The Bearcats defense may be overlooked by Munchie Legaux to Damon Julian, but deserve as much credit for UC's ascension.
CINCINNATI -- Greg Blair walked over to Maalik Bomar in the moments following Saturday's Bearcats win against Virginia Tech. Carrying the stat sheet, he ceded bragging rights to his road roommate.
Bomar 16 tackles, Blair 13.
Who could rack up the most tackles always brings out the competitor in both, but the friendly competition more resembled a heavyweight fight on a day the Bearcats defense landed a string of early haymakers on the Hokies.
"I was mad the first game he was getting all the attention, everything was coming his way," said Bomar, who trails Blair 30-29 in tackles on the season. "I told him you are not running away from me in tackles this year. I refuse to let that happen."
Bomar and Blair let little penetrate the second level Saturday and minimized the impact of the Virginia Tech running game while chasing down the short passing attack.
Bomar and former middle linebacker JK Schaffer used to go by the nickname Siamese Twins because every move looked identical on film. A question entering the season was if Blair could find a portion of the Siamese chemistry with his teammate.
In the season's biggest game, he answered the question. They've evolved exponentially even since the opener against Pitt.
"Just communicating together," Blair said. "Even when we know the assignments. We will get a certain call and we will remind each other. Overall communication was better with me and Maalik."
While the B-boys served as the face of the group, the entire defense set a tone through the first three quarters that proved to be enough to allow the heroics of Legaux to capture the headlines.
UC held Virginia Tech without a first down for almost 25 minutes to open the game. The first five drives of the game ended three-and-out with a turnover tossed in the middle.
No drive in the first half lasted longer than two minutes and only a VT interception where the Hokies needed just 13 yards for a touchdown served as a blemish. Actually, that short-field score punctured an impressive stat: UC has now allowed only seven points in the first three quarters of games this season.
The Bearcats rank 16th in the country in scoring defense.
Yet, searching Google or scrolling blogs won't turn up headlines about the UC defense. And rightfully so in many respects due to the dramatics of Legaux to Damon Julian coupled with the lasting impression of Virginia Tech's fourth-quarter push. When the concept of being overlooked is mentioned to Bomar and Blair, a smile instantly comes to their face. Not because they care or even listen to chatter surrounding their group, only because that seems to come with the territory around Clifton.
"I attended media day and there was a lot of talk about other Big East schools and their defenses, but we like to be under the radar," Bomar said. "We like to prove others wrong. We've grown accustomed to it. We just work out here and get after it."
The next step comes in creating more turnovers. Arryn Chenault pulled down his second interception of the season in the red zone and changed the complexion of the win, but Jones needs more.
"I like the way we played with our level of physicality last week," he said. "I think we still need to be much more opportunistic."
Nobody can deny Bomar took advantage of his opportunity. Often covered by Schaffer's shadow through the years, he's entered the spotlight with comparable numbers. Consider Schaffer twice finished with 16 tackles in a game during his career, but never more and didn't do it one time his senior season.
"I'm still shocked to this day I racked up that many," Bomar said.
The tackles stat can be misleading on the true efficiency of a linebacker. If all the plays are run one way or many tackles happen 25 yards down the field, the linebacker didn't exactly change the game. Such wasn't the case Saturday.
"When you look at Maalik Bomar, he is playing like a senior should play," Butch Jones said. "He is leading like a senior should lead. We are going to need him. I thought our linebackers took a step in the positive direction."