Cincinnati is a familiar foe for Bulls fans, but this season's edition of the Bearcats is a little different from the norm. Touted as a contender for the Group of Five access bowl bid before the season thanks to the addition of five-star Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel at quarterback, Cincy put up huge offensive numbers en route to a 2-0 start. An uncharacteristically leaky defense, however, doomed them to three straight losses in which they gave up an average of over 48 points. The Bearcats got back on track last weekend with a 41-3 win over SMU, and will thus enter Friday's game with a 3-3 record and a 1-1 mark in the AAC.
We chatted with Matt Opper from Cincinnati SB Nation site Down the Drive about what to expect from the Bearcats, and, of course, whether Gunner Kiel or Munchie Legaux has a better name (please offer your opinions in the comments).
1) First things first: last year USF somehow defeated Cincinnati without scoring an offensive touchdown in an extremely unappealing game. Does that game still haunt your nightmares? It still haunts mine, though probably for different reasons.
Matt Opper: It was a really weird game in a season that was full of them, at least early on. That game still sticks with me because it was the one that really pushed the lunatics in the UC fanbase over the edge in regards to Tommy Tuberville. It's a place where a larger share of the fanbase still lives, so that is still part of my life. Deranged emails mostly.
2) Gunner Kiel has been really impressive at QB thus far-- right now he's on pace for almost 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns-- and earlier this season you described him as a "majestic stallion." How majestic has he been of late? Is there any way to slow down the Bearcats' passing attack?
MO: Gunner has been nothing short of spectacular through six games, he has really lived up to all the hype that has been bestowed upon him through the recruiting process. The best thing about him is his poise in the pocket, his ability to ignore the rush and keep his eyes downfield. He has a lot of weapons on the perimeter with guys like Shaq Washington, Mekale McKay, Johnny Holton and Tampa's own Chris Moore. For all the explosive plays the Bearcats generate down the field in the passing game they are still a little inconsistent in the intermediate passing game. That is where Gunner has a lot of room to grow.
3) As impressive as Kiel and the offense have been, the Cincy defense has been iffy, giving up an average of 34.5 points per game. Cincinnati's had some really good defenses in the past-- what's going on there?
MO: Well, I think that current defensive coordinator Hank Hughes is an absolute moron who has only the faintest whiff of a clue about how to put his guys in a position to play. That being said he doesn't have as much to work with as DC's in the past have. Roster turnover is part and parcel with any coaching change, but the Bearcats have suffered through some unreal attrition. Just 11 players remain from the original 25 man class from 2011, and just 14 of the 29 from 2012. That's a 54 percent attrition rate from the groups that should be the core of this team. UC just doesn't have the depth that they need to play defense with an offense as quick and explosive as the Bearcats' is. I think Tubs has been doing a good job building the roster back up with JUCO's and transfers, but he isn't Bill Snyder. He isn't going to build a team of JUCO's, it will be mostly high school kids. But it's going to be a year or two before that pays dividends.
4) Although Mike White has been playing better at QB lately, the Bulls will still likely try to pound Marlon Mack early and often. How has the Bearcats' front held up against the power running game?
MO: (shifts uncomfortably in his seat) Not great, if I am honest. Power running teams haven't been a mainstay on the schedule so far, but those who can run power did so with impunity. The Bearcats have decent linebackers with Jeff Luc and Nick Temple, but the defensive line hasn't done a good job of keeping them free. Luc is on pace to at least challenge the single season tackle record at UC (but he probably won't get it). There are some who have been critica; of Luc's play because he makes a lot of tackles four or five yards down from the line of scrimmage. That overlooks the fact that on any inside zone or power play the opposing offensive line essentially resets the line of scrimmage at the linebacker level. So yeah, Marlon Mack is probably going to have a nice night.
5) What's the general fan mentality about the Tommy Tuberville era thus far? Has he lived up to expectations?
MO: Off the field he has exceeded expectations, he is recruiting at a higher level than anyone before him, he is becoming a prominent fixture on the Cincinnati sporting scene. He is becoming a part of the fabric of the place in a way that Butch Jones or Brian Kelly never were. Now that could be Tubs running an elaborate con in his attempts to get back into the SEC. But I have heard so many stories from people inside the athletic department and out about how Tubs is already more connected to the place than Butch, or especially, Brian Kelly ever were. That being said, the on field performance has been maddeningly inconsistent, but that was true of Butch Jones as well.
6) Lightning round! What's your favorite memory in the brief-but-entertaining USF-Cincinnati series?
MO: This, though that bonkers 2007 game has a really special place in my heart. (ed. note: guhhhhhhh why did I ask this)
7) If you could kick one team out of the AAC, who would it be?
MO: Tulane, probably.
8) Would you rather name your child Gunner or Munchie?
MO: Munchie. Munchie could work if you pronounced my last name with a French accent. Mind you my last name is German so that's all kinds of wrong.
9) Prediction for tomorrow?
MO: Madness, whoever has the ball last wins.
Thanks again to Matt for his help. Check out Down the Drive today for my answers to his questions and for all your Bearcat-related needs.