Cincinnati defense poses major obstacle to UNC attack
Whether UNC can unleash its explosive playmakers against a sturdy Cincinnati Bearcats defense ranked ninth nationally could be the key to a Belk Bowl victory on Dec. 28 in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
But Tar Heel freshman tailback T.J. Logan, who ran for 456 yards and four touchdowns on the season, isn’t contemplating a monster day.
He said he’ll have to patiently pace his rushing attempts against a Bearcats team that allowed an average of only 98.7 rushing yards per game, fifth-lowest in the nation. The Tar Heels have averaged 146.2 rushing yards per game.
“Every one is not going to hit for 40 yards, so you just gotta be consistent and wait for it, and it’s going to spring open eventually,” said Logan.
That will be a different tempo than his season highlight reel, which included a 99-yard kickoff return, the third-longest in school history, being the first to score four TDs in a game since 2008, and rushing for three scores for the first time since 2010.
“The D line is very tough. They have some big guys who can move around, so we’re just going to have to get on them early and just try to hit some big runs,” Logan said.
Compounding that obstacle is a good outside secondary.
“They’ve got safeties that definitely come down hill, and their corners are very quick and fast, so it will be a good game,” Logan said.
“They’re going to make you earn every single yard so we know we’re going to have to be consistent and drive down the field in order to put points on the board,” said senior left offensive tackle James Hurst.
“They’ve got two good guys inside and I think it’s going to be (a battle in the trenches). Just knowing that, on offense you can’t have a bad play that’s going to put you behind the chains,” Hurst said.
“They’re a very good defensive team. Nobody’s (run) the ball very well on them,” said coach Larry Fedora. “They’re sound in everything they do. Their guys are making plays for them, they’re playing hard.”
That poses a major challenge for UNC. Cincinnati is ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 19.5 points per game. The Tar Heels have been averaging 32.2 points per game on offense.
“Offensively they’re spreading it around really good, throwing the ball around doing some really nice things,” Fedora said. “And if you look at their special teams play, I mean they’re sound in all their special teams play. They’re a good, solid football team. … There’s a reason they’re 9-3.”
The Bearcats will give the Tar Heels defense a lot of looks with their multiple formations.
“They spread the field pretty good. They get the ball in a lot of people’s hands. You’ve got to defend everything,” Fedora said. “But you always have to go into a game to stop the run. If you don’t do that and you let them be two-dimensional it makes it very difficult for you.”
The Tar Heels own a 2-0 record in previous meetings between the teams. They beat Cincinnati 35-14 in 1979, and 51-16 in 1991.
But this is a different Bearcats team under first-year coach Tommy Tuberville. A win would secure Cincinnati’s sixth 10-win season in the last seven years.
Sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, who appeared in 11 games but started only five — in the absence of injured quarterback Bryn Renner — will have a lot to do with determining UNC’s scoring production.
Williams is capable of engineering sustained drives, and is one of the big offensive threats that UNC enjoys. The Tar Heels might have a better chance of Williams throwing against Cincinnati. The Bearcats are ranked 33rd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, at 214.5. UNC averages 286.3 passing yards.
Williams completed 107 of 184 pass for 1,527 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. He also ran for 490 yards and six TD’s, including 16 rushes for a career-high 104 yards and two touchdowns against Duke. He set a new school record for total offense with 469 yards against Old Dominion and threw for a record-tying five touchdowns.
But he is well aware of the defensive juggernaut that will be lining up on the other side of the ball.
“Those guys are everywhere. They have the top rush defense and we’ve been improving over the weeks with the rush defense,” Williams said.
“We’ve just got to play our brand of football, smart, fast and physical, don’t make the careless errors and the careless mistakes we’ve been making over the past because, like I said, we want to come out positive with this game and go into the off season with great energy and ready to ride for next year,” Williams said.
Their brand of football must necessarily include getting the ball to 6-foot-4, 245-pound junior tight end Eric Ebron, an All-ACC first team selection who set UNC tight end records for single-season receptions (55), single-season receiving yards (895), career receptions (105) and career receiving yards (1,727). His 895 receiving yards were also an ACC record.
Ebron, who was named on Tuesday by the Associated Press to its first team All-America team, has already announced he will enter the 2014 NFL draft.
“That guy’s unbelievable,” Williams said of Ebron.
The Tar Heels also have a potent threat in true freshman Ryan Switzer, an All-ACC first team selection for special teams.
“Switzer. That’s my boy. He’s definitely a great player,” Logan said.
“He’s a guy who can catch the ball in space, and he’s trouble tackling. You’ve got to wrap him up,” Logan said.
Switzer led the ACC in punt return yards (419) and return touchdowns (4) and ranks second in single-season school history in punt return yards. He also ranks third on the team in receptions (29), receiving yards (319) and receiving touchdowns (3). He returned a punt for a touchdown in three consecutive games, tying an NCAA record.
“He’s done a great job on special teams and offense. Just making those plays, that gives us the confidence we need to keep it rolling,” Hurst said. “Some games he’s made plays that have just straight out won us the game.”
Hurst is hoping to cap his senior year and with a Belk Bowl win to put “the cherry on top of a good career.”
Logan is revved up to play in what, essentially, will be a home game before a huge Carolina fan base. Playing in a bowl game is an exciting milestone, he said.
“Your mind is always constantly on it,” Logan said. “Even when I’m asleep I’m thinking about football.”