- Time and date: Friday, November 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN2
- Location: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
- Spread: Cincinnati (-5)
- ESPN FPI: Cincinnati has 67.0% chance to win
- All-time series: East Carolina leads, 13-12
- Last meeting: Cincinnati 35, East Carolina 13 — November 26, 2021
- Current streak: Cincinnati, 4 (2018-21)
Setting the scene
It’s a Friday night showdown at Nippert Stadium between two of the AAC’s best.
East Carolina (6-3, 3-2 AAC) is on a roll with three consecutive wins, and this streak includes a three-touchdown victory over UCF and a road triumph at BYU. After defeating back-to-back future Big 12 members to clinch bowl eligibility, the surging Pirates look to make another incoming Big 12 institution a victim.
Cincinnati (7-2, 4-1 AAC) recently watched its AAC record 19-game win streak over conference opponents come to an end, but the Bearcats crafted a new one last Saturday by edging Navy in 20-10 fashion. Still, Cincinnati has several important streaks to protect. A third consecutive AAC title remains in the works, so it’s essential the Bearcats get a win Friday to preserve that, and to preserve their 31-game home streak.
East Carolina Pirates outlook
There was a time when East Carolina was a middling 3-3 with a difficult schedule on the horizon, but the Pirates turned the dial at the midseason point and now, they’re bowl eligible with a quarter of the regular season to spare. The three-game win streak involving Memphis, UCF, and BYU has featured a variety of different wins — ranging from a dominant offensive showing against Memphis to a spectacular defensive masterclass against UCF.
East Carolina certainly has the ability to take over a game on either side of the ball, but establishing consistency is what the Pirates need to do for this final stretch in November. If there is a limiting reagent, it’s usually the offense. East Carolina averages 16.3 points per game in its three defeats this year, failing to surpass the 20-point threshold in such games. Mike Houston’s team has registered 27+ points in all six wins, and 34+ in five of the six.
So the key to winning in Bearcat territory involves strong showings from quarterback Holton Ahlers and running back Keaton Mitchell. Ahlers, the all-time AAC leading passer, is in the midst of his best season to date. He’s been insanely accurate with a completion rate hovering above 70 percent, and he has produced 300+ passing yards in each of his last four AAC outings. The 6’4”, 230 pound gunslinger doesn’t necessarily take command of games with his legs, but he isn’t afraid to put down the pads when needed.
Mitchell is in charge of the running game, and the Week 10 bye week could not have been timed better for the star back, who was banged up in the fourth quarter of the BYU win. Mitchell is perhaps the fastest player in the conference, and he’s especially lethal in open space. East Carolina’s three-game win streak can largely be attributed to Mitchell’s three consecutive 100+ yard performances. Getting Mitchell in rhythm is the No. 1 priority for the offense, but the Pirates are bound to mix things up and involve Marlon Gunn Jr., who averages 5.5 yards per carry this year, in the run game as well.
Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson are the primary receivers battling against Cincinnati’s 19th ranked pass defense Friday night. Winstead is the fourth leading receiver in the conference and is a consistent weapon, securing at least five catches in all nine games. The long-tenured Johnson is a more of a home run threat with a team-high seven receiving touchdowns. The junior posted 140 yards on 11 receptions against a talented UCF secondary in Week 8, and he’ll look to do the same against Arquon Bush and the Bearcats.
East Carolina’s defense is the unit which won those matchups against UCF and BYU. The Pirates spoiled the Cougars’ Friday night two weeks ago by forcing consecutive turnovers on downs and a three-and-out on the final three series — pitching a fourth quarter shutout to provide the offense enough opportunities to win. Against the currently-ranked Knights, East Carolina brought immense amounts of pressure to the backfield to manufacture a 4-0 victory in the turnover battle.
Third in the AAC in average sack output, the Pirates must make pressure a theme once again in order to stall Cincinnati’s offense. This team is full of talented veteran linebackers capable of getting to the quarterback, and the Bearcats can expect to see a lot of Jeremy Lewis and Myles Berry, who combine for 89 tackles and six sacks this year. Stopping the run is the forte for East Carolina, and limiting opponents through the air is the area which needs more improvement.
The team ranks 107th nationally in pass defense. Cornerback Malik Fleming and strong safety Julius Wood are key defenders East Carolina’s defensive staff will call upon to deliver against Cincinnati. Both defensive backs are significant contributors to the turnover battle, as Wood has two interceptions to go along with three forced fumbles while Fleming has two picks and five batdowns on his résumé as the team’s top cover corner. Turnover margin is an important facet contributing to the Pirates’ recent success, as they have six takeaways and zero giveaways over the course of the three-game win streak.
Cincinnati Bearcats outlook
Cincinnati is in unfamiliar territory without a number next to its name in the College Football Playoff rankings. But a Friday night win could easily launch the Bearcats back into the national conversation, as they control their own destiny for their third-straight AAC Championship Game appearance. East Carolina isn’t an easy opponent, but Cincinnati has the backing of its home crowd at Nippert Stadium, which hasn’t seen a loss since Nov. 10, 2017. Only Clemson rides a longer stretch of home success.
In the Luke Fickell era, the Bearcats have always been known for their defense prowess. But what stood out about the 2021 team is that the offense ranked 11th in the country in scoring. With a new starting quarterback, a new No. 1 running back, and a new No. 1 receiver, it was no question that scoring rate would be hard to sustain, and Cincinnati currently ranks 36th nationally in the category. But the offense has stalled to a greater degree as of late, and the Bearcats remain in search of their first 30-point game since a 31-21 win over Tulsa on Oct. 1.
Cincinnati usually sees either the passing attack or rushing attack click in a single game, but it’s rare to see both happen concurrently. The Tulsa, SMU, and South Florida wins were running back friendly victories, while Cincinnati’s recent outings against UCF and Navy involved greater success through the air. The Bearcats must see both elements click together in order to improve the scoring effort. Cincinnati doesn’t turn the ball over too often and the team is wildly efficient in the red zone, so establishing a stronger offense between the 40s is imperative.
Quarterback Ben Bryant has been heavily relied upon as of late with three consecutive games featuring at least 35 passing attempts. While the accuracy hasn’t always been there in these last three go-arounds, Bryant has refrained from throwing an interception. Bryant nearly fired for 300 yards against Navy thanks to a strong connection with his top wideout Tyler Scott. Of all players in Friday night’s contest, Scott comes with the greatest big-play potential. The deep threat averages over 16 yards per reception and has eight touchdowns on the season, and he typically scores by getting an extra step on defenders in deep 1-on-1 coverage.
Tre Tucker and Jadon Thompson are the secondary and tertiary targets who assist Scott in the receiving game, but Cincinnati also receives a nice boost from its tight ends. Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor are incredibly physical blockers who thrive as short-to-medium yardage threats. Whyle and Taylor combine for 39 receptions and five touchdowns in 2022, and both members of the tandem are adept at exploiting linebacker mismatches.
In the run game, Charles McClelland is operating in the No. 1 role at the moment, which was warranted after he produced back-to-back 120+ yard rampages in close wins over South Florida and SMU. McClelland produced a team-high 60 yards in the Week 11 win over Navy, so he’ll once again be called upon to elevate the run game. Bryant doesn’t usually contribute to the rushing effort, but running backs Ryan Montgomery and Corey Kiner are other well-acquainted candidates expected receive multiple touches in the backfield Friday night.
On defense, Cincinnati still has it. The Bearcats field a top 25 ranked scoring defense and a top 20 passing defense. They thrive in a multitude of areas, but the strength of the unit lies within the pass rush. Ivan Pace Jr. has taken the country by storm with his 8.0 sacks and FBS-best 18.0 tackles for loss this year — no other player exceeds 15.5 in the latter category. Opposing offensive lines key on Pace on a weekly basis, yet the potential All-American inside linebacker still churns out impressive numbers. And most importantly, his presence creates additional stars in Cincinnati’s front seven.
Look no further than Dontay Corleone, who stifled Navy’s offense last week with a career-high 11 tackles from the defensive tackle spot. Corleone is one of five Bearcats with at least 3.0 sacks on the season, and overall, the unit checks in at fifth in the FBS in sacks per game in 2022.
In the secondary, Arquon Bush is the force continuing Cincinnati’s recent legacy of star cornerbacks. Bush has a modest stat-line of two interceptions and two pass breakups this year, but what’s most impressive about the the senior corner doesn’t show up in the box score. He has a knack for blanketing opposing wideouts to the point where he doesn’t get targeted often. Bush has his work cut out for him facing a talented East Carolina receiving corps, but if he can cut off one important weapon, Cincinnati’s prospects of winning vastly skyrocket.
Nippert Stadium is going to be rocking. This game won’t be easy for either AAC team, and given the caliber of the defenses, don’t expect too much scoring Friday night. Both the Bearcats and Pirates bring plenty of pressure, and it could be a rough day at the line of scrimmage for the offenses. Quarterback sacks should be quite common and the running backs will meet plenty of resistance at the first and second levels of the defense.
Cincinnati simply does not lose at home, but there have been close calls this year — including a fourth quarter comeback against South Florida. But East Carolina is playing at such a high level right now, and the Pirates have the potential to escape this one by means of greater offensive execution.
Prediction: East Carolina 26, Cincinnati 23