AAC play entered full swing last Saturday, and when UCF and SMU clash in a rescheduled matchup Wednesday night, all 11 teams in the league will have a data point on where they stand in the conference race.
Unseating the two-time reigning champion Cincinnati has become a focus for many teams in the conference, and the Bearcats enter every AAC venue with a massive target on their back after posting a 14-0 conference record across 2020 and 2021. Tulsa attempted to shatter the Bearcats’ AAC streak on the plains Saturday, but ultimately, Cincinnati emerged to remain the kingpin of the conference.
Now, the Bearcats are back in the rankings at No. 24 in the AP Poll after a 31-21 road victory over the Golden Hurricane. Here is what we learned from the contest which transpired Saturday night in Oklahoma:
How did the Bearcat defense reload like this?
Cincinnati launched its AAC opener in a fitting way to summarize the Luke Fickell era. On Tulsa’s third snap of the contest, pressure from a vigorous pass rush forced Golden Hurricane quarterback Davis Brin to quickly release his throw in order to keep a 3rd and 12 alive. However, Brin’s pass landed well short of his target while he was being wrestled to the ground, and instead, landed into the waiting arms of outside linebacker DeShawn Pace.
Pace, who led Cincinnati with four interceptions a season ago, recorded his first takeaway of the season and raced the ball 18 yards the other direction to hand the Bearcats an early 7-0 advantage. Pace is one of the key returning starters in a defense which lost a considerable amount of production this offseason, and it’s amazing how well this unit reloaded considering the mass exodus of talent this offseason. Of Cincinnati’s nine selections in the 2022 NFL Draft (third most behind Georgia and LSU), six were starters on the 2021 Bearcats which qualified for the College Football Playoff.
While there were growing pains in Week 1 when breaking in a new-look defense against Arkansas, the unit looked to be in pristine shape against Tulsa. The Bearcats recorded two interceptions, forced a turnover on downs in the fourth quarter when Tulsa had a 1st and goal at the 1-yard line, and most importantly, paraded in the backfield all evening.
Cincinnati recorded 11 sacks. The outrageous sack total tied the AAC record and stood as the most by a Bearcat team since 2007. It was a collective effort as 10 different defenders played a part in stifling Tulsa’s quarterbacks behind the line of scrimmage. Jabari Taylor led the charge with 2.5 sacks while the team’s sack leader Ivan Pace Jr. — possibly the most impactful defensive transfer addition in the country — added 1.5 to increase his 2022 total to 6.0.
Tulsa’s offense inflicted plenty of damage prior to its meeting with Cincinnati, posting 27 points on Ole Miss with Brin sidelined for the majority of the contest, and racking up 37+ in its other three outings. But the Golden Hurricane were severely impeded by the Bearcats’ pass rush, proving the Cincinnati defense remains a force after massive offseason turnover. Because of the unit’s prowess, the No. 24 Bearcats maintain status as AAC frontrunners once again in 2022.
Pass protection is Tulsa’s Achilles heel
Now let’s flip the last takeaway to a Tulsa-centric perspective. The Golden Hurricane are a very sound offensive squad, ranking 36th nationally in points per game, 27th in yards per game, and 20th in first downs accumulated.
Tulsa features one of the top 10 passing offenses in the FBS headlined by quarterback Davis Brin, and the Golden Hurricane maintain that ranking even after Brin missed roughly three quarters of the Ole Miss game. Brin was able to challenge the Cincinnati secondary with decent success, posting 237 passing yards while establishing a strong connection with wide receiver Keylon Stokes.
But Brin absorbed nine sacks while the team’s backup quarterback Braylon Braxton took two. The 11 sacks hindered so much of Tulsa’s offensive progress that the Golden Hurricane couldn’t remain within striking distance of Cincinnati despite the Bearcats’ 2-of-14 status on third downs. And now, only Akron and Colorado State surrender more sacks per game than the Golden Hurricane.
This isn’t the first time Tulsa’s pass protection proved costly. Wyoming and Northern Illinois each sacked Brin four times in Weeks 1 and 2, negating the Golden Hurricane’s offensive progress to a significant degree. And in that heartbreaking loss to Wyoming, Tulsa yielded two overtime sacks and wound up with three points across two overtime periods as a result. Pass protection is the difference between the Golden Hurricane being below .500 and above .500 right now. After losing two offensive linemen to the NFL Draft last year — first-round pick Tyler Smith and seventh-round pick Chris Paul — Tulsa must develop its next crop of talent in the trenches and refine this aspect of the game so it doesn’t undo the progress of an otherwise-stellar offense going forward.
Cincinnati needed a rushing performance like this
In 2021, the rushing attack proved to be one of Cincinnati’s strong suits. Running back Jerome Ford compiled 1,139 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, ranking 18th and seventh, respectively, in those categories on a national basis.
Despite returning the entire offensive line, the Bearcats struggled to generate a run game through their first four matchups. The lack of rushing success contributed to a 0-point first half in what ended up being a close loss to Arkansas. Although the Bearcats gained some momentum on the ground against Miami (OH) as Charles McClelland broke out past the century mark, the RedHawks still bottled the Bearcats to 3.8 yards per carry.
Then, the rushing attack against Indiana proved to be very alarming as Cincinnati totaled just 40 yards on 30 attempts — with only two sacks limiting that rushing total.
Although Tulsa’s defense hadn’t been adept in the run defense department (currently ranking 115th with an allotment of 197 yards per game to opponents), it was important for the Bearcats to gain rhythm on the ground. Corey Kiner accumulated 106 yards on 12 carries while McClelland managed 87 on 13 — each recording a 50+ yard breakaway run and collectively averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
Ryan Montgomery, who was expected to be the lead back heading into the season, returned from a rib injury suffered in the opener at Arkansas. However, Montgomery only fielded punts and didn't handle a single handoff. But if Montgomery returns to full strength, it’s promising to see what he can add to the tandem of Kiner and McClelland, which propelled the offense Saturday when the passing game was inconsistent.
Tyler Scott is the most lethal deep threat in the AAC
Less than one minute into Cincinnati’s 2021 season which ultimately ended in a historic College Football Playoff run, the Bearcats unleashed a play which will be a recurring sight this season — the Tyler Scott deep ball. Scott burned coverage and hauled in an 81-yard touchdown to open the Bearcats’ 2021 campaign, and now he is making similar plays to lead the offense in 2022.
With Alec Pierce no longer on the roster, Scott has elevated to No. 1 wide receiver status for Cincinnati this year, and he is flourishing in the expanded role. For the second straight week, Tyler Scott utilized his 4.29-second 40-yard dash speed to toast an entire secondary on a long touchdown reception. His second quarter 61-yard house call with no defender in sight put the Bearcats up 14-7, handing his team a lead that would never be relinquished.
Scott has become accustomed to making such plays when Cincinnati’s offense is in need of a spark. He put up the performance of his career the week prior against Indiana, becoming the first Bearcat ever to record three touchdown receptions in a single half. One of them was a 75-yard snag where he flew past the Indiana cornerback on a deep post and another was a contested catch in the end zone where he gained an extra step on coverage.
Scott’s speed is dangerous. He averaged 17.3 yards per catch in 2021 and currently exudes an average of 17.9 for 2022. Given the speedster’s ability to break free of coverage on any deep route, Cincinnati always has that weapon in its back pocket to jump-start the offense. The Ben Bryant to Scott downfield connection should become a common sight as conference play enters full swing, and opposing defenses might want to consider utilizing safeties in deep coverage to counter this, because putting a cornerback on an island with Scott typically bodes well for the Bearcats.