If the Bearcats are to win the Big East Conference in 2011, there are five keys.
Better play at quarterback
This one won’t be popular, but at least hear me out. I realize this one will probably be highly criticized, but I also think UC can’t win the Big East unless the quarterback play improves.
I realize Zach Collaros was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Week after the USF win, but the UC quarterback’s TD to INT. ratio is 1:1 in the last three games (5 TD to 5 Int.). I think that is the most important stat for a quarterback since it generally compares production versus destruction.
UC had two balls intercepted in the red zone along with a Collaros fumble in Oxford costing the Bearcats double digit points, but with a strong defensive effort, UC still managed to beat the Redhawks 27-0. After a bye week, Collaros threw a pick-6 giving the Cards a 16-7 halftime lead, but due to a strong second half ground game, UC again overcame the error to post a 25-16 victory. Last week in Tampa, Collaros was intercepted in the end zone and again near midfield just prior to the half costing the Bearcats a minimum of six points, but the Bearcats again staged a great comeback and won 37-34, in which Collaros played a large part. The point is that each of Collaros' mistakes have turned out to be quite costly.
Collaros said the option pitch/pass interception near halftime wasn’t intentional, but he also made the same play earlier in the game, and the questionable pitch was nowhere near to getting out of bounds. Regardless of the intention, Collaros needs to show better judgment. If he is throwing the ball away outside the tackle box, there needs to be no doubt.
The senior quarterback has been a big reason why the Bearcats are in position to win the Big East title, but he needs to cut down on the costly mistakes if UC is to continue to challenge for a BCS bowl invitation.
Cincinnati needs to get healthy
Coach Jones has talked about the injuries along his offensive front. This group’s ability was constantly questioned prior to the season, but the unit has performed quite well. However, virtually every member of this starting five is battling an injury right now, and the loss of Sean Hooey has shown the Bearcats don’t have a lot of depth although Eric Lefeld has filled in adequately at right tackle.
The loss of starting cornerback Dominique Battle also chips always at UC’s depth on defense.
The Bearcats need to get well this week because there are no other bye weeks remaining this season.
Continued Great Run Defense
Since I’ve been doing this job, EVERY defensive coordinator has agreed that stopping the run is his most important goal, and the Bearcats are currently ranked No. 2 in the country in rushing defense. Allowing only 72.71 yards a game places this unit behind only national championship contender Alabama.
If Cincinnati can continue to make its opponents one dimensional, the Bearcat defense will be doing its part in challenging for the Big East Conference title.
Win at Home
Winning championships generally means the team has won at home. Cincinnati was the only Big East team to get a road win last weekend, and if the Bearcats are to gain a BCS invitation, they will probably need to beat WVU and UConn at home.
West Virginia in 2005 and Cincinnati in 2009 are the only undefeated Big East champs since Miami (FL) in 2002. Odds are the Big East champion will have a loss so the Bearcats need to hold the tie-breaker against WVU. Winning on the road is always difficult, and with three November road games at Pitt, at Syracuse and at Rutgers, UC will probably not be able to run the table.
Hold the Rope
As comfortable as Bearcat football fans might feel right now, this UC squad actually has little room for error. Although it is talented, the Bearcats are clearly not heads above their competition.
So far Cincinnati has managed to win the two league games it has played, but neither was particularly easy. In addition, UC still has three road games remaining in addition to a “home” game that will be played against West Virginia at spacious Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday, November 12. The Mountaineers could easily make that venue a neutral environment by bringing ten to fifteen thousand WVU fans just like Cincinnati fans did at Pittsburgh in 2009.