No matter the opponent this season, the Bearcats lined up and ran the ball. Everyone in the building knows George Winn and Ralph David Abernathy IV are coming. Next to nobody could stop it.
No matter the opponent, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights lined up their defense and dared teams to run the ball. Everyone in the building knows LB Khaseem Greene and DT Scott Vallone are coming. Next to nobody could break them.
In the process, the identities of both these teams forged around these facts. The Bearcats can run on anybody. Nobody runs on Rutgers.
Saturday, those two sides meet at the line of scrimmage in a game custom made for John Madden, Dick Butkus and cloud-of-dust lovers everywhere.
"It is good as of a defense as we've ever faced," Butch Jones said. "I mean that. That's no coach speak."
The numbers speak for themselves.
Rutgers ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (10.3 points per game). They rank 17th in the nation in rushing defense and tied for third in country for fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (5).
In four conference games, they've allowed but 82.3 yards per game and 2.5 yards per carry. That's tops in the conference by more than a yard.
On the flip side, UC ranks 16th in the country with 226 yards per game on the ground. USF ranks second-best in the conference a full 56 yards per game less. The Bearcats average 5.7 yards per carry where nobody else in the Big East tops 4.6.
In the is clash of strength against strength, whoever owns the line of scrimmage could end up owning the scoreboard. For UC, that means refusing frustration when the lanes they've become accustomed to don't emerge and when the explosive sprints toward the end zone aren't available.
"You just got to keep plugging away at them," OL Austen Bujnoch said. "That's just the thing, it's not going to be one play 80 yards. It's going to be five yards here, four yards there, three yards, like that. We just got to keep pounding the rock."
Persistence paid off the last two weeks for Kent State and Army against Rutgers. Army can be considered an anomaly as their triple option attack ran 68 times to but 17 passes.
Yet, in Kent's 35-23 upset in Piscataway, N.J., the Golden Flashes didn't abandon the run and handed it 50 times for 224 yards. Can a comparison be made? Consider Kent ranks only one spot ahead of UC nationally in rushing offense.
Taking a deeper look, prior to the past few weeks Rutgers rush defense hadn't truly been challenged all year by a prolific rushing team.
- Tulane: 123 // 16-8
- USF: 52 // 29-95
- Arkansas: 106 // 19-73
- Uconn: 119 // 28-53
- Syracuse: 56 // 32-62
- Temple: 55 // 42-119
- Kent State: 15 // 50-224
- Army: 1 // 68-282
The last two weeks, against teams who rank among the most efficient on the ground in the country, Rutgers gave up more than four yards a carry both times. They lost to Kent and were tied 7-7 in the fourth quarter against 2-8 Army. Not to say they aren't as good as advertised, but clearly Rutgers can be had on the ground.
"You just have to believe that you are going to break one eventually," Winn said.
Brendon Kay hit 4 of 4 passes longer than 15 yards down the field for 198 yards and two touchdowns last week against Temple. Proficiency with the deep ball also helps open the running game. Keeping safeties locked into coverage and disallowing eight men to stack the box means one less defender for Winn to avoid.
Even if Kay's numbers throwing long don't match those of last week, the threat alone should keep the Scarlet Knights from crowding the line.
"Well, it does," Jones said. "We have great confidence in the deep ball. The deep ball breeds confidence in our players as well. Every yard you get against Rutgers is earned. We have to be patient, but at the end of the day we have to win our one-on-one matchups."
That didn't happen last year at Rutgers. Despite current St. Louis Rams RB Isaiah Pead on the roster, the Bearcats scraped out only three points and the fewest rushing yards allowed in conference play (28 rushes for 67 yards). In Munchie Legaux's first start at QB, the offense sputtered and couldn't connect on the perimeter to take the pressure off the run defense.
Jones believes if the perimeter can create enough plays to keep the defense honest it could make all the difference. And don't think the Bearcats forget what it felt like in that loss at Rutgers that essentially stole their BCS berth.
"That was a tough game for us," Bujnoch said. "Munchie was getting his first start so everything was a little different. Definitely a little bit of revenge because they really gave it to us last year. I think they are a better team this year."
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