pressure. A friend of mine kept pointing out to me that not only were they not getting pressure, but that they were not getting close. His contention was that even against a great offensive line they should be able to get some push, or not get driven back. This is a big area of concern for the Bearcats. Last season the Hoke/Craig/Nelms combination wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. This defensive line is untested and against the stiffest of competitions failed miserably.
Of course, OU was the stiffest of competition. That line was monstrous. I still believe Barwin could be a heck of an end. He was just too inexperienced going against too good of a defensive line. The good news is our defensive ends will get to go against one on one blocking because teams will have to double team Byrd. Byrd was a monster against Oklahoma. I felt like as a defensive tackle he was in on an unreal number of plays while facing constant double teams. Byrd had 9 tackles, 4 of them solo, but he just seemed to be the only guy who was constantly disrupting what Oklahoma wanted to do. UC's defensive ends are going to have to disrupt opposing offenses if the Bearcats are going to win the Big East.
Can UC stop the pass over the middle?
I thought for the most part UC was ok on the edge against Oklahoma. Mickens got beat on a nice double move from Iglesias and UC allowed that awful jump ball completion to Broyles, but in general I thought the corners were ok. The issue was UC got beat big down the middle. I thought Manalac was out of position on pass plays all game long. Part of the problem was Oklahoma's offense put a ton of pressure on UC. They would be confused and out of position on multiple occasions as the ball was being snapped. Still, I thought Manalac in particular did not get depth against the passing game and the safeties did not show much in terms of being in position to make plays. The hope has to be that Smith's instincts will translate well to the free safety position, because the Bearcats need to get better down the middle.
Will someone please make a PAT, much less a field goal?
I do not think I need to delve into this one too much, but UC's kicking game must improve. The rest of UC's special teams should be very good. They get great punting from Huber, Rodgers has been driving the ball deep, the coverage has been alright, and Gilyard has looked spectacular in the return game. These all play to the Bearcat's advantage. They just need someone to make a PAT.
Bearcat fans need to remember that UC played Oklahoma in Norman two weeks ago, not Oregon State at the Nip. Oregon State finished third in the Pac Ten and was a borderline top 25 team last season, this Oklahoma team may be the best in the country… they may even be the best team in the last few years. They have the best offensive line in college football, playmakers all over the field, and a Heisman contender at QB. They are going to destroy a bunch of teams during the course of the year.
At the same time they showed some of UC's areas for concern and created another (with the injury to Grutza). The Bearcats have three games they should win before Big East play begins. I want to see these four areas move from areas of concerns to strengths. If that happens, the Bearcats will be in position to win the Big East and have a top ten type of season. Remember there are a ton of players back from a Bearcat team that finished number 17 in the country and won 10 games. The Big East looks ripe for the taking. With steady quarterback play, a pass rush, consistent pass defense over the middle and an average kicking game the Bearcats can win the Big East. The next three weeks will give us an idea of where we are heading the rest of the way.