GAME NOTES: In their first postseason bid under head coach Tommy Tuberville, the Cincinnati Bearcats will once again take part in the Belk Bowl, this time against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Bank of America Stadium.
Tuberville was hired after Butch Jones jettisoned off to Tennessee prior to the Bearcats' appearance in last year's Belk Bowl. The first campaign under the former Auburn and Texas Tech head coach was a strong one. Cincinnati flew under the radar while Louisville and UCF grabbed the attention in the American Athletic Conference. Yet at year's end Cincinnati had an outside shot at the league title. A 31-24 loss to the Cardinals in overtime in the regular season finale ended those hopes, but the Bearcats still wound up at 9-3 overall.
"I'm proud of our football team from this past year. We went through a very tough time in transition with a new coaching staff and system, but I'm proud of our seniors," Tuberville said of his first year on the sidelines in Cincinnati.
Against Duke in the Belk Bowl a year ago the Bearcats claimed a victory in a shootout with the Blue Devils. Brendon Kay threw for 332 yards and four scores in the winning effort for Cincinnati. A win in this Belk Bowl would give Cincinnati 10 victories for the sixth time in the last seven seasons.
It will be another team from the Tar Heel State that Cincinnati must contend with this time around. North Carolina started off the year a miserable 1-5, but adjustments were made and the Tar Heels managed to win five of their last six matchups to become bowl eligible after a one-year hiatus from the postseason.
"I'm excited for our team, especially our seniors, who fought through some early season adversity and won five of the last six games to become bowl eligible," North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said of his team, which became just the sixth team since 2006 to start 1-5 and make a bowl. "This is a resilient bunch of guys that kept believing in one another throughout the year and I'm glad they were rewarded with a bowl game."
For the Tar Heels a win in this contest won't push them to double digit victories but it would get them to seven wins for the sixth straight season. A victory would also be just the second in the last six bowl appearances for North Carolina, which is 13-16 in its previous 29 bowl games.
This will be the third time the Tar Heels and Bearcats have clashed. North Carolina has won the two previous matchups with a 35-14 rout in 1979 and a 51-16 trampling in 1991.
Kay is back under center for the Bearcats this year, though it took an injury early in the season to Munchie Legaux for him to reclaim the starting role. Though he might not have been the first choice for Tuberville, Kay really came through for Cincinnati. He threw for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns on 68.6 percent passing. However, he was intercepted 11 times. That included four picks in the last two weeks of the season.
The 6-foot-4 quarterback holds the keys to the American Athletic Conference's most prolific offense. The Bearcats tallied a league best in total yards (482.3 ypg) this season, while ranking 20th nationally in yards gained.
Aiding Kay along the way was a talented receiving corps led by Anthony McClung. It was McClung that led the team in receiving yards (908) while he ranked second in receptions (68) and receiving touchdowns (five). McClung really turned it on down the stretch with at least seven catches and 97 yards in each of the last five games. Shaq Washington (75 receptions, 747 yards, TD), Chris Moore (43 receptions, 599 yards, nine TDs) and Mekale McKay (15 receptions, 462 yards, seven TDs) are also reliable targets.
A trio of backs do the heavy lifting in the running game. Ralph David Abernathy (451 yards, four TDs) was the leader in terms of carries (119) but Hosey Williams (609 yards, four TDs) proved to be the more dynamic back. Also providing depth in the backfield is Tion Green, who has rushed for 409 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns on 90 carries.
On the defensive end of the field the Bearcats are also rather strong, led by All-AAC defensive linemen Jordan Stepp and linebacker Greg Blair. Stepp racked up 43 tackles and six sacks this season and was aided in the pass rush by Silverberry Mouhon (10.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks). Blair (96 tackles) led the team in tackles. The trio of frontline defenders helped the Bearcats rank second in the AAC in total defense (313.2 ypg).
Bryn Renner injured his shoulder in early November and the Tar Heels's starting quarterback was lost for the season. Somehow the season was not lost for North Carolina as backup Marquise Williams stepped up to go 5-1 in his six games as the starter. On the season Williams threw for 14 touchdowns and 1,527 yards while completing 58.2 percent of his pass attempts and have six passes intercepted. Williams was especially effective because he was able to make plays with his legs. He rushed for a team-high 490 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
The Tar Heels' issues were never with picking up yards though. They averaged the fifth most yards per game (432.4) in the ACC and also scored at an extremely healthy pace (32.2 ppg).
T.J. Logan and A.J. Blue powered the offense on the ground when Williams wasn't taking off with the ball. Logan finished the season as the leading running back, registering 468 yards and four scores on 78 carries. Blue had 312 yards on 74 carries but only scored a single rushing touchdown. In the season finale against Duke, Logan rushed for 92 yards while Blue had just a single carry. Blue is questionable for this contest for an issue undisclosed by the team.
Leading the receiving corps is Eric Ebron. As the top pass-catching threat for both Renner and Williams, Ebron recorded 895 yards and three scores on 55 receptions. Quinshad Davis (47 receptions, 724 yards) was a more lethal threat in the red zone as he recorded a team-high 10 receiving touchdowns. In fact Davis tied with Clemson's Sammy Watkins for second in the ACC in touchdowns through the air. Ryan Switzer (29 receptions, 319 yards, three TDs) was the third option but was more important as a punt returner. Switzer returned four punts for touchdowns and earned All-ACC honors and a handful of All-American selections for his work on special teams.
Where North Carolina never truly found much success was on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heels kept teams to 25.1 points per game but also allowed more than 400 yards of total offense each week. The Tar Heels were among the bottom half of the ACC in both categories. Kareem Martin (20 TFL, 11 sacks) was third in the ACC in sacks and second in tackles for loss this season as the anchor for the unit. Tre Boston (85 tackles, four INTs) also made a major impact as the team leader in tackles and interceptions.
The Tar Heels became a different team when Williams took over, consistently finding wins after failing to do so in the six games under Renner. Still the Tar Heels are facing a major challenge in Cincinnati's offense. The Bearcats have a bit more balance in their arsenal and a defense, anchored by a steady pass rush, that will keep Williams contained.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cincinnati 38, North Carolina 35