We had the pleasure of speaking with blog brother Phil Neuffer of Down the Drive, SB Nation’s University of Cincinnati site, to preview UConn football’s upcoming home game with their long-time (not really but they’re all we got) conference foes.
Thanks to Phil, and you can check out his answers to my questions here.
Cincinnati enters this game undefeated and having matched its win total from each of the last two seasons. Is Cincy back? Has starting 4-0 shifted your expectations for this season?
It most certainly has. I was pretty down on the Bearcats entering the season. I was hoping for minor progress from the defense and for the offense to find the playmakers that would be building blocks for the next few years. I predicted that they would win five games and just miss a bowl game. Barring a complete collapse, they will easily surpass my meager and very incorrect prognostication.
While my view of the team is shifting to optimism, I’m still not sure this program is “back.” There is a lot to be hopeful about, but I still expect a few stumbles along the way. Even so, this is a fantastic first step toward being back.
Are you more proud of the UCLA or Ohio victory?
The answer to that question changes by the minute. The win over UCLA was a real stamp of approval for all that Luke Fickell has been doing since he took over the program. The defense shut down an offense that was supposed to be explosive because of Chip Kelly and the win came on the road against a power conference opponent. That would have been the marquee win of the season if not for the absolutely magical performance this past week against Ohio. While I think the national media was more taken with the UCLA win, coming back from down 21 against a very good Ohio team was a bigger statement about what this team can do. Of course, that’s easy to say since that game is fresher in my mind.
Looks like redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder has supplanted eighth-year senior Hayden Moore for the starting QB job. What does Ridder bring to the table?
The Hayden Moore era is officially over and it’s not coming back. Ridder played well enough in the first three games, but then looked iffy at first against Ohio. However, the way he turned things around and led the team back from the brink shows that he is more than capable of handling the offense, even as a redshirt freshman.
Ridder is a lot more than a big comeback, however. He has already shown more willingness to throw down field, which the Bearcats never had with Moore, and his ability to move in the pocket and makes plays out of nothing is something UC hasn’t had since Munchie Legaux.
Is there a particular position group on the team that you are surprised to see doing well or improved this year?
It has to be the safeties. James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest are the starters there and they have both been incredible. Wiggins sealed the Ohio win with an interception at the goal line and he has been making incredible plays like that all season. He leads the team in passes defended and has three pass breakups as well. He is just always involved and really has a way of finding the ball. Forrest has also shown a knack for creating mistakes and has been a critical part of a much improved UC defense.
It appears the offense has a few different receivers in the mix and one lead back, who are the biggest playmakers at the skill positions?
It all starts with running back Michael Warren. He was solid as the third-string back last season, but he has taken to the starting role exceptionally well. Part of the reason he got the job is because projected starter Gerrid Doaks has missed the first four games with injury, but Warren impressed during the summer and has more than earned his spot at the top of the depth chart. He has rushed for eight touchdowns and is third in the American Athletic Conference in rushing yards.
In the passing game, there has been a bit more inconsistency, but the pass-catchers have started to find success the last couple weeks. Kahlil Lewis is the best wideout on the team, but freshman Jayshon Jackson has made a number of outrageous catches. Thomas Geddis and Rashad Medaris can make plays as well, but tight end Josiah Deguara has really broken out early as a favorite target for Ridder.
Given that UConn’s defense is historically bad, how do you feel about Cincinnati’s matchup against them?
Since UConn is allowing more than 300 rushing yards per game, I expect the Bearcats to put the ball in Warren’s hands as much as possible and find a great deal of success.
What has made the Bearcat defense so solid this season?
Having a year of development under Fickell and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has created more trust and efficiency. The breakout of Wiggins and Forrest has helped as well, but the real key has been the increased emphasis on being aggressive. UC completely lost its pass rush in the previous three years but it is much better at getting into the face of opposing quarterbacks this year. Senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton deserves the bulk of the credit for this turnaround, as he already has 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Do you have any concerns about being able to stop a dual threat QB?
Absolutely. Winning against Ohio doesn’t erase the fact that Bobcats quarterback Nathan Rourke ran for 96 yards and kept many drives going when they should have gone three-and-out. Containing David Pindell is going to be a big key this weekend.
Are there concerns that Fickell is gone after this year?
Not even a little.
What’s your outlook for Cincy basketball season?
It’s going to be very weird watching a UC team without Gary Clark. Figuring out how to replicate Clark’s skill and leadership is going to be the biggest adjustment for this team. Obviously replacing Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington won’t be easy either, so I am not expecting another 30-win campaign.
The Bearcats are a younger team this year. Jarron Cumberland is going to have to really take a big step forward, or else the growing pains will be more pronounced. They also have a lot of promising recruits and former reserves who should be able to step up after studying behind Clark, Washington and Evans. Ultimately, they will still compete, win 20 games or so, get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, all while building the foundation for another run at an AAC title and more.