Ahead of the Battle for the Victory Bell, we had a chat with Phil Neuffer, the site manager of the Cincinnati Bearcats blog Down the Drive. Despite choosing the wrong school, he answered all our questions ahead of the latest meeting in the oldest non-conference rivalry in college football.
JR: Hayden Moore has done a good job since supplanting Gunner Kiel at the quarterback spot. What are the differences between the two and what is Moore's ceiling in this offense?
PN: Good may be a bit of an overstatement and I mean bit, because Moore has been far from bad, but he hasn’t really stood out all that much either. He has been solid. Semantics about word choice aside, completing 59.2 percent of his pass attempts and hitting the 250-yard mark in each of the first three games of the season, including a season-high 275 against Houston last week, and putting up twice as many touchdowns (seven) as interceptions (three) has at least kept UC from spiraling out. We saw last year against Memphis that Moore can reach the more lofty passing numbers that Kiel was famous for, as he had 557 yards and four touchdowns, but I’m not sure that’s what UC is looking for from him at this point.
It is worth mentioning that Moore is working in a different offensive system than UC was running a year ago under new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor. Obviously game flow can dictate things and three games isn’t a huge sample size, but the Bearcats have averaged 35 pass attempts per game this season, compared to 42 a year ago. That might lead you to believe that they are running more, but that’s not the case either. Last year they averaged 39.4 attempts per game and this year that numbers sits at an even 35. In general, I think the offense has been running at a bit of a slower tempo while continuing to try to maintain an even share between the run and the pass.
JR: Any concern that there will be a hangover after the way UC lost last week to Houston?
PN: Last week was obviously an emotional game. It wasn’t a very pretty game, especially in the final quarter, but the Bearcats put absolutely everything they had into that game, which was the one that had been circled on the calendar all summer. There is legitimate concern that there would be a hangover, as getting up for a nationally ranked in-conference rival is much different than getting pumped for a non-league contest against a Miami-Ohio team that has yet to win a game this season. However, despite the ugly 21-17 loss to Eastern Illinois, the RedHawks had some good, if fleeting, moments against Iowa and played a pretty good Western Kentucky team tight, so the Bearcats can’t just let up because of the opponent’s 0-3 record. I think the historic rivalry of this game will help keep the team focused, but there’s no doubt that the letdown that comes from having a 16-12 lead against the No. 6 team in the country turn into a 40-16 loss in 15 minutes took a toll.
JR: Cincinnati's defense (for the most part) played well against a talented Cougar offense and was put in some bad positions with turnovers by the offense. What's the strength of this defense?
PN: It’s tough to really take much of a positive from a game in which you allowed 506 total yards, even if a lot of that came in the fourth quarter. But games are played across 60 minutes not 45. I think going forward, the defense, which has been hearteningly improved for the most part, needs to be able to put together a strong effort wire-to-wire. With that said, two areas that they really struggled last year was creating pressure and forcing turnovers. They have done a much better job this year in that regard, with six sacks and 11 forced turnovers. Last season they had 13 sacks total and 14 forced turnovers, so they are well on their way to smashing 2015’s output. I think a more aggressive gameplan has been a major key, but the breakout of players like Mike Tyson has been a big help as well. Plus, Eric Wilson is consistently proving to be the leader in the middle and his steady presence can’t be understated.
JR: Tommy Tuberville has been at the helm of the Bearcats for a while now, without a lot of titles to show for it. What's the state of his job security, and how do you think a Tuberville-led team would work out if UC does in fact get invited to the Big XII?
PN: Before the season started, I wrote about what this season means for Tuberville’s status. (http://www.downthedrive.com/2016/8/31/12658376/the-importance-of-the-2016-season-to-tommy-tuberville-s-status-cincinnati-bearcats-college-football)
To boil down the points made, Tuberville did sign a contract extension recently, so the higher ups still have some belief in him, but each year of just OK results (over .500 record, bowl game appearance and loss) is grating on the fan base for sure and if the Big 12 dream is going to come to fruition, the program has to have some more life breathed into it. Recruiting hasn’t been as much of a strength under Tuberville and clearly the on field performance has been fine, but if UC wants to be more than just a decent, which they clearly do, things need to start looking as if they are headed in that direction soon or Tuberville won’t be the guy to bring them into the Big 12 (or wherever they are when that whole fiasco is settled).
JR: Cincy has won the last 10 meetings in the Battle for the Victory Bell. Does the rivalry still mean as much to the program and the campus as it once did?
PN: It certainly still means a lot to each school’s video staffs (http://www.downthedrive.com/2016/9/20/12987096/cincinnati-and-miami-ohio-epic-victory-bell-twitter-feud).
I think UC’s football aspirations, particularly as it pertains to the Big 12, has made this a more overlooked rivalry overall, but I still feel like it means a lot regionally. Sure, UC is currently trying to attract more national suitors, but winning in its backyard is always going to matter, even if it might not be at the same level it once was. Also, if everyone takes the advice of my esteemed colleague Clayton Trutor, UC should be ready to enter the Danger Zone. (http://www.downthedrive.com/2016/9/21/12959772/cincinnati-is-on-a-highway-to-the-danger-zone)
JR: How do you see BFTVB playing out on Saturday?
PN: Being at home is going to be a major help for UC. There is always the fear of a slow start, which has bit them against Tennessee-Martin and Houston already. With Miami-Ohio playing somewhat better against the pass (56th nationally) than the run (84th), I think UC will try to get Mike Boone and Tion Green going early, which is something they need for the season as a whole since both have been inconsistent. As long as the defense continues to hold up and play as well as it has in 11 of 12 quarters this season, I fully expect UC to get out to a lead early and to just slowly pile on.