Bearcats' air game poses challenge for Tar Heels
With five receivers each notching over 400 yards this season, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats will bring their 15th ranked passing offense and a plateful of offensive puzzles for North Carolina to defend in the Dec. 28 Belk Bowl.
Led by wide receivers Anthony McClung (908 yards) and Shaq Washington (747 yards) Cincinnati averages 313.8 yards per game in the air, compared to UNC’s 23rd-ranked passing game, 286.3 yards per game. The Bearcats are ranked 20th nationally in total offense with 482.3 yard per game, compared to UNC’s 432.4 yards.
Cincinnati uses a lot of play action passing and screens in its offensive artillery, and UNC’s secondary must step up to that added pressure in trying to defend against the trickery.
“It’s just one of those things where you’ve just got to watch a lot of film, see what their tendencies are, when they like to do different stuff, splits,” said senior safety Tré Boston.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound second-team All-ACC selection, who had a team-high 85 tackles and four interceptions, is expected to be a vital obstacle to the Bearcats. And he’s coming off one of his best career performances in the last game of the regular season against Duke, when he had a season-high 15 tackles — 10 solos — and a pair of pass breakups.
“You’ve got to take on yourself, and have ownership of doing your assignment. In this game we prepared a lot already, and I think we’ll get the job done,” Boston said.
“I definitely think as a defense we did a great job from beginning to the end” of the season, Boston said. “I think there was bumpy roads, but I think towards the end we really summed it up and went the direction we wanted to.”
The defense developed a growing confidence “that we could stop teams when we needed to, winning games on defense,” Boston said. “Guys took it personal from being 1-5 to going on the run that we did. Guys made sure we did what we had to do to get to this time of the year right now.”
Although he said he’s not the worrying type, watching game film convinces Boston that Cincinnati is “good at what they do. They’ve got a backup quarterback who came in and you can’t tell he’s a backup quarterback, Brandon Kay.”
Kay had a 68.6 pass completion percentage this season and an 80.4 raw quarterback rating. A 50 is average on the 1-100 scale; 80 and above is considered a performance ranking among the nation’s top quarterbacks. However, Kay’s adjusted quarterback rating fell to 76.0, which could indicate, among other things, the strength of the defenses he faced was not strong.
Still, Boston said, “They’re playing great ball, and we’ve just got to go in there and play our game and do what we’ve got to do.”
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin said his fellow defensive linemen also made noticeable improvement during the season, especially the freshmen.
“Guys like Greg (Webb), Dajaun (Drennon) and Nazair (Jones), they’ve all made so much stride, especially Nazair. From where he started he really couldn’t play the run,” Martin said. “He was good at the pass game but now he’s playing the run a lot better, and he’s even better at the pass game, and things are starting to come together for all three of those guys.”
Stopping the running game is high on coach Larry Fedora’s list of priorities. Cincinnati averages 168.5 yards rushing per game; UNC 146.2.
The Bearcats’ backfield features three strong running backs. Hosey Williams topped out with 105 carries for 609 yards, a 5.8 yard-per-carry average. Ralph Abernathy was 119-451 and Tion Green 90-409.
Martin expects a tight game, and a simple equation on what might tilt the balance one way or the other.
“I think whoever’s offense can get going the earliest will win the game,” he said.
“As good as our two offenses are, I think the defenses are equally good. It could turn into a defensive game,” Martin said.
“It would be a surprise to a lot of people watching, you know, with Cincinnati and Carolina” having a defensive battle instead of a shootout between teams that scored an average in the low 30s each.
“Who can make that one stop to get their offense that extra possession” could be the deciding factor, “and I think it’s going to be us,” Martin said.
“We never want a team to have over 20 points. We don’t want a team to score any points in a game, and I feel like if we can hold them under our average our offense is going to have one of their best games this season going against Cincinnati,” Martin said.