GAME: Saturday, Oct. 30, noon, Nippert Stadium, ESPN3.com
The Bearcats (3-4, 1-1) face a resurgent Syracuse program riding high after their upset victory against West Virginia in Morgantown. If the Orange didn't have UC's attention then, they do now.
Syracuse (5-2, 2-1) has been able to win both its Big East road games -- at USF and WVU -- with a defense that only allowed a combined 23 points to the two teams. That includes allowing a kickoff return for a TD against the Bulls.
Butch Jones said he's as impressed watching the physicality of the Orange as any team in football. Of course, the Bearcats are backed into a corner themselves. Few teams fight harder than those with their backs against the wall.
The Bearcats defense was exposed by the Bulls for 38 points and a long line of missed assignments along with missed red zone opportunities doomed the team.
Saturday, we learn what type of season and storylines will be followed over the final month of the regular season. With a win, UC positions itself with a legitimate opportunity to make a run at a third consecutive Big East title. With a loss, that will be a long, difficult road to travel. One that will wind through Morgantown, Connecticut in late November and the surging Pitt Panthers. It would set the stage to start worrying about bowl eligibility.
Prior to the season, we would have looked at this game more about the Homecoming festivities than the competition on the field, but all of a sudden we stumble upon a critical turning point game in this team's season.
So, what will determine how it breaks? Let's take a look.
UC run defense vs. Delone Carter/Antwon Bailey
You would have thought this would be the same philosophy against South Florida, only B.J. Daniels, who struggled all season, was able to throw the ball all over UC. However, the tempo of what type of game the Orange prefer to play will be different in comparison to last Friday.
The common thread in every Syracuse win is possessing the ball through the run game. Carter and Bailey are averaging 5.3 yards per rush.
Here are their rush totals in three wins vs. FBS opponents
Now, two losses
The Orange want to pound the ball, grind it out, rack up TOP and wear the opponent down. UC's run defense is ranked No. 18 in the country and they will need to live up to that to force Syracuse out of its comfort zone.
If Ryan Nassib is forced to start airing it out -- whether because of UC shutting down the run or the Cats jumping out to an early lead -- it will have Syracuse playing UC's style of game. How did Pittsburgh put on a 45-14 rout? They hit a 79-yard bomb for a TD on the first play of the game and scored four touchdowns in the first half. The Bearcats would love for this to become a high school 7-on-7 tournament from the opening kickoff. The more points, the more likely UC wins.
But, that all begins and ends with stopping the Syracuse rushing attack of Carter and Bailey.
Zach Collaros vs. his left knee
Nobody outside the walls of UC knows whether or not the leading passer in the Big East will play on Saturday. In fact, he probably won't even know until he wakes up Saturday morning.
But, if he does decide give it a shot, which I personally believe he will, the question will be how much of his mobility will still be available. Collaros does a fantastic job of buying time in the pocket to create big plays down the field. When the instincts of avoiding the pass rush kick in, how will that knee react. It's easy to judge it in practice, when you are thinking about every move, but what happens when a lineman breaks through the rush in a split second?
If his knee doesn't respond to the point where he can capably avoid the rush, moving to Chazz Anderson would likely be the best move.
Butch Jones/OC Mike Bajakian vs. Scott Shafer
Shafer's Orange defense is making a habit of winning the halftime adjustments battle. In fact, this year's defense shut out four teams in the second half. That includes both WVU and USF in their Big East road wins.
The Bearcats won the second half against Oklahoma and Louisville -- arguably their two best performances of the season against BCS competition. The only second half they lost since the midseason turnaround was last week against South Florida.
If the Bearcats can't jump out to a significant early lead and force a tempo Syracuse doesn't want to play, then salvaging a win in the halftime adjustments against Shafer will be imperative.
Bearcats vs. themselves
UC felt they were the best team on the field on Friday against USF -- and it would be hard to argue against them. But mental mistakes, blown coverages and penalties were brutal.
Twelve penalties for 115 yards can't happen.
Stepping out of bounds at the 4-yard line can't happen.
Seven dropped passes can't happen.
Unsportsmanlike penalties can't happen.
Not against a team that limits opportunities the way Syracuse does.