2008 may have been the most successful year in the history of Cincinnati football, but to almost everyone’s surprise the Bearcats look like they could possibly be heading for even greater success in 2009.
Undefeated at 7-0 and ranked eighth in this week’s BCS poll, the Bearcats roll into the Carrier Dome this Saturday as one of the nation’s few elite teams that are still in the conversation for an appearance in the BCS title game.
To achieve that goal, though, the Bearcats must win the remainder of their games just to remain in the discussion, and they still have tough dates with No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 21 West Virginia left.
With the pressure of those two games and their national title implications looming, the thought of the Bearcats overlooking the lowly Orange this weekend must be a nice one for Syracuse fans. Unfortunately, the Bearcats are led by two-time defending Big East Coach of the Year Brian Kelly, and will absolutely be prepared for the weekend’s game. The Orange will need to bring their A-game to even keep this one respectable.
However, that’s not to say that the thought of the Orange pulling off the upset is completely unthinkable. It’s highly unlikely for sure, but in the topsy-turvy world of college football, much crazier things have happened.
If the Orange are to pull a stunning upset on Saturday, there are a few key things that they absolutely must do.
Keep the Cincinnati Offense on the Sidelines
The toughest game that the Bearcats have had all year came back in September when they hosted Fresno State and beat the Bulldogs 28-20. The 28 points they scored matched Cincinnati’s lowest output so far this season, the only two times that the Bearcats have been held below 30 points.
So how did they do it? How did they manage to slow down one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, Tony Pike?
The Bulldogs accomplished this task by keeping him squarely on the bench. In that game, the Bulldogs utterly dominated in time of possession holding the ball for nearly 44 of the 60 minutes played. They managed to accomplish this by effectively running the ball to the tune of 290 yards on 57 attempts.
Despite the comparably low scoring output though, Pike still managed 300 yards and three touchdowns. Imagine what he might have done if they'd had the ball for more than 16 minutes....
For Syracuse, coming off a career game against Akron last week, in which he ran for 170 yards and three touchdowns, the Orange will again look to Delone Carter to turn in a big performance this weekend. The bruising tailback will need to consistently move his team down the field and keep the Cincinnati offense on the sideline. Syracuse will need to win time of possession by a fairly wide margin to even have a chance in this one.
Be Ready for Anything
Unfortunately for Syracuse, even if they do win the time of possession, at some point or another, they’re going to have to give Cincinnati the ball.
When they do that they’ll need to be prepared to somehow slow down whichever of Cincinnati’s two talented quarterbacks ends up playing.
Heisman-hopeful Tony Pike could be ready to go this weekend after sustaining a wrist injury during Cincinnati’s win over South Florida two weeks ago. If not, it’ll be the much more mobile Zach Collaros leading the Bearcats' offense.
Collaros has been nothing short of spectacular in Pike’s stead. After coming in early in the second half against USF, Collaros busted off a 75-yard touchdown run that immediately let everyone know that the Cincinnati offense was going to look a lot different, but maybe not any worse. Collaros finished that game with 132 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground while completing four of his seven passes for 72 yards.
The next week, Collaros made the start against Louisville and completed 15-17 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns to prove that he’s a more than adequate passer, as well in the 41-10 rout of the Cards.
So whether the starter is the speedy, duel-threat Collaros, or one of the best pocket passers in the country in Tony Pike the Orange will have to be prepared for just about anything.
Win the Turnover Battle
Turnovers have plagued the Orange in their losses this year, but in the three games the Orange have won they won the turnover margin twice, and tied once.
The Syracuse offense will need a disciplined, mistake free performance from quarterbacks Greg Paulus and Ryan Nassib. It’s likely both will see time on Saturday, but in the interest of maintaining possession both may be forced to throw a lot of short, safe passes and screens.
On top of that, they’ll likely need a little luck on defense. A couple of forced turnovers could do wonders for Syracuse, particularly if they’re able to shorten the game by running the ball all afternoon.
Limit the Big Play
Like turnovers, big plays allowed by the secondary have been extremely troubling.
With one of the best receivers in the country, Mardy Gilyard lining up against them, it’s likely that the Orange will be threatened deep once again.
It’s typical of defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to leave his corners in a lot of one-on-one coverage in order to allow the safeties to help out against the run, but this week it may be wise to limit that strategy as the corners have already proven they can’t handle it, and also because Cincinnati doesn’t run the ball very often anyway.
In particular, if Tony Pike ends up playing it may be wise for the Syracuse defense to sell out against the pass much more than they have at any other time this season.
This looks like the toughest game of the year for the Orange. Unfortunately, the difference in talent between these two squads is extreme and Syracuse could very well bring their A-game with a focus on accomplishing all of these goals and still lose.
The Orange could be due for another huge upset win this season though. After all, these games aren’t played on paper for a reason, and I’m sure Doug Marrone would love to get an early “signature win” for his place in the Syracuse history books. The Orange will be ready to go Saturday, and it could end up being a much better game than anyone expects.
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