It drives me crazy to watch us show up unprepared and uninspired at least once a year against a non-marquee non-conference opponent, but it is what it is. It's the way Frank runs his program, and he's always been that way. Conference games big, non-conference games less big. So that means that Saturday against Cincinnati at FedEx Field is our last chance for a tuneup in the 2012 season.
First things first, there's a lot of blather going around teh internets that since Cincy rolled Pitt and Pitt rolled us there is every reason to believe Cincy will roll us badly.
Everyone repeat after me, please:
THERE IS NO TRANSITIVE PROPERTY IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL.
Football is a game of matchups. Not matchups of teams vs teams or offense vs defense, but matchups of position (secondary vs wide receivers, linebackers vs tight ends and tailbacks, OL vs DL). It can even come down to matchups of individual players. We lost to Georgia Tech in 2009 basically because Kam Chancellor, as great a safety as he was/is, did not have the proper skill set to cover the pitch man in a flexbone offense.
All of this is to say that when Pittsburgh and Cincinnati played each other, Cincy had advantages all over the field based on how the two teams played football. When we lined up against Pitt, the Panthers had some advantageous matchups that we failed to account for, primarily in the trenches. Pitt's massive O line manhandled our defensive front seven, blowing them off the ball and opening up huge clear running lanes for Ray Graham and Rushel Shell. We had to stack the box against them to have any hope of stopping the run (which we never really managed to do). That opened the passing game for Tino Sunseri, who found that key injuries to Detrick Bonner and Kyle Fuller had made our secondary easy pickings. So in no small part the bitchslapping that Pitt gave us was founded on the advantage they had in our their OL paired against our defensive front seven.
Yes, the offense contributed to the loss by not showing up, but we've all watched enough VT football to know that when the defense gives up touchdown drives of 75+ yards on two of the first three series that's not the type of football game we can win. Again, it is what it is.
Back to the original point: Pitt steamrolled us because they based their game plan around the size and power advantage they had in the trenches and our defensive front seven did not play with enough fire in the belly to overcome that disadvantage with their speed and athleticism. Cincinnati cannot attempt to beat us using the same strategy.
Look at Pittsburgh's offensive linemen this season:
Ten O-linemen at 300+ pounds. Six at 325+. They're rocking a 340 pounder!
Now look at Cincy's:
Not a single 300 pounder in the mix.
Cincinnati will have no size advantage against VT along the line. In fact, Derrick Hopkins will outweigh every Bearcat on the field. The Bearcats cannot try to sustain a power running attack for four quarters (or really even a half). This will be a completely different type of matchup than what resulted in the Pittsburgh bedshitting and we will have to defend it completely differently.
The Bearcats run a spread option offense under Butch Jones that centers around quarterback Munchie Legaux's dual-threat talents. Legaux is averaging 27.5 passes per game, connecting on 61.8% of them for 206.5 ypg with 4 TDs and 2 INTs on the season. Tack onto that an extra 71 yards per game Legaux contributes in the ground game, with an average ypc in excess of ten. Legaux is supported by three very good running backs in senior George Winn and sophomores Ralph David Abernathy IV and Jameel Poteet. Altogether the Bearcats are averaging 259 rushing yards per game and 6.48 yards per rushing attempt.
Defensively Cincinnati runs a 4-3 with a nickel package that they will show if they find they can't cover our tight ends and fullbacks in their base defense. Like their offense, their defense is built around speed and finesse instead of power. They used that speed to blow past Pittsburgh's fatties on the O-line (something that we, also, should have been able to do) and sack Tino Sunseri six times. Cincy's front four are undersized but disruptive and have the Bearcats ranked fifth in the nation in sacks. Their DTs are undersized at 271 and 283 pounds respectively and aim to shoot the gaps rather than plug them. The real threat on the D line comes from the ends, where John William leads the team in sacks. And all four D linemen are seniors. VT's O line will have a size advantage across the board, but unlike with Pitt's heifers our guys have some speed and athleticism of their own. What they have yet to show this season (except a bit against Bowling Green) is the aggressiveness required to smack down smaller but feisty defensive linemen like Cincy will line up against us.
On paper Cincinnati looks like a very good football team with impressive rankings in pretty much everything except turnover margin (they're -1 on the year) and punting (less than 32 yards per punt). But I also don't trust their rankings because they've only played two games on the season. They got Pitt for their season opener, with Pitt having lost a humiliating game to Youngstown State only five days prior, and then played 1AA Delaware State, which they sleepwalked through. They got their bye week last Saturday, and so they come into FedEx Field at 2-0, rested and untested. So we really don't know what to expect from the Bearcats, because they have not given us a lot of film to study. They also have never been smacked in the mouth yet this season, and we have no idea how they will react should we manage to do so.
I could see us easily losing this game, not because Cincy beat Pitt who in turn beat us but because I can see their quick, aggressive defense taking away the outside running that got the offense clicking against BG and their ends getting consistent pressure on LT in the passing game. I can also, however, envision our offensive linemen using their better size but equivalent athleticism to open holes and hold the pass rush in check, allowing our offense to find a rhythm and contribute to a win. Which is just a long-winded way of saying I think this one is a toss up. Defensively I think we'll be fine, with a much better showing than we had against Pitt, because our defenses tend to thrive against spread option attacks built around a mobile QB who likes to run. (Think Michigan and Clemson the first time we played them last season, before everyone's feet spontaneously combusted.) It's a question of whether our offense can get something going against their D.
Either way, I think we're going to know a lot more about both teams after this game is played.