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October 7, 2010Out to a 1-3 start, Cincinnati football has seen several distinct shifts in elevation already. After Fresno many discarded the new coaching staff as inferior. That rash judgement lost some, not much steam when UC demolished Indiana State.
Traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina a week later, Cincinnati laid an egg. The performance was substandard for coach and player alike. At that point the only people to provide support were family members who traveled from far and wide. Waiting outside the locker room, many fathers had uneasy glares. They knew how downtrodden their son must be.
Critics were given new ammunition to bash the Big East. Even though the Cats returned home the following Thursday a stiff test awaited the fledgling Cats.
In Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati lost but did so with flair inspiring a return to faith.
The games provided plenty of visual evidence that the defense has both flaws and stars. Opinions are easily generated on opponent scoring drives and third down stops.
Take a deeper look at the story the defensive numbers tell thus far.
1. Kent State (59.00 Yards Per Game)
2. Iowa (63.20)
3. Texas A&M (68.50)
7. Rutgers (80.00)
10. West Virginia (84.50)
14. Cincinnati (95.50 YPG)
15. Pittsburgh (97.00)
Last season the national leader in Rush Defense was Texas with 72.4 yards per game against. Number two was Alabama. Their success is well-documented.
If UC continues to hold opponents under 100 yard games on the ground, they will likely finish in the Top 10 in the nation in that category.
There are two parts to Cincinnati's strong rush defense to date.
1) Cincinnati has played three pass-happy teams.
On the surface Fresno State appears to be a balanced attack with only 42% passing plays. However, FSU is coming off a Cal Poly victory in which they ran 41 times, skewing the season results.
For the season FSU's bread is buttered on the pass side and opening week was no different.
UC held the Bulldogs to 1.6 rushing yards per carry. Replacing the nation's leading rusher from a year ago, FSU correctly abandoned the rush midway through the second quarter.
North Carolina State has passed more than run in all but one football game. The last three games N.C. State has passed the ball 40+ times.
Oklahoma also found it difficult to run on Cincinnati. Nineteen of the Sooners' 25 first downs were achieved through the air. They achieved a paltry 1.9 yards per carry versus UC.
All three teams found they could be successful passing. In Fresno State and Oklahoma's case it was truly their only option against Cincinnati.
2) The players with the most experience on Cincinnati's defense are DT Derek Wolfe, and MLB J.K. Schaffer.
Wolfe has started the last 17 games, Schaffer 16. The only other defenders to start 10+ games are Dominique Battle (out for season), Drew Frey, and Walter Stewart.
The strength and experience of the UC defense is interior line and inside linebacker. The corners were unproven and the safeties did not frigthen FSU Head Coach Pat Hill.
N.C. State also enjoyed their matchups on the outside more than the notion of running towards Schaffer, Wolfe, and John Hughes.
Where Cincinnati's run defense has been strong, the converse is that their pass defense has been very weak.
1. Navy (95.25 Yards Per Game)
2. Fresno State (124.00)
3. Nebraska (126.25)
109. Cincinnati (277.75 YPG)
111. Louisiana-Monroe (281.00)
Only eleven FBS teams have allowed more yards per game passing. Names surrounding the Bearcats on that list include Arkansas State, SMU, Rice, and Louisiana Tech. It is not good company.
So where are the problems for UC defending the pass?
QB Ryan Colburn (FSU), WR Jarvis Williams (NC State), WR Rashad Evans (FSU)
all had career best games against Cincinnati's secondary.
Oklahoma freshman Kenny Stills busted out his first 50+ yard game of his career in Paul Brown Stadium.
How have guys with zero reps struck gold against Cincinnati corners and safeties this year?
Part of the answer could be exhaustion. No one is going to claim UC athletes are out of shape. Dozens of players have transformed their bodies in the last year courtesy of Strength Coach Dave Lawson's winter/summer lifting program.
Unfortunately the UC defense is spending too much time on the field.
When Cincinnati does score, their "extended" drives have been astonishingly quick strikes. For the season the average drive time on scoring drives has been 1:49.
Those are the good drives. The bad drives tend to be much shorter in duration. Obviously the less the offense is on the field, the more the defense is.
Oklahoma ran an impressively swift offense disallowing Coach Jones from substituting as much as he wanted.
With Battle due to miss the remainder of the season, the young cornerback position gets younger. Reuben Johnson, Camerron Cheatham, and safety Wesley Richardson are likely to start Saturday with Frey.
There will likely be glimpses of Chris Williams and Pat Lambert. Longshots Adrian Witty and Deven Drane are getting more reps in practice and could begin their college careers sooner rather than later.
Also contributing to the poor pass defense has been the late closing by Richardson and Frey. Too often in Raleigh the safeties were beaten down the middle of the field. Russell Wilson completed big play after big play with a lance to the heart of the defense.
Big pass plays straight down the field simultaneously demoralize and discombobulate.
1. Mario Henry, Marshall (13.00 Tackles Per)
2. Dwayne Woods, Bowling Green (12.80)
3. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame (12.80)
11. JK Schaffer, UC (11.25)
After every game Schaffer disarmingly discusses how irrelevant his alarming tackle totals are because the team lost.
"It is a team effort, no matter what I do individually," said Schaffer after the Oklahoma loss. "I am just out there trying to do what I can for the team. Whatever that is I will do it. Besides that I would not credit myself to anything."
The modesty certainly ingratiates him to his teammates, but fail to recognize him fully.
Schaffer is all over the field. He can be seen plunging into the line, clogging the runner's lane or sprinting to the far sideline to cut off a screen pass.
He has been spectacular. Recording so many tackles does beg the question: Is he doing great because he can or because he has to?
He considerately deflects insinuations that he has too many responsibilities on the field, simply asserting that his job is to get to the ball and help his fellow man.
Perhaps the tackle totals will even out more as the defensive ends and outside linebackers grow into their roles more.
The vet Walter Stewart has started at three different positions, ever unsure of his place on the field. Because FSU, NCSU, and OU loaded up on receivers, Stewart frequently found himself as a down lineman.
At least in practice his best role is a sneakily encroaching strongside linebacker.
Cincinnati has a very young team. Coach Jones astutely mentioned this fact the last two weeks. And it is true.
The thing is opposing teams don't care. There are no pity points in the game of football. Coach Jones and his defensive-minded coaches are looking to improve their pass defense in the face of another season-ending injury.
Getting the team back on a winning streak will take elevated performances from new starter Maalik Bomar, Richardson, and Frey.
"Maalik is a great player," said Schaffer. "He is a guy who I would go into battle with any day. I wouldn't rather have anyone else next to me."
Look for Schaffer's friend in battle, Bomar to come out strong against the RedHawks Saturday night.
"I know I am a young guy, but at the same time I am out there playing with my team and my teammates," said Bomar after the Oklahoma game. "I want the team to grow. It is a big deal for me, but I have to step up this year."