WHAT: The Battle for the Victory Bell featuring UC and the Miami Redhawks
WHERE: 'Tis at "The Nipp" this season
CLEAT ON BALL: Around 7 p.m. (when the youngin's like it)
SERIES: Miami leads 59-48-7 (and yes, I saw one of the ties)
LAST TIME: Then #10 UC beat the Redhawks 37-13 in Oxford
Well, here we go with version #115 of the Victory Bell game which has added importance for the Bearcats as they desperately need a win to get their season on track. At 1-3, they made obvious improvements in some areas in the game against #8 Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium, but still came away with an "L" (despite giving the Sooners their best game thus far).
Meantime, the game's equally vital for Miami as they're trying to restore pride in their program after a horrendous 2009 that saw them go 1-11. Early on, the indications are this team is much improved as they already have more wins than the Bearcats (3-2).
Miami has extra motivation in this one as they've not clanged the Bell as their own since Mark Dantonio was coach in 2005. Since then, UC's won four straight and outside of a few cameo appearances here and there, the Victory Bell has resided in the 4th floor lobby of the Lindner Center.
From a UC perspective, the rivalry has lost its luster since the Bearcats began getting ranked and knocking off ranked teams. From a conference point of view, the rivalries with Louisville, West Virginia and Pitt are more important.
However, at 1-3, that is the alarming thing about this game. Miami (OH) also boasts Tri-State area players and bragging rights for collegiate supremacy around here matter greatly. If UC enters into this game thinking they're "above" playing a team from the MAC, they could be in line for a MAC SMACK.
Sure, as the teams have evolved, the Big East rivalries are more important nationally. But locally, the Battle for the Victory Bell has been a big deal and there's nothing worse than discounting an opponent. Honestly, was #8 Oklahoma up more to play UC or Texas the week after?
You probably sense my concern.
While some of these games have been blowouts, there have been some memorable outcomes and tight ones. From my own perspective, I was on radio for a tie, a loss on a final seconds kick-off, and back-to-back triple and double overtime thrillers.
How does this one shake out?
UC OFFENSE VS. MIAMI DEFENSE
Clearly UC's changes on the offensive line paid benefits as did the return of Isaiah Pead vs. Oklahoma. Pead was able to ramble for 169 yards. Also, Zach Collaros was protected enough to throw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and D.J. Woods was able to snare seven passes for 171 yards and a score.
But, Pead didn't find the endzone, Collaros purely improvised two of his scoring passes and Woods should've had two visits to touchdown turf. Despite improvement, there was disappointment in the self-inflicted wounds.
Miami's defense is still young. They hung with Florida 'til the fourth quarter, but let's face it, those weren't the Tebow-led Gators. At Missouri, the Redhawks were tagged for 51 by the Tigers. Redshirt junior LB Jerrell Wedge leads in tackles, TFL and sacks and he may be on the lookout for UC's Marcus Barnett as both attended Frederick Douglass HS in Maryland. UC must also watch sophomore LB Evan Harris who has scored two defensive touchdowns this year.
NOD: With the extra preparation and the strides made vs. Oklahoma and the fact that it's a home game, you side with UC. Miami must hope for the Bearcats to struggle like Florida did in game one against them. If the Redhawks can keep within spittin' distance, it could be a game.
MIAMI OFFENSE VS. UC DEFENSE
Miami QB Zac Dysert, a redshirt sophomore, will sling it around and keeps improving. He was 33-47 for 286 yards last year against UC and is coming off a 31-46, three touchdown performance against Kent State. He's 6-4 and 212 pounds and tends to target senior WR Jamal Rogers (8-90 vs. Kent State) and another senior Armand Robinson. His tall target is 6-4 Andy Cruse out of Turpin HS. The go-to RB is senior Thomas Merriweather, with the understudy being freshman Tracy Woods, Truthfully though, the best RB on Miami's sidelines is probably their offensive assistant, Deland McCullough who wrecked havoc here and in the MAC for years in the 90s.
UC's secondary is minus junior Dominique Battle now (ACL) so a young defensive group just gets younger and that weighs in Dysert's favor. However, JK Schaffer and Maalik Bomar continue to play inspired football at LB and Derek Wolfe and Dan Giordano have had their moments on the defensive line. I believe the Bearcats can stop the Miami run game, but the pass defense might depend on how many times they can coax Zac Dysert to throw it to a black jersey.
NOD: If Dysert throws 2-3 interceptions, that should weigh in the Bearcats favor. If UC stopped Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray, they should be able to stop Merriweather, Woods and company on the ground. The key for the Bearcats is making sure this game is no longer a game by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.
D.J. Woods still has game-breaking return skills but must lose his imaginary friend "Fumblelina". For the screaming critics, I challenge you to successfully catch a high football in the lights with 250 pounds of bad breath storming at you. Kickoff returns have been disappointing in general as Mardy Gilyard is sorely missed (as is Vidal Hazelton for that matter). Jake Rogers missed an extra-point last week which seems to be a yearly occurrence. Brian Kelly had a way of shaming Jake into success and perhaps Coach Butch Jones can push those same buttons.
The Redhawks feature KR DeMarco Paine, P Zac Murphy (Kings HS) and K Trevor Cook on special teams. Cook has been pretty accurate (9-10 FGs, 12-12 PATs). On punts, UC's Pat O'Donnell can boom them but best be on the watch for sophomore DE Austin Brown who blocked one last week that Evan Harris snagged and took to the house.
NOD: It might take all four years, but since his first year I've been predicting D.J. Woods to break a return and I'll keep standing by that. You have to go with Miami's Cook on kicking accuracy, but O'Donnell is a good 10 yards better on punts most days than Murphy. I don't feel overly confident if this gets into a late-game kicking contest (but am always open to being proved wrong).
WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE
As stated in the opening, it would be a drastic mistake for UC to look past this game toward the Big East schedule. A cocky 1-3 team is ignorant. I don't think UC's your typical 1-3 team, but if they give Miami a chance to breathe in this game, the much improved Redhawks could hang around and pester you like a summertime mosquito biting at your ankles.
Make no mistake, Mike Haywood's Redhawks are growing up and improving and are not going to be overwhelmed by the Nippert noise when they've already played in front of over 60,000 in Missouri and 90,000 in Gainesville. Yes, UC should win by a couple scores, but anyone that claims to be shocked if the Redhawks seriously compete doesn't follow much football.
See you at the game as we hope to hear some Bearcat "clangs" Saturday night.