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December 2013 Archives

Offense takes most promising step yet

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The headlines surrounding these Bearcats may be Sean Kilpatrick and defense, but the determining factor in their success will be the emergence of everyone else. That process enjoyed a promising step forward Saturday. 

CINCINNATI -- The first 3-pointer clanged off the rim. An easy jumper slipped out. Even a layup couldn't find the net. 

Sean Kilpatrick was having one of those days. 

In the recent history of UC basketball, that meant the Bearcats would be having one of those days. Points either flowed through No. 23 or possessions died. 

Yet, on this day, with Kilpatrick missing every shot that didn't come from the free throw line the Bearcats offense thrived against an 8-3 team from the Big 10. 

This was supposed be the year of Kilpatrick. In so many ways as he ascends up the ranks of the program's all-time leading scorers it will be. But the true potential of the 2013-14 Bearcats will be discovered when Kilpatrick doesn't hit shots more than when he does. 

That's why in the big picture of judging the potential of this team, Saturday's 74-59 win against Nebraska may be the most promising of any this season. 

"I like our chances if we score 70," Mick Cronin said. "SK is not getting 50. We got guys with talent we just have to keep telling them we have confidence in them."

All the secondary pieces received a confidence injection Saturday. And just in time for conference play. 

As Kilpatrick hit just 2 of 13 shots from the floor, instead using 17 of 18 shooting from the free throw line to manufacture offense, the rest of the team shot 50 percent from the field. 

Stats are just numbers. They can be twisted to fit nearly any narrative. The definitive signs of encouragement came from the timing and method in which those contributions came. 

As Nebraska hung around in the first half, freshman Kevin Johnson picked up the offensive slack posting a career high of 11 points before halftime. He hit a 3, he drove to the bucket, he pulled up for a jumper, he ran the floor. 

Johnson played like he was back at Summit Country Day. 

"We know what he can do," Kilpatrick said. "He's a prolific defender. He can actually shoot. When he is going like that, that's a huge lift. I am happy when he scores. That is something we need the most."

Once Nebraska began dropping 3-pointers -- they would finish 9 of 20 from deep -- UC felt the game pressure. Each time it was matched. More importantly, each time by a different player. 

The ball made its way into the post on three consecutive possessions at the beginning of the second half and each time Justin Jackson used a post move to deliver. 

Spins, follow rebounds, lefty lay-ins. There was no sign of the Mean Face, it was instead replaced with a look of confidence that can only come from three consecutive double doubles. 

Where did this come from? The change into a bruising, center in the Eric Hicks mold created a post player the Bearcats can confidently throw the ball in to. They did on this day to the tune of 15 points and 10 rebounds. 

"He loves the fact he's part of the offense now," Cronin said. "His hands are on the ball, he's a willing passer, he loves to pass the ball out of the low post. He's taking his time a lot more." 

Once Nebraska chipped the lead to three points with under 10 minutes remaining the pressure again returned. Only then came the moment for freshman Jermaine Lawrence to make an impact. He answered with a putback and jumper on back-to-back possessions to stretch the lead back seven. The lead would never be closer. 

Involving all the pieces was freshman point guard Troy Caupain. Without him the 31 bench points wouldn't exist. During the Christmas break he's turned a corner along with the other freshman. The game takes on a different feel now with him at the helm. After a steal in the lane or rebound he instantly pushes the pace. 

Caupain played 24 minutes providing five points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and zero turnovers.

He's uninterested in facilitating, he's interested in creating. Now, he's learning how to do so. 

"He's got his head up," Cronin said. "That's the first thing we noticed during the recruiting process, when I went to see him as soon as he get the ball his first dribble his head goes up. He does not panic during pressure and his head is always up." 

Pushing the pace and involving others will be a key for this team that needs to limit its half court possessions and live in constant search of transition points. 

This defense will always be there. Cronin will assure as much. Their goal is to rank first in the nation in defensive and offensive rebounding. The former isn't far-fetched. They've now gone 20 consecutive games holding opponents under 70 points. The largest active streak in the country. 

Turning this season into a swan song to remember for Kilpatrick won't be about his 19 points per game or even the top-ranked defense in the country. 

It will be about everyone else. On Saturday, everyone else offered the most definitive reason to believe yet. 

"There's more than two options now," Kilpatrick said. "Instead of all teams looking at me and Jack, they are looking at everyone now because everyone is more aggressive. That's something we have really been implementing in practice Everyone has to be more aggressive and be able to show their game. You can't be timid because now it's about to be conference play and we need as many scorers as we can have." 

I want to hear from you! Send me any comments, questions or suggestions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

Historical Analysis: The Elite Company Of 10 Wins

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Anybody questioning what the Bearcats have to play for in the Belk Bowl Sunday only need to peruse the archives of the last three-plus decades in college football to understand. 

Living in the revitalization era of University of Cincinnati football enjoying 10-win seasons becomes as normal as pre-game parachuters at Nippert Stadium. 

Saturday in the Belk Bowl the Bearcats will aim for a sixth 10-win season in seven years. 

Along the way, the trio of coaches and hundreds of players who assisted in this run at times made the feat look as easy as dropping onto the X at midfield. As any parachuter will tell you, it's not quite so easy. 

The same can be said for the winding path that brings UC to Charlotte chasing the latest No. 10. Brian Kelly, Butch Jones and now Tommy Tuberville can build on a run only currently enjoyed by four other programs in all Division I: Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Boise State (does not count vacated seasons).

An impressive stat that would join current college football royalty.  

This attempt won't come in a BCS bowl or as part of a conference championship like the Bearcats hoped, but chasing down No. 10 should be put in even greater perspective than joining the group of four. 

Breaking out the research train unearthed the larger achievement at stake. 

I took a look at college football since 1980 (incredibly subjectively since that is the year I was born) and found only 15 teams in the last 33 years have completed the achievement of six 10-win seasons in seven years. 

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That includes all levels of Division I. 

The group is Florida, Ohio State, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Georgia, Kansas State, Oklahoma, USC, TCU, Boise State, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska and Texas. 

Consider the hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to college football programs over the last three decades. Consider how many illustrious programs never touched this level of consistent excellence. 

Hearing arguments about advantageous conferences don't hold water here -- this includes all conferences inside and outside the BCS. 

Just 15 programs. That's all. 

A win Saturday would also mean the Bearcats hit a second run of three straight 10-win seasons. That feat hasn't been as difficult to pull off during my lifetime but also worth discussing the company. 

These are the teams who've achieved it with the consecutive 10-win seasons in parenthesis: Florida State (14), Miami (10), Texas (9), Virginia Tech (8), Boise State (7), Alabama (6), Oregon (6), Florida (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (5), Ohio State (5), SMU (4), BYU (4), TCU (4), Tennessee (4), Stanford (4), Kansas State (4), Georgia (4), Texas A&M (4), Northern Illinois (4), Clemson (4). 

All these schools topped out at three consecutive 10-win seasons: Marshall, South Carolina, West Virginia, LSU, Michigan, Colorado, USC, Utah, Washington State, Iowa, Wisconsin. 

No need to take time analyzing the list, it's 32 total programs. Still, that's only 25 percent of the current FBS. The Bearcats can join that group twice and trim royalty by more than half. 

When did any UC fan think they would join the top 12 percent of college football in a category based in length of success over the last three decades? Nobody. 

Outsiders might view this as a game where the Bearcats have little to play for. In the short view, sure, that point could be argued. But seeing the historical context of this current run so much more is at stake. 

Brendon Kay, Greg Blair and Ralph David Abernathy will be playing for guys like Tony Pike, Derek Wolfe and Dominik Goodman. Around the halls of the Lindner Center and locker room below Nippert Stadium, that means more than any bowl trophy or national exposure. 

What does chasing a 10-win season mean? Quite a bit. 

Hartfield Heads Home for Belk Bowl

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If you see a huge group of UC No. 95's in Charlotte in and around the Belk Bowl, it could be because junior defensive lineman Terrell Hartsfield has a huge contingent of fans.

Hartsfield's from Raleigh, about 140 miles away and is excited about play North Carolina (who also recruited him) Dec. 28.
  The lanky defensive lineman is looking forward to introducing some Tar Heels to the turf to finish out the 2013 campaign.

Kiel Takes Advantage of Extra Reps

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Gunner Kiel has been working with the UC quarterbacks all season long even though he's been unable to play as a transfer from Notre Dame.

The luxury of a bowl game is extra practices for players like Kiel who are eyeing spring practice as their time to shine in preparation for 2014.

Kiel and Bennie Coney have both been getting beneficial extra reps during Belk Bowl practice.


Coach Tuberville on the track

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As part of the Belk Bowl festivities, the University of Cincinnati football team will again visited the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. Not only is it a fun day for the Bearcats, it turns out their coach has taken a spin or two around a celebrated oval and is a big stock car fan.

Cronin hopes loss produces toughness

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The Crosstown Classic teaches lessons every year. This 2013 edition has Mick Cronin hoping to find toughness in his team going forward. 

CINCINNATI -- For 50 minutes following the final horn of Xavier 64, Cincinnati 47 of the Crosstown Classic, Mick Cronin disappeared into the locker room inside the hallways on court level of U.S. Bank Arena. 

Four Musketeers players made their way to the media quarantine area discussing the 364 days anxiously awaiting a shot at revenge and dedicating themselves to the team concept. 

Chris Mack followed soon after. He opened with the word "grit" and closed six minutes later explaining the pressure leading up to this game. 

Then silence and anxious shifting set in. Cronin was nowhere to be seen, still buried in the post game catharsis with his team. It was time to ask the hard questions. 

This game and the raucous 10,250 shaking the downtown arena of the city's game always offer a telling revelation. This game peels back the layers to expose what exists inside the core of these players. This game teaches who responds to adversity, who embraces pressure, who embodies toughness. 

When eventually slipping through the curtains to the media podium following the locker room soul search, Cronin took a drink of water and allowed his stream of consciousness to tell the story of what he saw behind the layers Saturday night. 

"We are not good enough right now," Cronin said. "We are not tough enough. That's just the facts of life." 

Sunday morning analyst hats will be worn across the Christmas parties in West Chester and bars of Clifton. Trickling outside following mass at St. Saviour, UC alums will almost certainly discuss the struggle to find a second offensive weapon. Over chicken and waffles at Taste of Belgium two students are likely to breakdown the cons of this small lineup being beaten handily on the boards. 

At Stones Lanes in Norwood Xavier fans will reflect in amazement at the repeated open looks as the Musketeers buried 11 of 16 from deep. 

For Cronin and the players who looked at themselves in the mirror for 50 minutes following Saturday's loss, none of those strategic tactics will resonate. 

The concern for the coach going forward isn't talent. This group holds as much or nearly the same amount of talent as many that have dominated this game and advanced in March. Those groups hung their hat on defense. They hung their hat on being tougher than their opponent. 

"Right now defense is our problem," he said. "It's inexcusable. We are not tough enough on the defensive end. We are not tough enough on the backboard. We are not tough enough to get the ball to the open man. Really anything that involves toughness right now is a big problem for our team."

This game offers a glimpse into the state of a team like few others in the country. 

"We walked into a street fight with a pink outfit on," Cronin said. "We got outplayed, outcoached in every facet of the game. There's not a whole lot to talk about the way I see it. It's pretty self-explanatory if you were here tonight."

The road doesn't become easier for the Bearcats. Their season has only just begun. If they thought the bright lights of the city were blinding, try those of the nation at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. 

Then a conference schedule featuring six games against teams currently ranked in the top 16. Those 50 minutes inside the locker room at US Bank Arena might be looked back on as a moment of truth, clarity. At least, that's his hope. Of course, the time may not amount to much more than a temporary postponement of a post game meal. Time will tell. 

"We've been down this road before," Cronin said. "It's not my first time. We either toughen up, meet the challenge, become a team that is tough enough to win games, tough enough to get the job done." 

Cronin paused for the concerning flip side. 

"Or we won't." 

For 50 minutes, that amounted to a lot of introspection critical to the long-term growth of this edition of the Bearcats. Time will tell how important those 50 minutes proved to be. 

"We need to do a whole lot of soul searching about who we are and what we are going to be," he said.  

I want to hear from you! Send me your comments, questions or suggestions surrounding UC athletics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

Crosstown About Students, Not Venue

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So much talk surrounds the future and location of the Crosstown Classic, what can be lost is that importance to the students are what makes the game unique. (Photo Courtesy Cincinnati.com)

CINCINNATI -- In a world where the expanses of familiarity  expanded well beyond those within a 30-minute drive the personal rivalry between UC and Xavier took on a different feel. 

A post on Instagram can rile up a friend two time zones away. A Skype session to New York can erase 638 miles of body language. 

When the sprawling, interconnected web of organized AAU basketball connects players from every team it's nearly impossible to find an opponent on the schedule that doesn't bring up a personal rivalry. 

Of the 20 players expected to take part in Saturday's Crosstown Classic only three hail from inside the I-275 belt. Recruits aren't sold on playing this game that defines college basketball in this city. They don't know about Lenny Brown or the non-handshake. Heck, some of the freshmen on these teams might not have even known about the brawl until they arrived on campus. 

The players see each other. As do the coaches. But playing against those you know doesn't classify as a rare event anymore. 

"With social media the college basketball world has shrunk immensely," Mick Cronin said. "It's amazing how much they know each other so therefore they want to play well against each other. In every game there's I played AAU with that guy, I've known that guy my whole life. I went to camp with that guy. I think there was a time maybe the only time you played against anybody all year was in this game. I don't think that's quite the case anymore." 

The game isn't about the players. It's not about the coaches, who grew up playing basketball in the same parks in this city and have no plans on leaving their hometown universities. 

In the unusual present and uncertain future Saturday at U.S. Bank Arena the heart of this game will still be special. It will still be unique. It will still be what Justin Jackson insists a game that's just "not a regular game." 

It can't be. Not in this city. Not with these two fan bases. 

Fans don't understand what life is like walking from TUC to Memorial Hall, from Lindner Center to Daniels, for a University of Cincinnati basketball player. 

Every day. Year round. Wherever they go. The same message relays from students. Beat Xavier. 

"That's the worst -- the students," Sean Kilpatrick said. "Especially on your social network. That is the worst (talking about the game). Coach this week he's been talking about it, but not as much as the students. They talk about it the most. That is something they worry about throughout the whole year, which team is going to win. That's the students anxiety."

Jackson compares the Crosstown to Duke-North Carolina. The parallel has ben made before and still rings true. But not because us media types say so. Not because of the attention drawn from a few punches two years back. Not because these players exchange brohugs around town. 

This game means more than the rest because the students say so. 

"We get it all through the year," Jackson said. "Even before practice we hear about UC and Xavier game. Year round, it's a big deal."

While adults around town postulate on what will be the best future for this game, where it should be played, the truth of mob mentality and the value of celebrating the city versus respecting history, the game will go on and mean as much this year as any other. 

And it will mean just as much today as any other year because to these players and the students reminding them during every step across campus, this one matters more than all the rest. It means more than the conference tournament or the NCAA Tournament. 

Just as Jackson, he's been reminded regularly for four years: "It's like life and death over here." 

I want to hear from you! Shoot any comments, questions or suggestions to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

Kay's gritty night deserved better result

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Brendon Kay played through injuries to nearly every corner of his body and nearly took down Teddy Bridgewater Thursday night in one of the toughest performances by a quarterback you'll see. 

CINCINNATI - Brendon Kay lay in the end zone. Face down on the Nippert Stadium turf. Motionless. 

The medical staff rushed out to the field moments after referees signaled touchdown and 35,097 roared over the quarterback willing his team to their first lead. 

By the time athletic trainers reached Kay, he popped up with assistance from teammates, grimacing, hobbled, shaken. 

Figuring out which injury flared up on which play became like a game of Operation. Take your pick. Could be the shoulder he fought since the first weeks of training camp. Could be the ankle that left him limping from play to play for all 60 minutes plus overtime Thursday night. Could be his bruised ribs. Could be the back veraciously speared by 215-pound linebacker James Burgess. 

Yet, here was Kay, refusing to throw a fade to the corner on third down in the second quarter of his final home game, because odds say running provides the best chance. Here was Kay -- a quarterback who practices sparingly and throws rarely except on gameday to preserve a body beaten to pulp on a weekly basis - tucking the ball under his arm.  

Knowing a slide or juke won't work, Kay dives head first into traffic, exposing a body one hit from being broken in half. Without thought, without hesitation, seemingly without fear, he dives for the touchdown. 

Waffle House steak is tough. Completing your MBA is tough. Calling audibles in the shadow of the sprawling, black blanket student section is tough. 

Tough doesn't do this senior justice in his Keg of Nails finale. Kay was unbreakable. 

"He's a battler," Tommy Tuberville said. "He's the kind you want to go to war with every week." 

The final stanza inside what will be known as old Nippert stadium culminated in an effort to top most any played inside the Clifton cutout for the 100-plus years of existence. 

Following every rollout, Kay could be seen limping the opposite direction, attempting to hold his team on his back with one foot. A bad ankle grew worse as the game wore on. He continued a tradition of heading to the locker room with one minute left before halftime for treatment. He'd then be the last to exit. 

At some point, it looked bad enough curiosity would consider other options at quarterback. Sophomore Bennie Coney wasn't ready. Backup Jordan Luallen separated his shoulder in the second quarter and couldn't throw, according to Tuberville. 

No options remained. Kay wouldn't accept others anyway. 

"He wasn't about to let us take him out," Tuberville said. "He gave us the best chance." 

Not this game. Not this season. Kay missed too many games during four years marred by injuries to keep him from his moment. No bad wheel, throbbing shoulder, aching back, bruised ribs, or any other ailment would take that from him. 

All the Bearcats asked of Kay was to repeatedly have an answer for Teddy Bridgewater, the object of affection for nine NFL scouts lining the back row of the soon to be rubble press box and 23 other teams watching from home. 

Bridgewater allowed plenty to drool over. He converted a fourth-and-12 Houdini act followed by a scramble that twisted him from east to west, ditching Bearcats then throwing across his body to land 24 yards perfectly into the arms of Damian Copeland. 

If Bridgewater held Hesiman hopes, those two plays open his resume tape. 

Nippert Stadium sat in stunned amazement of the Bridgewater magic, wondering if the Bearcats could recover. Then Kay hobbled to his own 27-yard line and threw the team on his back again, with one beautiful throw and one bad ankle. His strike to Mekale McKay made the scramble and sling a distant memory. Ralph David Abernathy's 15-yard TD run rendered it insignificant. 

The Bridgewater magic returned a second time, but the wobbly No.11 again took the field, this time outrunning free runners for eight yards, scrambling to extend plays and completing a 10-play, 67-yard drive to force overtime. 

He'd finish 22 of 40 for 304 yards with two rushing touchdowns. He even pooch punted 40 yards inside the Louisville 15. Unfortunately, victimized by drops and an untimely pass interference, Kay came up one play short in the 31-24 overtime defeat. 

"That kid he did it on one leg," Tuberville said. "I mean, his ankle is so bad. He's been wanting to play and push through it. It's been that way for about six weeks. He's a warrior. He competed tonight. As all of them did."

Losing the Keg of Nails to Louisville provided a pain on par with his myriad ailments, but on this night when he stood toe to toe with a potential first-round draft pick quarter one one foot and answered every play, one of the grittiest quarterback performances in UC history deserved a better result. 

"You just can't say enough about Brendon, dodging guys, running for his life, throwing sidearm, running," Tuberville said. "He's a battler. I'm proud he was my quarterback for the last nine games." 

I want to hear from you! Shoot me any comments, questions or suggestions about Bearcats athletics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

Keg of Nails: Stakes couldn't be higher

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In the world of the University of Cincinnati football and athletics, stakes couldn't be higher Thursday night against Louisville. 

CINCINNATI - Can we pile any more consequences on top of this game? Do rules of physics even allow it? Or would one more repercussion buckle the edges of Nippert Stadium and send it into early destruction? 

Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. 

The last Keg of Nails game for the foreseeable future, hopes of an American conference title, a BCS game possibility, final run in the old Nippert before renovations, growing the fan base, impressing recruits, silencing critics, national perception. 

Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville. 

Did I leave anything out? 

"This is definitely a defining moment," quarterback Jordan Luallen said. "It's pretty cut and dry." 

Indeed. 

Games with stakes this high leave players who spend every moment of every day consumed with its outcome speechless. At a certain point, so much can be said about a game there's nothing left to. 

"This is the game," cornerback Deven Drane said. "Everybody has been waiting for this game. There's not really much you can say about it. It speaks for itself." 

Conversation begins with the dangling carrot of the BCS. With a victory against Louisville and UCF loss Saturday at SMU (with Mustangs star quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert questionable) the Bearcats could be booking a trip back to Miami or New Orleans. 

All this for a team who looked to be playing out a lost season after falling at USF in October. All this for a team who took down six teams in a row, all followed by a "yeah, but." 

No asterisk follows No. 19 Louisville (10-1, 6-1) on the schedule. A win here legitimizes all the previous nine. It would lock down a sixth 10-win season in the last seven years. 

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The game of perception consumes reality in college football - no more so at Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1) where reflecting strength and superiority to outsiders on and off the field directly effects the future health of the athletic department and conference in which it dwells. 

Rarely have the Bearcats owned the national stage, certainly not in the capacity it will Thursday. When was the last time real consequences accompanied national TV exposure? The bowl game at Duke came shrouded in coaching change and the rubble of Butch Jones' departure. The win at Virginia Tech delivered drama, but little more when viewed through the prism of a championship chase. 

Closing a season tugging championship possibilities into a rivalry game happens rarely. Doing so at Nippert Stadium at night with a solo national stage might happen a few times a decade - a great decade, at that. 

How much will UC own the stage Thursday? They'll be pitted against Texans-Jaguars and Knicks-Nets. Oh, and the Sound of Music Live. 

A win could shake the perception of the Bearcats - fair or unfair - as the kid peering outside the candy store in the shifting landscape of FBS football. UC endured only one loss to the Cardinals the last five years, but pushing them off to a new conference would stamp an indelible C-paw on the souls of the Cardinals and minds of the college football onlookers. 

Those opportunities are as valuable as they are rare. 

"Right now there are probably only 15-18 teams that have a chance to win a national championship," Tommy Tuberville said. "Number one because of national recognition, and number two because of the availability of talent.  We want to jump into that market. You do that by recruiting and winning games, but you also need to be noticed while doing it. When you get out on the big stage, and to us,Thursday is a big stage, you have to perform." 

Rivalry wins in front of sellout crowds sway recruits. Luallen recalls visiting Indiana as a junior watching the beat Purdue for the first time in six years then asking where he can sign. Tuberville relayed a story from his son Tucker at Auburn this past weekend dancing in the locker room alongside a number of high school players committed to other schools following their win against Alabama. 

A win could alter the future as much as spotlight the past. 

Winning these games would be no change around Clifton. The Bearcats are 8-0 on Thursday Night Football with their last experiences a 34-10 thrashing of Pittsburgh to open 2012 and 44-14 dismantling of NC State which springboarded the run to a 2011 conference title share. 

Many times critics need reminding of these facts. 

To imprint an exclamation point on the latest ESPN showcase against a hyped possible top overall draft pick would send reverberations beyond the hills of I-71 in Kentucky but also grab those inside the I-275 belt. A program living a constant drive to absorb more fans and prove the best sports bargain in town must occasionally provide nights fathers and sons retell for years. 

Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville. 

"Everyone is going to be at the peak of emotions," Drane said. 

Perhaps we overrate the implications. Regardless of outcome, the sun will rise Friday. Perhaps pulling back and understanding this is only a football game should be necessary.

Then again, considering the landfill of repercussions, perhaps not. 

Inside the football bubble, for those who follow the University of Cincinnati, for those who chanted "Tommy T! Tommy !" last December, for those who instantly know Thursday is the fourth anniversary of Pike to Binns, for those who still grow goosebumps remember UC charging the field at the Orange Bowl, for those who sway to the alma mater win or lose - for those people - football games don't get bigger. 

Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. 

Did I leave anything out? 

I want to hear from you! Shoot me any comments, questions or suggestions regarding UC athletics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

UC Defense Views Thursday As Prime Opportunity

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Everyone turning on ESPN Thursday night will know Teddy Bridgewater, but UC top corner Deven Drane and the rest of the secondary hope they turn off ESPN talking about the Bearcats pass defense. 

CINCINNATI -- Listening to the question describing the accolades of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Deven Drane's knowing nod tells the whole story. 

The soft bob of the head accompanied by extended blinks can only come from a cornerback whose spent his years at UC hearing echoes of NFL potential of the Cardinals first-round prospect. 

The nod suggests he saw Bridgewater ranks fifth in the country and first in the conference in pass efficiency. 

The nod means he's seen each of the 48 passes completed by Bridgewater for 20 yards or more, the 71 percent completions, the 25 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. 

The nod means he's seen the Sports Illustrated Mock Draft placing him as the top overall pick and #TankForTeddy slogans filtrating the NFL rumor mills. 

More than any of those, the nod also moves with a splash of swagger. Drane knows the level of prestige Bridgewater will bring into Nippert Stadium on Thursday night. And he can't wait to knock him down a peg. 

"He's a great player," Drane said. "Great athlete. Got great receivers. There's not much I can say to take away what he has done. He's a good player, you got to give credit where credit is due. But, I mean, I think we're a good secondary. So, I think it's going to be a good competition. I am looking forward to it."

The confidence of the secondary and defense are understandable. They enter with the No. 8 ranked overall defense in the country and top 25 in pass defense. Only a 400-yard passing day by Garrett Gilbert of SMU separate a streak of six straight games holding a quarterback below 58 percent completions. 

They've intercepted seven passes the last six games, but those opportunities won't fall into the lap of the secondary this week. That's not how Bridgewater operates. 

Tommy Tuberville compared Bridgewater to Robert Griffin III on Tuesday. Neither were recruited as superstar quarterbacks coming out of high school. The scouts claimed Bridgewater couldn't push the ball down the field effectively. 

"He proved everybody wrong," Tuberville said. 

With great players come great opportunity. Though Bridgewater owns rare skills, the preparation in the secondary doesn't alter. 

That goes especially for Drane who enters with NFL hopes of his own. He's already picked off three passes for 85 return yards this year and a total of eight in the past three seasons. 

Respect exists toward their opponent this week, but don't expect any special treatment. 

"I am not going to treat anybody differently because I am not going to put anybody higher than anybody else," Drane said. "Anything can happen on any given day so I am not going to change up what I do for a certain team. I am going to prepare like I been preparing and we are going to go out and hopefully handle business." 

Sure, an ESPN spotlight will focus on No. 5 for the Cardinals, but for a Bearcats defense used to flipping the switch of national attention, that's nothing new. In fact, for Drane, it's ideal. 

"It's been like that since I have got here," said Drane, who has two interceptions including a pick-6 in his senior season. "It's been like that before I got here. We are always looked at as the underdogs. To be honest, that's cool. I would rather be the underdog and come up victorious. It doesn't matter, we are always counted out then we always tend to shock the world. They want to put them on a higher pedestal then let them do it, it's cool. 

If Drane and company do to Bridgewater what they've done to nearly every QB in their path this season, they sap a slice of notoriety and open another opportunity to draw attention to their play in a significant bowl game. 

All of that is at the fingertips of finding a way to slow a potential No. 1 overall draft pick. Go ahead and remind Deven Drane. Don't expect fear. He'll offer you the confident nod. 

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