On Friday night, ECU will suit up against its highest ranked opponent since encountering a No. 5 ranked West Virginia team in 2007. The No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats are one of two remaining undefeated teams in American Athletic Conference play and have aspirations of playing in the College Football Playoff after being ranked as high as No. 6 this season.
“I think having the opportunity to play against a quality opponent like Cincinnati is something that I certainly cherish and I’m excited about,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said. “I think our kids will be, too. It’s one of those things where right now Cincinnati is the top team in our league. Until somebody knocks them off, they’re going to be the top team in our league. I’ve been the bunch that’s at the top and when you’re at the top — the tough thing about it is — you’re going to get everybody’s best every single week.”
That is what the Pirates will attempt to field later this week. While ECU’s offense posted a season-high in passing yards in a 38-21 loss to Tulane last week, Cincinnati provides challenges the purple and gold are not likely to face again this season.
Cincinnati is fresh off back-to-back 11-win seasons and won the AAC’s East Division in 2019. From that team, 10 defensive players who made at least six starts a season ago are back.
Ahmad Gardner leads the way on the Bearcats’ back-end with three of the team’s nine interceptions, while defensive end Myjai Sanders paces the program with 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks through six games.
“It presents some challenges there that they have grown men,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “Not that we don’t, we have young grown men. The experience that they have and just — they may be the best defense in the country. Statistically they got to rank up there pretty good. Everywhere you look they got experienced kids, they got big kids. They’re strong, they’re physical. Nobody is figuring them out yet, nobody has been able to do anything with them.”
Five of Cincinnati’s six opponents this season have been held to 13 points or less by a defense allowing just over 300 yards of offense each time out. That number ranks inside the top-15 nationally, while the 11.7 points the unit allows on average is a top-five number in the FBS ranks.
Particularly stingy against the run, the Bearcats are allowing just 96.3 yards on the ground per contest, yet another top-ten number in the country. Each of Cincinnati’s last four opponents have been held to less than 100 rushing yards, as have 15 of the last 33 teams to face the program.
The Pirates will counter that defensive effort with an attack averaging over 155 rushing yards per game this season. ECU’s 933 rushing yards through the season’s first six games are the fifth-most in program history and centers around freshman Rahjai Harris who has already etched his name into the record books.
“We’re going to have to be patient a little bit,” Kirkpatrick said about the run game. “You’ve got to take some three- and four-yard gains. When we looked at our running game last year, that’s what we were able to do. We didn’t have a lot of explosive plays, obviously, but we did have some four- and five-yard gains in there where we got a little bit of a crease and the back stuck it up in there. You’ve got to do that, or you won’t be able to throw the ball, I don’t think, nearly as successfully as you’d like to be able to do if you can’t make them defend the run a little bit.”
If there is a chip in Cincinnati’s defensive armor, it comes in the passing game. Last year ECU was able to hang north of 500 yards through the air on their counterpart with C.J. Johnson setting multiple records with his 283-yard performance.
This season, however, the Bearcats are allowing just over 200 yards through the air per game and feature plenty of cornerbacks and safeties with length to compete against Johnson and company. Really, that holds true for most of their defensive unit as Cincinnati does not have a single underclassmen listed on their two-deep along the defensive line.
“This is a great defense, you can’t sugar coat it any other way,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a great challenge. They were a great defense last year, too. I think we played pretty well last year against them. I don’t know if that will help us or hurt us going into this game. Maybe we snuck up on them a little bit last year, I know we won’t this year. They’re playing for a playoff spot, they’re playing for national ranking, all that kind of stuff. Got our hands full. But what more could you ask for? Nationally televised game, Friday night, under the lights, against a team ranked in the top-ten.”
Cincinnati will be honoring its seniors on Friday night and looking to extend its school record home winning streak of 18 games. That is also the fourth-longest active home winning streak in the country as you have to go back more than two seasons to find the last time Cincinnati lost at Nippert Stadium.
With the way the Bearcats’ defense is playing, that alone might be enough to beat opponents on a weekly basis, but Cincinnati’s offense has continued to improve throughout the year. Under the direction of quarterback Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati has posted three consecutive games with 35-plus points, a first for the program since 2014.
Ridder began the season on a bit of shaky footing, throwing four interceptions through the first three games. In his last three contests, however, Ridder has thrown five touchdowns and rushed for another eight scores while completing almost 70% of his passes.
“They’re playing some really good football right now,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “They’re a good football team and every bit worthy of being in the top-ten, maybe even top-five. I’m sure some people would put them in there and arguably so. Their quarterback is playing really well the last few weeks. I know he maybe got off to a rough start there against South Florida, but as of late, he’s really turned it on. To me, he’s been the difference in their offense.”
In his career, Ridder has always possessed the ability to tuck the football and run, but he has taken that to another level of late. Against SMU, the signal-caller ripped off a 91-yard rushing touchdown, Cincinnati’s longest offensive play of 2020, en route to 179 yards and three scores on the ground.
With 323 rushing yards across his last trio of games, Ridder now has six 100-yard efforts in his career, including three games with at least three rushing touchdowns.
“I think he’s a legitimate run threat, obviously,” Houston said. “He’s their second-leading rusher. They have a lot of quarterback-designed stuff with reads off the back-side of a run play. With the way he runs, you have to account for him. It’s going to be something that’s going to be a challenge this week. He has stuff where a play breaks down and he gets a lot of yardage in quarterback scramble runs. I think he’s really improved his play since the beginning of the year. At the beginning of the year, he struggled a little bit with some turnovers, but I think he’s gotten more consistent with taking care of the football and his decision-making.”
In the last three games, Ridder has thrown just two interceptions and racked up 559 yards through the air. For the season, the junior is up over 1,100 yards passing with 11 touchdowns against six interceptions as the Bearcats rank inside the top-40 nationally in total offense at 441.7 per game.
While Ridder fills a significant portion of Cincinnati’s rushing efforts, it takes a lot of production to average 238.5 yards on the ground per contest. Helping Ridder establish that top-15 rushing attack is Gerrid Doaks and Alabama transfer Jerome Ford.
Doaks is the bellcow with over 500 yards and seven touchdowns on 96 touches, but Ford is averaging better than six yards per rush and has found the end zone four times in 2020. Against Houston, it was Doaks who posted career numbers with a 184-yard effort on 16 carries, giving him his third 100-yard outing of the season.
“Those two tail backs back there — No. 24 (Ford) and No. 23 (Doaks) — No. 23 is the bigger kid, very similar to what we’ve seen the last two weeks, can get down hill on you,” Harrell said. “No. 24, the transfer kid, has really good feet and the home run ability as well. Big o-line, good receivers, so they’re a solid football team and the best tight ends we’ve seen so far. Certainly a challenge, certainly got our work cut out for us, but kids are in a good spot. Kids are working hard and looking forward to the challenge.”
ECU certainly has its history with Cincinnati. Friday night will be the 24th matchup between these two programs and the first since the Pirates took Cincinnati to the brink of defeat in 2019. Eventually losing on a walk-on field goal to the No. 17 ranked Bearcats, ECU is facing a tougher version of that same program this season.
This time, however, the Pirates are the road squad and are running into a team with a lot to play for in 2020. The last four times ECU has visited Cincinnati resulted in losses for the purple and gold, including a 56-6 defeat in 2018.
Friday night figures to be closer than that, but Cincinnati is favored by 27.5 points and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Pirates a slim 5.8% chance to come out victorious.
“Tough matchup, good football team we’re playing, one of the top teams in the country, obviously,” Houston said. “It’s an exciting matchup for our players to be able to go on the road against an opponent of Cincinnati’s caliber and have that opportunity to play on the national stage. Obviously our players and staff will be very excited for that matchup.”
ECU and Cincinnati are scheduled to kick-off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday from Nippert Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.