Following open dates, the Pirates and Bearcats should be primed and ready to go in a game that both teams really need to win in order to change the direction of their season.
Cincinnati was picked third in the East in the preseason and received six first-place votes, but is now 3-3 overall and still searching for its first victory in the American.
Meanwhile, the Pirates--who were projected to finish fifth in the East--have dropped four straight for the first time since 2004 and are hoping that an unexpected open date due to Hurricane Matthew came at just the right time.
Today, we discuss this weekend's match-up with Phil Neuffer, who is the site manager of DownTheDrive.com--SBNation's Cincinnati Bearcats' community.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: Many people expected Cincinnati to compete with USF and Temple for the AAC East Division title. However, the Bearcats have dropped their first three league games and are currently in last place. Discuss what transpired during the first half of the year and whether the UC fan base is getting a little restless with the Tuberville regime given that the program is 10-9 over the last season and a half. The bar was obviously set very high by his predecessors--Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones.
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: While the national media and even folks within the AAC thought Cincinnati was going to be a contender this season, I didn’t really see it. There were a lot of holes on a team that disappointed in 2015, including a loss of pretty much the entire receiving corps and the team’s top pass rusher. It also didn’t help that offensive coordinator Eddie Gran took off for Kentucky. UC brought in former Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator Zac Taylor to fill the role, but thus far the offense has been stagnant and ineffective. Play calling has been questionable at time and the Bearcats just can’t seem to get the ball moving well enough.
With that said, the first half of the season has been an unmitigated disaster. Losing to Houston and USF was kind of expected, but losing to UConn, especially in the manner in which it lost, shows that UC is a lot worse off than we imagined.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: The Bearcats have lacked stability at the quarterback position, as sophomore Hayden Moore suffered an ankle injury in his team's loss to Houston and was forced to miss the games with Miami (OH) and USF. He returned against UCONN and threw for 315 yards in the 20-9 loss to the Huskies. What can the ECU defense and Pirate fans expect to see out of Moore? Do you think we could see Ross Trail as well or would Moore probably have to be unable to play for another quarterback to see action?
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: A major problem for the offense has been inconsistency at quarterback. Although Moore has started in four of the six games, he has been far from outstanding. He did throw for a season-high 315 yards against UConn, but only completed 51.8 percent of his passes in that contest and was intercepted. He has been picked off four times this season and just really hasn’t elicited much excitement, which can partially be blamed on the system he is running. As for Trail, he is a much hyped prospect but he really didn’t impress in his two starts and has six interceptions despite throwing 89 fewer passes than Moore. Then, of course, there’s the fact that last year’s starter Gunner Kiel is still on the roster, but it remains a mystery why he hasn’t been given a real shot.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: While Hayden Moore had a big day through the air against UCONN, the Bearcats were unable to provide any type of support with their ground game as they mustered just TWO rushing yards. On the season, UC is averaging just 124.8 rushing yards per contest--which ranks last in the AAC. What have some of the issues been? Discuss the offensive line and running back play.
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: Once again, play-calling and the new system has had a negative impact on the running game, because Mike Boone and Tion Green are talented running backs and there is proven talent on the offensive line (Deyshawn Bond, Ryan Leahy). However, the edges have been a bit abused with some new guys lining up at the tackle spots and Boone, more distressingly, has not exhibited the same big-play ability that he did the last two years.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: The Pirates enter this game with the top passing offense--at least statistically--in the American. Cincinnati is second in the league with 12 interceptions and has also produced 14 sacks, but they still rank near the bottom of the league in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Talk about this match-up and what to expect out of UC versus the pass. Who are some leaders in the secondary that Pirate quarterback Philip Nelson needs to be aware of?
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: After a 2015 season when UC failed to create much in terms of turnovers and pressure, it has been great to see more aggression and more opportunistic play on defense. I still expect that the Pirates will be able to move the ball through the air since UC is a middle of the road defense overall (No. 54 in S&P Ratings) and is 10th in pass defense (262.2 yards per game) among AAC teams.
UC is particularly strong at safety. Zach Edwards is a tackling machine and Tyrell Gilbert and Mike Tyson have each been adept at breaking up passes and snagging interceptions. Linden Stephens and Alex Thomas also have been able to create some turnovers, but have made some mistakes as well and are not exactly lockdown corners.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: The East Carolina special teams were better against USF, but they have been the worst in the conference and among the worst in the nation through the first half of the season. That's another area that Tommy Tuberville's club could really get a leg up in this match-up. How have the Bearcat special teams performed? What are strengths? weaknesses? playmakers in the return game?
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: I don’t think UC has been particularly noticeable one way or the other on special teams. Sam Geraci is a decent punter and Josh Pasley has done a fine job in replacing Andrew Gantz at kicker. According to FEI ratings, the Bearcats are 68th in the country in field goal efficiency, 72nd in kick return efficiency, 45th in punt return efficiency and generally give opponents better field position than they’d like. In all I don’t anticipate this being an area of strength that they can exploit to gain an edge.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: Rumors regarding Big 12 expansion continue to circulate, but it doesn't appear as though the conference is going to make a move--at least not right now. What have you heard on your end re: the Bearcats potentially receiving an invitation? What has the administration done to put its best foot forward and what are the thoughts of the fan base on making such a move?
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: Well as it was announced yesterday that the Big 12 would be standing pat and not adding more teams, it appears this saga is closed for the time being. UC seemed like a real frontrunner through this ordeal and the fan base was generally in favor (in some cases, feverishly so). Now that expansion is no longer on the docket, its full speed ahead with #AmericanRising.
UDD ECU Beat Writer Bubba Rosenbaum: Finally, how do you see this match-up between the Pirates and Bearcats--one that both teams really need--playing out on Saturday evening at Nippert Stadium? With the recent struggles, what type of crowd is expected at the newly renovated venue?
DownTheDrive.com's Phil Neuffer: This is homecoming for UC so I still think there will be a sizable crowd but it will be one on edge and angry. Tuberville is hanging on to the very last thread of his welcome with the fan base and that’s being kind. Based on what we’ve seen, UC will start off slow, but hopefully increased urgency and the benefit of a bye week will allow it to avoid that trap and move the ball and score early. I anticipate the defense surprising a bit and slowing ECU down as well, and that could be critical in what will likely be a close game.