Time again for our weekly Q&A exchange, this time with the Cincinnati blog Down the Drive. While I completely forgot to ask them where they got their blog name, we did have a nice back-and-forth about this Saturday's game. In terms of UC's BCS hopes, this game looms large. The Bearcats already knocked off USF, Pitt, and Louisville. Even though WVU is reeling, the Mountaineers still present the toughest remaining game. And, if you remember, since 2004, the eventual Big East champ had to beat WVU en route to the BCS. Now, on to the questions:
Country Roads: Last year, Butch Jones took over a team that finished 12-1 the previous season and promptly failed to make a bowl game. Now, the Bearcats are ranked and entrenched firmly in the driver's seat for the Big East championship. Did you ever (or do you still) have any doubt that Jones was the right hire to replace Brian Kelly?
Down the Drive: I would be lying if I said that I never had doubts about Jones in the depths of last years struggles, or for large periods of the off season. But when I went back and looked at the root issues of the struggles, a lack of depth, mass injuries and turnovers none of those have a carry over effect. I knew that the depth would be better in 2011 and that injuries and turnovers over the course of a season are basically random, and certainly have no predictive qualities. On a more macro level I have always thought that Jones is kind of the perfect follow up to Kelly. BK was brilliant and his attention to detail was second to none. His actions and his words did a lot to raise the profile of the program. But he was never going to stick around, it was only a question of when he is going to leave. Jones doesn't have the charisma of BK, but he doesn't need it. All he needs is to maintain and build and he can do that. He is much more active in the fundraising than Kelly was, though not by much. And Jones recruits about 10 times better than BK did
CR: A big part of the turnaround I mentioned has been turnovers. Do you think the improvement in that area can be linked to anything specific, such as more conservative playcalling, discipline and attention to detail, or comfort in Jones' systems and thus playing instead of thinking...or is it all just luck?
DTD: As I mentioned before over the course of the season turnovers are basically random. But UC has done quite a few things differently this year, particularly on defense. At the top of the list is getting more pressure on opposing QB's. The Bearcats have one of the best and deepest defensive line in the Big East and they get after quarterbacks. That coupled with more aggressive play in the secondary has yielded a 3.12 takeaways per game which is effectively tied with Rutgers, and only trailing Oklahoma State in that department. The offense still turns the ball over a bit, Zach Collaros is still good for at least one really stupid interception a game. In fact Collaros has thrown 7 interceptions since the start of October. But as a whole the offense is much better at holding onto the Football.
CR: The great Cincinnati teams of the Brian Kelly era seemed to have some fantastic players on defense who were really the team's heart and soul on that side of the ball. Who are the defensive studs to watch this Saturday?
DTD: At the top of the list is Derek Wolfe who is a monster of a defensive tackle. He stands 6'5" weighs 300 pounds and has a tattoo of a wolf the size of my head on his arm. But it's not all bravado, the dude can play. He leads the Big East in sacks and tackles for loss and is coming off a two sack performance against Pitt. Wolfe will be a pretty high draft pick. The other guy to watch is J.K. Schaffer who has held down the MLB spot for the past three years. He posted back to back 100 tackle seasons in 2009 and 2010. This year he is on pace to do it once more. This has been his best season because he is as good stuffing the run as ever, but he is vastly improved in coverage and actually leads UC in interceptions with 3 and passes defended with 7. Those are the two difference makers for the UC defense.
CR: When UC announced that this game would be at Paul Brown Stadium, I breathed a sigh of relief that the Mountaineers wouldn't have to go into the hornet's nest that is Nippert Stadium. I know PBS has more seats, but is there any concern that playing there might negate some of the home field advantage? Or is the increased revenue worth it?
DTD: This has been a contentious topic of conversation for Bearcat fans. I love Nippert Stadium, everyone associated with the program loves the Nip, but the fact is that as a revenue generating facility it is tapped out and needs modern amenities (read: luxury seating) not to mention improved concessions, concourses, restrooms ect. The Athletic Department is still swimming in debt from the Lindner Center which looks spectacular, but doesn't generate a cent of revenue. They are nearing the end of that debt burden, but UC is not in a position where they can overlook any opportunity to pad the bottom line. Playing at Paul Brown does that. UC effectively generates twice as much revenue from games held downtown to games in the Nip. The outgoing Athletic Director Mike Thomas, who it should be mentioned was reviled by everyone at UC, thought sacrificing the inherent home field advantage of Nippert for a bigger pay check was a spectacular idea. He was, it should go without saying, a complete moron and Illinois is lucky to have him.
CR: The Bearcats are installed as a 3.5 point favorite at the moment. I couldn't find a line. Are you taking Cincy to cover? And what would you set the over/under at if you were working in Vegas?
DTD: If the line is 3.5 I probably wouldn't take it. UC's last two wins have been by three points so it seems like the trend is in a downward direction. As for the over under I would set it at around 72.5. I don't anticipate this being a defensive battle in any sense.