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Justin Jackson played the best game of his career Wednesday night, but his polished consistency over the last month has changed the expectations of UC basketball this season.
CINCINNATI -- The evolution of Justin Jackson has been well-publicized. Through the early portion of the season his offensive game took strides. His energy funneled into useful mediums rather than wasteful moments. As a senior he'd grown into a steady complement to Sean Kilpatrick.
Despite all his improvements and discussion of reaching potential, few then could have envisioned what's happening to his game now.
He spins in the post with precision. He powers to the bucket and finishes. He passes better than any player on the Bearcats when in the low post.
The blocked shot, the dive into the stands and game defined by reckless abandon still exist. But not only is Jackson transforming from athlete to basketball player, he's turning into one that can carry the Bearcats.
He did so Wednesday.
Jackson finished with 17 points, six rebounds, five blocks, five steals and three assists. The 16 deflections charted by the UC coaching staff is the most Mick Cronin can remember during his tenure.
"Justin Jackson was as good as you can possibly be today," Cronin said. "Probably on every phase of the game. Almost impossible to have a better stat line than he had, but forth a better effort than he put forth. He's playing like one of the best big men in the country right now."
When Kilpatrick shoots 3 of 12 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3-point range against a quality opponent that refuses to give up layups, the Bearcats are supposed to lose.
Only, Jackson wouldn't let them. During a 10-0 run in the first half he affected every possession offensively and defensively. He blocked shots, he dished to Troy Caupain for a wide open 3-pointer, he grabbed boards, he made a steal and pushed the break.
He's twice been named AAC Player of the Week and by far played his best college basketball Wednesday.
Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown compared Jackson to Ben Wallace prior to the game and gave him credit for single-handedly willing the Bearcats to halftime lead after it.
Many questioned if Jackson could be a second option for Kilpatrick before the season, now this attack hums when the offense runs through him in the post.
Polished was never a word associated with Jackson the last three seasons, but now that it is his raw athleticism that left so many in awe is leaving opponents in shambles in the paint.
It all begins with his post moves. He's able to spin off to create easy layups. His explosive first step created an easy dunk against a center he gave up three inches to.
"He's got great quickness which he's always had," Cronin said of the growth of his post game. "The other thing is his added strength. His understanding, he's been extremely coachable and understanding where the help is to let us get the floor spaced and then attack and read whether he should pass it or finish. I'm Big believer added strength really helped his balance as a finisher, which has helped his confidence."
That confidence is altering the season expectations for UC basketball one game at a time.
"I saw it with Kenyon (Martin) his senior year, now it becomes a snowball effect," Cronin said. "Now he's so confident he believes nobody can guard him in the low post."
He's even delivered gold in the postgame press conference. When asked how tough the game was on his body on a night he had to leave once after knocking knees and repeatedly fell hard to the ground. He with a serious, straight face uttered a one-liner.
"I'm a machine," he said.
Indeed. And one that's powering UC basketball and himself into the national conversation.
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."
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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.
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.
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."
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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."
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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."
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.
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?
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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.
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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Justin Jackson brought the same antics everyone has come to expect of him this season, but his latest exhibition in efficiency in Wednesday's win against Campbell showcased how he can change the UC offense.
CINCINNATI - At no spot on the Fifth Third Arena Floor would the basketball be safe from the grasp of Justin Jackson.
No matter the time of the game or margin on the scoreboard, the Jackson trampoline circus could be coming your way - press row included.
With the Bearcats cruising by 18 over the Camels in the final minutes Tuesday, Jackson stepped into a Superman leap into press row harpooning a stage director in the shoulder like a linebacker preventing a first down. He rolled onto the ground and the ball remarkably tossed back into play.
Never has a moment existed Jackson didn't play with this energy. Third grade, middle school, high school - all the same.
"I was the guy that fouled out in the first three minutes," he said.
Joining Mick Cronin's team certainly didn't change his attitude. No lead can be too large and no moment too small to not take out a few lowly scribes in the name of hustle.
"No," he said. "Not being on Mick's team."
This behavior is nothing new for the senior from Cocoa Bearch, Fla. His penchant for blocks and dives, #MeanFace and #SlightlyLessMeanFace, doesn't surprise the masses at home. They only make the crowd cheer louder.
After he sprinted out of the rubble behind press row Wednesday the chant from the student section whipped up one more time.
"Justin Jackson! Justin Jackson!"
All part of a day's work for Mr. Excitement. Perhaps what should elicit chants and cheers more than spiking a basketball off the backboard, should be the efficient post moves he's illustrated through four games this season.
He finished the 81-62 victory with a career high in points (19) and a career low in fouls (1). Only one more rebound would have equaled a double-double. The most impressive number would be his efficiency. Jackson connected on 9 of 12 shots as a key component to the team setting a new Mick Cronin Era record of 63.2 percent shooting.
Jackson used a left-handed baby hook, broke across the lane with the right hand and spun in toward the bucket for two.
Nobody will be drawing comparisons to Karl Malone just yet, but every moment of competence in the post means another step toward developing the inside-out offense that could accelerate this Bearcats team from good to great.
"Like to get to the point we can run a lot of offense through him," Cronin said. "Trust him with the basketball. One of the things I believe in is you can't ask guys to do things they haven't done before. Before we get to a certain point in our season got to get him touches in the post so he can get a comfort level in live action."
When season progresses where the Camels give way to the Cardinals, Jackson's moves won't be met with such little resistance. For now, however, the comfort in his post game offers another offensive option for a team showcasing noticeable improvements in ball movement and shot selection from a year ago.
Even after the best statistical game of Jackson's career, Cronin insisted he should have been better.
"He had a couple lazy plays," Cronin said.
Rarely are Jackson and lazy mentioned in the same sentence, but the entire team drew Cronin's ire in a frustrated postgame session. The talking points stemmed from boxing out to mental lapses to lacking effort.
That's why diving into press row in the middle of a blowout, even if that means jeopardizing health with a win already in the bag will not just be acceptable around here.
"It's expected," Jackson said.
For a guy whose found himself in the front row more than any booster, Jackson also knows what's expected in terms of courtesy. That's why he returned to the court after the game to check on the stage manager he bulldozed into the ground.
"When I fell into the lady and my hand went through the chair (my thumb) got a little jam," he said. "I apologized to her to make sure she was OK."
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In a season besieged by injuries early on, Brendon Kay found a way to not only be one of the most accurate quarterbacks in UC history but in recent history of FBS football.
CINCINNATI - When Brendon Kay finds a rhythm, he knows a run of completions are happening. The tempo moves, the line protects, the passes connect and the ball rarely touches the ground.
Not until the crowd clears and rubber pellets settle after games does the realization of the gaudy numbers strike him.
Though, to refer to these numbers as gaudy, would be a misnomer. The precision of Kay and the passing game - specifically over the last four games - ranks as nearly unparalleled. Not only in UC history, but major college football history.
Over the last four games the UC senior completed 102 of 128 passes for 1,190 yards. That's a completion percentage of 79.7.
For reference, FBS record for completion percentage in a season is 76.8 by Colt McCoy in 2008.
These aren't just dink and dunk numbers boosters. Over this span he's tossed nine touchdowns to three interceptions with a 9.3 average yards per attempt.
How many players this year compiled at least a 9.3 yards per attempt and even better than 70 percent completions? Two. Johnny Manziel (10.5/73) and Teddy Bridgewater (10.2/71).
The importance of these numbers and how they correlate to success on the field certainly not lost on Kay, who spends his time away from the field completing Capstone projects for his Masters in Business Administration.
"Definitely is (a stat that matters)," he said. "That's the way I am evaluated and grade out after games. I'm definitely worried about that. It's always on my mind but at the same time I have to make smart decisions. As long as we are winning that is all that really matters to me. Go out there and win ballgames."
This four-game run accentuates what quietly surfaced as one of the most efficient seasons by a UC quarterback of all time and by any FBS QB in recent years.
On the year he's thrown for 2,008 yards and completed 74 percent of his passes at 8.7 yards per attempt.
Only Kellen Moore in 2011 (74.3 percent) and McCoy in 2008 top his season rate.
The turning point came in the final moments of a loss at South Florida. Opting for a four-wide spread that runs through the eyes and arm of Kay, the offense flourished. Anthony McClung returned healthy to roam the slot along with emerging junior Shaq Washington breaking open on the other side.
Of Kay's 102 completions over the last four weeks, 61 of them have been completed to his dynamic slot receivers.
"You can't double team both of us," said McClung, who battled a hamstring injury early in the season. "It's just overall gameplan. Coach has been calling great plays and Brendon has been throwing great balls."
Consider how much more proficient Kay has been than any other QB in University of Cincinnati history. Looking at only a minimum of 200 passes thrown, the school leader in completion percentage is Zach Collaros at 62.4 percent.
Kay's current career completion percentage is 69.9.
"He usually doesn't force the ball and he is going to get it to the guy that is more open than anybody else," Tommy Tuberville said. "But I'm proud of Brendon, his percentage of completion is outstanding he usually makes all the good reads."
Precision will be necessary if the Bearcats hope to make a push at the American conference title. The next two weeks play to his strength. This weekend Rutgers will boast the No. 11 rushing defense in the country but a passing defense ranked 119 out of 125.
A week later a trip to Houston will mean confronting a defense that ranks 93rd in completion percentage allowed.
The road to setting up a potential showdown with Louisville to challenge conference undefeated UCF rides on the accuracy of Brendon Kay. The Bearcats - or by the numbers almost any team in FBS history - couldn't ask for a better scenario.
The anticipated debut of a highly-regarded freshman class came with the standard nerves as Mick Cronin searches for the best ways to utilize his new toys.
Every season presents a new puzzle for college coaches. Mick Cronin is no different. Only, this year's puzzle comes with three unique freshman pieces. Pieces essential for success. The challenge comes in finding the way Jermaine Lawrence, Troy Caupain and Kevin Johnson fit into the Bearcats big picture without truly knowing their shape yet.
One method exists to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and how ready they are to help the 2013-14 edition of the Bearcats: Play them, review tape, repeat.
Hence, the conundrum.
"The key is to get them out there without losing," Cronin said following UC's season-opening 64-51 win against North Carolina Central on Friday.
Easier said than done at times. Nervousness and apprehension on the court come as standard in the freshmen adjustment process as learning where class buildings are located. For these 19-year-olds, pulling the trigger on shots or risky passes came without thought in high school. They were rarely challenged. Cronin fuming with arms crossed didn't await during their free and easy days as the superstar.
When games count and lights flip on inside Fifth Third Arena, the pressure changes.
"There's a great deal of pressure when first coming out," said junior Jermaine Sanders, who scored a career high 13 points Friday. "You have to be ready and focused. I remember being nervous, and not being ready to shoot. Just the adrenaline of the game and the big crowd."
Lawrence, Caupain and Johnson combined for 39 minutes Friday - many of them during tense final stretch as NCC cut a double-digit lead to as little as five. They also combined on 1 of 12 shooting.
Expecting a Dontonio Wingfield debut (30 points, 12 rebounds) would be unrealistic. For Johnson, who grew up dreaming of wearing a Bearcats jersey or Caupain and Lawrence whose high school performance categorizes their debuts as highly anticipated, meshing confidently in an environment filled with seniors and juniors with 60-plus games under their belt will take time.
In Cronin's eyes, all were nervous, all will be fine.
The infusion of these freshmen into the rotation won't happen smoothly in fledgling games of their career, but need to happen fast. North Carolina Central left Friday night, but big brother N.C. State arrives Tuesday in an early impact game on UC's non-conference slate.
Nobody understands the urgency more than senior team leader Sean Kilpatrick, searching for help carrying the offensive load but can only receive assistance from Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker these days via text.
"It's kind of hard to pull them to the senior's levels due to the fact they are new to this," Kilpatrick said. "In order for us to win, we need them to win. There is not a player on this team that we don't need. That's something we actually have to continue to keep working on with these young guys because it's not the exhibition games no more. The running starts now."
Once the rust of the first half chipped away to relaxing, Lawrence found a glimpse of comfort against NCC. After contributing the first freshman points late in the first half he drove with confidence the next play. Thus will be the process in the development. Quality plays grow confidence and another sliver of instinct peels back for all to see.
"When he scored it was a relief because we are not used to seeing that," Kilpatrick said. "When we are able to see when he's not playing like a freshman, playing like an older guy with the rip throughs, that helps us because we need more help on the scoring side."
Caupain tallied 13 minutes in relief of Ge'Lawn Guyn which Cronin dubbed "solid." The coach left happiest with a pull-up jumper he shot in the second half even though it didn't fall, the first show of offensive confidence arrived.
"He's got talent, he's got to play with courage," Cronin said.
Johnson didn't experience such problems. Of the three, he displayed the most confidence. When the Bearcats lead trimmed to single digits late, Johnson caught a pass at the 3-point line and fired off as if a senior on a heat check. For these 19-year-olds feeling the regular season pressure for the first time the moment not being too big for them counts as much as the sound of swish.
Relaxation will develop. Anxiety will fade. For the sake of UC's non-conference success, Cronin hopes sooner rather than later. When it does, these freshmen will be called upon.
"Round here we don't care what grade you are in, that doens't matter," Cronin said."Anybody that's got a jersey, the guys that play the best and give us the most chance to win are going to play the most."
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