Sheriff Preview: Cincinnati 2012, Battle for the Keg of Nails

Louisville and Cincinnati are both unbeaten during Big East play, and it looked like the Bearcats would enter Friday night’s match-up undefeated overall before suffering their first loss to the Toledo Rockets Saturday night.  Cincy may have dropped from the rankings, but that doesn’t make this match-up against the 5-1 Bearcats any less significant especially considering the Big East race.  On Friday night the bright lights of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium will shine on this great rivalry once again for an ESPN audience in what is expected to be an electric Friday night.  The winner of this game will find itself in a two-horse race for the Conference Championship with Rutgers and the loser will be facing an uphill challenge the rest of the way.

Friday night will mark the 53rd meeting between the two schools in the Battle for the Keg of Nails.  Cincinnati owns the series edge 30-21-1 as the Cards won only one game from 1922 to 1969 (13 games). Since 1970 the Cards own the series lead 20-18, for a total score of 909-828 (23.31 UofL to 21.23 UC).  Currently the Bearcats own a 4-game winning streak meaning that no current Louisville Cardinal knows what it means to hoist the Keg of Nails above his shoulders.  The tight margins during the last 39 games have continued recently with 5 of the past 6 games being decided by 10 points or less.

Also, just for my own personal reasons I have always associated this game with Halloween.  I remember going to a game at Nippert on Halloween night in 1992 against Cincinnati and being a 10-year foregoing a chance to “Trick or Treat” with my friends. It should have been clear to everyone at this point that my passion for Louisville Football would only deepen as I became older… seems ridiculous now thinking about my friends counting their Tootsie Rolls & Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups while I was celebrating a Cardinal 27-17 victory lead by Jeff Brohm, Ralph Dawkins, Anthony Shelman, Ray Buchanan, Jamie Asher, Aaron Bailey, and Joe Johnson.

There have been a lot of great moments during the series, but I don’t think there has ever been a better play than this:

Last Meeting

Last year, the Cards faced the Bearcats in what would be the final true ‘low’ point that the University of Louisville football program has experienced.  Louisville blew 16-7 halftime lead and were held scoreless in the 2nd half to move to 2-4 on the 2011 season.  Since that loss the Cardinals have won 12 of 14 games, and I wrote following the loss “my eyes can see past the record” in my usual review of the game.  Click the link to read it. 2-4 is not a good position to be in college football.  A team can lose just one more (maybe two) game(s) and still remain bowl-eligible and considering that any team that finds itself at 2-4 is unlikely to win 4 or 5 the fanbase was a little down.

There were plays to be had in that game.  Thankfully Isiah Pead is gone.  That guy was just a thorn in Louisville’s side for 4 straight years and broke a 50-yard TD run that made the game difficult to win.  But Louisville did a lot to disable their cause….Dominique Brown fell on 4th & 1 (similar to Jeremy Wright last week versus South Florida on 3rd & 1), Michaelee Harris dropped a sure fire 1st down on 4th and 3. But the team really lacked leadership at this point and was struggling to find cohesiveness and execution.  At one point the Cards faced a 1st & 30 due to penalties and that group, plus a lot of other parts just weren’t playing with confidence.  Still the Cards lost by 9 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati to a team that it would eventually split the conference championship with.

Check out Cincinnati doing Keg Stands on the Keg of Nails in the video below……….

Statistical Comparison

Louisville Cincinnati
Strength of Schedule (Congrove) 63rd 83rd
Scoring Offense (ppg) 32.4 (45th) 34.7 (35th)
Total Offense (ypg) 405.6 (60th) 467.5 (24th)
Passing Offense (ypg) 244.1 (51st) 241.8 (53rd)
Rushing Offense (ypg) 161.43 (64th) 225.67 (16th)
Scoring Defense (ppg) 21.9 (36th) 16.8 (19th)
Total Defense (ypg) 339.0 (31st) 352.7 (37th)
Passing Defense (ypg) 213.1 (45th) 229.8 (65th)
Rushing Defense (ypg) 125.86 (34th) 122.83 (31st)
First Downs (per game) 22.4 (41st) 22.5 (40th)
Opponent First Downs (per game) 19.9 (54th) 18.2 (30th)
Turnover Margin (season) +3 (38th) +3 (38th)
Time of Possession 32:43.29 (12th) 28:29.67 (92nd)
Sacks (per game) 2.0 (54th) 3.0 (12th)
Sacks Allowed (per game) 1.71 (56th) 0.67 (10th)
Tackles for Loss (per game) 4.86 (95th) 7.0 (25th)
Tackles for Loss Allowed (per game) 4.86 (33rd) 4.50 (22nd)
Interceptions (season) 3 (103rd) 7 (44th)
Passes Defended (per game) 3.43 (103rd) 5.33 (35th)
Fumbles Recovered (season) 7 (34th) 6 (51st)
Fumbles Forced (season) 6 (72nd) 7 (56th)
Fumbles Lost (season) 4 (21st) 5 (35th)
3rd Down Conversions (%) 56.04% (2nd) 50.0% (15th)
Opponent 3rd Down Conversions (%) 45.45% (103rd) 33.70% (27th)
Red Zone Conversions (%) 96.67% (4th) 85.19% (41st)
Opponent Red Zone Conversions (%) 79.17% (50th) 64.71% (11th)
Field Goal % 100% (1st) 75% (44th)
Opponent Field Goal % 40.0% (2nd) 90.9% (113th)
Punt Returns (ypr) 6.44 (85th) 14.5 (13th)
Kickoff Returns (ypr) 18.76 (99th) 25.33 (20th)
Opponent Punt Returns (ypr) 7.15 (60th) 8.50 (79th)
Opponent Kickoff Returns (ypr) 23.45 (97th) 26.11 (115th)
Punting (ypp) 37.46 (114th) 42.95 (30th)
Kicks/Punts Blocked (season) 1 (41st) NA
Penalties (ypg) 56.4 (73rd) 54.3 (62nd)

Louisville Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

The Cincinnati Defense is expected to be without its best play in Defensive End Walter Stewart (6-5, 249,Sr.)  Stewart missed the Toledo game and his absence was felt, but the Bearcat defense didn’t actually allow an offensive touchdown against the Rockets.  Stewart is a disruptive player and is actually the Big East’s active leader in sacks for a career and is 8th on UC’s all-time career chart, including 7 in 2012.  In replacement the Bearcats will look to Brandon Mills 5-10, 240, Sr who had two tackles and a fumble recovery against Toledo. Mills has played a limited role on the season due to being behind Stewart.

On the other end is a very experienced DE in Dan Giordano (6-4, 260, Sr.).  Giordano has been around awhile in the Bearcat program and is currently UC’s 4th leading tackler and is deft at getting to the QB.  Giordano currently has 3.5 TFLs and 7 quarterback hits.  With Stewart out of the lineup (more than likely) Giordano might have a chance to get more than he is used to.  Giordano will play his 45th college football game on Friday and is a big-time leader of the Bearcat squad. In the middle Defensive Tackles Cameron Beard (6-5, 275, Soph) & John Williams (6-0, 283, Sr.) do a nice job of getting into the backfield as well. Beard has started the past four games and has 16 tackles, 4 behind the line, a forced fumble, and recovery.  Williams has been slightly more productive with 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

At MLB Greg Blair (6-2, 252, Sr.) had 15 tackles versus Toledo and has had 3 double-digit tackle totals in 2012, including 13 versus Virginia Tech in a winning effort. Lead’s the Bearcats in tackles with 54, has 3 TFLs, and 2 INTs. Brother is former Pitt basketball player DeJuan Blair, currently with the San Antonio Spurs.  Blair’s performance is impressive considering Friday will be just his 8th collegiate game in his career and he leads UC in tackles with WLB Maalik Bomar (6-2, 228, Sr.) trailing his total by 8, with 46.  Bomar is extremely experienced and will play in his 41st college game against the Cards.  Bomar has been a steady tackler in 2012.

SLB Nick Temple (5-10, 219, Soph) and Nickel Chris Williams (5-11, 190, Sr.) will split duties depending on scenario and which package UC elects to go with.  If Louisville is running the ball regularly expect to see more of Temple……if the Cards are having their way through the air Chris Williams will get more clock.  Last year Williams tallied 7 tackles to Temple’s 3 at Paul Brown Stadium and with the Cards being more pass oriented now than a year ago I expect that Williams plays the most snaps with the Bearcats in Nickel.

Free Safety Arryn Chenault (6-0, 207, Jr.) has a nose for the ball.  Chenault’s 32 tackles are 3rd on the team and he also has 2 INTs and a fumble recovery on the season.  Chenault looks in to stop the run quite a bit, and leaves Strong Safety Drew Frey (6-3, 212, Sr.) to patrol the field.  Both of these players have played quite a bit of college football and a very comfortable with the other understanding and playing their assignments.  Last year versus UofL Frey had 5 tackles and 2 pass breakups.

Corners Deven Drane (5-11, 186, Jr.) & Cameron Cheatam (5-9, 187, Sr.) have done a nice job covering receivers.  Cheatam is definitely the one to avoid in the passing game with his 44 games played and 6 INTs.  But while Drane isn’t as experienced as Cheatam, his ratio for INTs and PBUs is much higher than Cheatam’s.  These two, coupled with Chenault and Frey is a really nice secondary flush with talent and experience.

Cincinnati is currently 19th in scoring defense and 37th in Total Defense.  For the most part the Bearcats have been extremely effective in disallowing scoring drives especially when you consider the fact that Toledo most recently gained 229 yards RUSHING and had to settle for 5 field goals. The redzone is going to be HOTLY contested. UC is 11th in the nation in Red Zone Defense having allowed just 17 trips inside the 20, just 6 TDs and 5 Field Goals.  Not only is it hard to get into scoring position against the Bearcats with only 7 teams allowing fewer trips into the redzone, and of teams allowing fewer than 20 trips into the redzone UC only 3 teams have a lower scoring percentage (Bama, Rutgers, Notre Dame) and only 4 teams in the same category prevent TDs better (Michigan State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Rutgers).

Contrast that to Louisville’s RedZone offense who is 4th in the nation scoring 96.67% and an 80% Touchdown rate and you have a really interesting match-up.  Freshman Kicker John Wallace is 100% on the season, albeit just 5/5 and has missed 3 of 22 XPs on the year. Lately, Wallace’s kicks have been a little low and have been blocked.  Luckily for the Cards the Bearcats have yet to block a kick this season.

Louisville is going to come out and try to run the ball. Toledo ran for 229, including 50 yards from their QB, so Teddy Bridgewater is going to have to factor into the running game again to relieve the pressure on the running backs and for the passing game.  There is some room to run against Cincinnati and depending on how the game goes Louisville may try and control the ball a little more than usual.  This will only be possible if the Cardinal Offensive Line is healthy after using 5 different offensive line groupings against South Florida and not really able to get the running backs involved it’s expected that the Louisville regular 5 of Kupper, Miller, Benavides, Smith, and Brown will be the primary offensive line (and hopefully the only one).

Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright will need to not waste a lot of time behind the line of scrimmage.  This is a game to hit the hole and take what you can while you can.  Cincinnati is very tough up front and will try to snuff out plays and get into the backfield. Because of that, I think UofL will use a lot of play-action to go along with their usual passes to the flat.  Also we’ll probably see some screens.  If the Cards can get UC to bite on the PA then the deep to intermediate ball will be available, but I can’t see Watson risking Teddy taking a big hit before seeing it work a few times.

I’m interested to see which Wide Receiver steps up against the Bearcats.  Charles Gaines has been awfully quiet lately and Andrell Smith has had a couple of quiet ones as well.  But the receiver depth is just another weapon that makes Teddy Bridgewater so strong.  Throughout the game Teddy spreads the ball around and has energy to spare with his receivers on every series.  It’s great seeing DeVante Parker getting more and more involved and how much trust Bridgewater has Damian Copeland & Eli Rogers to go and win the ball.  Only criticism I have of the unit right now is with Scott Radcliff who has dropped two easy first down catches on 3rd down in 2012.

*One thing that is interesting is that the Cards haven’t showcased the WildCard formation at all this year.  Also I’d really like to see the Tight Ends get involved more often.  Teddy is just throwing the ball so efficiently along with the run game that this part really hasn’t been an issue yet.  Nord and Hubbel have 17 catches through 7 games at this point.*

Cincinnati Offense vs. Louisville Defense

Those are fighting words!  Cincinnati Quarterback Munchie Legaux was asked on Tuesday: “Do you see similarities between yourself and Teddy Bridgewater?”  His response? “I’m better.”  As if the Cards needed any extra motivation in a game where they put their national ranking, undefeated season, 4-game losing streak, and conference title implications on the line Friday night, the 6-5, 199lbs dual-threat QB really stoked the fire with that zinger.  It’s unlikely that anything can rattle Teddy Bridgewater in pre-game smack talk sessions, but what Munchie may have rattled is the cage of the Louisville Defense.

The Cardinal Defense has come alive in conference play thanks largely in part to the insertion of Lorenzo Mauldin to the starting line-up in replacement of BJ Dubose.  Dubose is an extremely steady player, but Mauldin is extremely disruptive and has been on a tear in recent weeks.  If UofL is going to continue its charge into the backfield (after really not being interested in crossing the LOS for the first 5 weeks of the season) they will have a tall task doing so against an offense that hasn’t allowed a sack in 3 games.  Much of that efficiency is thanks to the mobility skills of their QB Munchie Legaux, who is extremely athletic and can avoid pressure to make the throw or outright take off.

In fact, the game plan from USF to Cincinnati shouldn’t be much different except for the fact that Legaux is a better passer/decision maker than Daniels and Munchie is 5 inches taller than USF’s Daniels.  In a way, coming off a short week having a similar game plan is going to help.  In another way, UC should now know exactly how the Cardinal Defense is going to try and handle them. So all of the complaints about the Cards allowing some big runs up the middle, will probably continue.  UofL is not going to give Munchie two lanes to choose from, they are going to rush shallow from the outside, close out his rushing lanes by not breaking contain and the DTs and linebackers must be sound in their gaps.  Cincinnati native Preston Brown is probably going to have another huge game after coming out of the USF game with 17 tackles, but the difference here might be Legaux’s passing ability OR Cincy’s lack of a big-time receiver like Andre Davis.

Cincinnati spreads the ball around which is much different than what South Florida does.  Wide Receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 190 Sr.), Damon Julian (6-2, 210, Sr.), and Anthony McClung (6-0, 172, Jr.) are just as likely to be the leading Bearcat receivers as are running back Ralph David Abernathy (5-7, 168, Soph.) or Tight End Travis Kelce (6-6, 260, Sr.).  None of these guys have over 20 catches, but all are the top 5 pass catchers for UC and collectively have 73 of Munchie’s 96 completions (76%).   There is a lot of athleticism here, Kelce has led the Bearcats in receiving the past two games, and Abernathy (who’s father was a close personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) is used quite a bit in the screen game.

The UC Offensive line was a concern coming into the season, but they have exceeded everyone’s expectations after entering the season with just 29 starts between the 5 positions. They aren’t a girthy group, but they are very long: LT: Eric Lefeld (6-6, 287, Soph), LG: Austen Bujnoch (6-5, 285, Jr.), C: Dan Sprague (6-3, 283, Jr.), RG: Sam Longo (6-5, 286, Jr.), RT: Parker Ehinger (6-7, 290, Fr.).  In addition to the previously mentioned games without a sack streak this group has going on, they’ve also paved the way for 200+ yards rushing in 5 of UC’s 6 games in 2012.

Running Back George Winn (5-11, 202, Sr.) has been the beneficiary of much of the offensive line’s hard work as he averages 101.2 yards per game on just 16.6 carries per game.  Winn is the featured back, but doesn’t figure into the passing game like Ralph David Abernathy (5-7, 168, Soph.), who might be small, but he’ll be a big part of Cincinnati’s game plan Friday night. Abernathy will also return kicks and his size will make him hard to find throughout the game.  Both of these guys will figure prominently on Friday night, but let’s get serious for a minute…..

The Cincinnati offensive game plan centers around Munchie Legaux.  The Bearcats run the ball 55% of the time.  With Winn getting 23% of the calls, and Abernathy getting 9% of the calls on run plays.  The majority of the rest puts the ball in Munchie Leagux’s hands to make the play, 10% of the plays Leagux runs, the 44% he passes.  Leagux is almost always in motion looking for an opportunity.  UofL will attempt to do everything they can to limit his space & motion and funnel him into their tacklers.  If they give him a few years here and there, they will be “OK” with that.  But there will be a big emphasis placed on not allowing the big play.  Because of this George Winn is probably going to have a nice game for UC.  I think of Pitt’s Rushell Shell & last week’s Lindsey Lamar, and unless something changes in a short week Winn should be chomping at the bit.

It is important to note that because of Munchie’s motion he completes only 53.3% of his passes.  But it is also even more important to note that Leagux’s top 7 receivers all average over 12.1 yards per catch.  Butch Jones’ gameplan uses Leagux very effectively and the young QB has a very capable understanding and ability to make that game plan work.  This keeps defense’s off-balance by using a lot of field.  The way to combat this type of offense is to make the field smaller, playing gap sound, not over-pursuing in pass rush, and making sure tackles.

Kicker Tony Miliano leads the Big East in points per game and has hit on 9 of 12 from the field this season with a long of 46.  It will be extremely key to keep the Cincinnati Offense on their side of the field or risk giving up points.

At this point if you are a Card fan you have to feel good about your linebackers.  You love your safeties.  You feel good about your defensive ends.  But the area of concern is Defensive Tackle and Cornerback.  First up front, Brandon Dunn got a little dinged up on Saturday during the goal line stand, he should be fine, but even before the injury to Dunn there has been too much up the middle on the Cards.  Some of that fault will certainly belong to the linebackers behind the tackles, BUT moving the blocker to a place he doesn’t want to go and disrupting the ball carrier is a huge part of playing defensive tackle.  This group, from Dunn, to Philon, to Brooks, to Brown, to Rankins needs to begin asserting their will on the guards and centers so that the backs can not expect the hole as quickly and will be brought down by the ends and linebackers more effectively.

With the cornerbacks, it’s time to start making plays on the ball. I’m not sure where Andrew Johnson was against USF as no one seems to want to address it, but we know Terrell Floyd was healthy and came in during passing situations.  Stephan Robinson was put in a difficult situation against Andre Davis and had two fade routes thrown over his head. Louisville has just 3 INTs on the season (Marcus Smith DE on a screen, Calvin Pryor, and last week Adrian Bushell on the final play from USF as time expired).  One Interception from your corners, and that one was in desperation mode?  There have been plenty of chances in 2012 through 7 games.  But what’s more just 2 INTs from the secondary?  In 7 games?

Maybe it is just me, but this is precisely why I played up the abilities of Charles Gaines so much leading up to the season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Gaines at WR and his 9 catches for 163 yards and TD were nice, but, the secondary needs some play makers.  Andrew Johnson needs to get back on the field. Terrell Floyd needs to be a better tackler so he can play during all situations, Stephan Robinson needs to improve his timing, and Adrian Bushell needs to start seeing the field and become a leader.

My Prediction

It’s pretty fair to say that Cincinnati will be one of the best teams the Cards have faced so far. I like North Carolina a little better on paper, but is Cincinnati leaps and bounds better than 2-5 USF?  I don’t think so.  The difference between UC and USF is execution.  Cincinnati has executed their game plan much more effectively during the 2012 season, I honestly don’t see any discernible talent difference between South Florida, Cincinnati, or Louisville outside of Teddy Bridgewater.  Execution is the difference between 2-5, 5-1, and 7-0 and that all comes from coaching.  Butch Jones and Charlie Strong are two guys, like so many other Big East coaches, are going to circle and target for other jobs down the line because they know how to prepare and get their players ready to compete.

So what happened to Cincinnati versus Toledo?  Well, it was execution….Cincy went 3 AND OUT on its opening series deep in its own territory which gave the Rockets decent field position and with one first down the first 3 points went up.  Then with Cincinnati driving Munchie Leagux threw a PICK SIX and the Bearcats found themselves on the road and in a 10-point hole which they didn’t begin to climb out of until the 2nd quarter and the score had worsened to 13-0 after a long drive by Toledo. Slowly UC climbed back into a one score game with the Rockets continuing to find field goals along the way until the Bearcats were able to take a 20-19 lead after a really quick scoring drive when Toledo took the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown and reclaimed the lead 26-20.

Cincinnati then failed to convert a 3rd & 4 just outside the redzone and had to settle for a field goal.  After trading possessions and UC giving the ball back to Toledo after 3 consecutive incompletions, the Rockets took the Bearcats on a 15-play, 59-yard, and 6:53 soul-crushing ride that ended in a field goal, gave Toledo a 29-23 lead and the ball back to Cincinnati with just 42 seconds remaining.  At one point during Toledo’s final drive the Rockets had 9 straight rushes.  That’s not executing and how you get beat.

Louisville has had its share of scares, North Carolina came back from 29 points down and brought the game down to the final two minutes and a play in the endzone. FIU roughed Ryan Johnson and extended a game ending drive when the Panthers would have gotten the ball with about 4 minutes and 2 timeouts down by a touchdown.  The Cards had to rally in their final possession against Southern Miss during a torrential downpour, and then had to survive on defense when the Golden Eagles got the ball with 5:35 remaining and 2 timeouts, with the Cards only up by 4.  Some questionable coaching decisions prevented Pitt from mounting a comeback down by 10, and then last week’s comeback when Louisville needed a 4th quarter drive with 3:09, two timeouts trailing 25-21 and then had to sweat out another final defensive possession.

Bottom line, Louisville has executed when it counted despite not really putting teams away, the Cards have done enough to win.  Cincinnati has been put to the test as well, needing a comeback win over Virginia Tech the same weekend that the Cards needed a comeback against Southern Miss.  A lot of people think this game will put the winner in the driver’s seat to meet Rutgers for the conference championship, and I tend to agree. Though I’m not ready to say that Cincinnati is a proven commodity in 2012, I know their coach is a winner and the Bearcats have 4-wins in a row in the series.

But I’m picking the Cards.  Teddy Bridgewater and the Louisville running game is the difference in this one.  Louisville 28 Cincinnati 24

Attending, Watching, Listening

-Card March at 5:15.

-Tickets to the game are SOLD OUT but are available on StubHub and other various locations……..

-The Game will be broadcast at 8:00 on ESPN with Carter Blackburn doing play-by-play, Rod Gilmore as analyst, and Jemele Hill along the sideline. The game was originally slated for ESPN2, but was changed on Tuesday.

-840 WHAS will air the game on radio with Paul Rogers, Joe Tronzo, and Doug Ormay

This entry was posted in Column, Featured, Football, KYSCO, KYSCO Cardinal Blog, News, Previews, UofL by Mark Blankenbaker. Bookmark the permalink.

About Mark Blankenbaker

Follow me: @UofLSheriff50 Born in Louisville, Male High School Graduate, UofL Business School Graduate, I've seen and done quite a bit and I'm passionate about sports particularly the University of Louisville and its rivalry with Kentucky. I have more friends that are UK fans than I do UofL fans, some say that's because I like to argue, or to be different. When it comes down to it I love my Cards, but I'll give praise and criticism to anyone who is deserving. I'm not typically someone who is going to write a 3-sentence post that everyone one else saw on Twitter just to get fresh content on the site. I try and do informative and thorough articles and sometimes that takes a little longer, Follow us on Twitter @CardsandCatscom and Like Us on Facebook to keep up with the latest from us. We also have a YouTube Channel full of coach & player interviews and highlight films.