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Breaking Down Cincinnati (and the Liberty Bowl) with Bearcats Nation's Chris Baines

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In part of our Liberty Bowl preparation, we got in touch with our friend Chris Baines over at Bearcat Nation to discuss the upcoming showdown between Cincinnati and Vanderbilt. After hitting it off discussing just how stupid Kenny Frease looks on the basketball court, we moved on to a few questions about what we can expect in Memphis on December 31st. We linked to the first part of our discussion over on Chris's website yesterday. Today, we'll take a look at what fans can expect from the Bearcats in what will be the toughest bowl matchup the Commodores have faced in 30 years.

1. UC fans were dealt a huge blow when Zach Collaros broke his ankle. Do you think he'll be effective if rushed back to the field for the Liberty Bowl? What does Munchie Legaux bring to the table that Collaros didn't?

The coaching staff, players, and fans were definitely left scrambling for answers when Collaros went down against West Virginia. The thing about him is that even though he brings oodles of leadership, character, and competitiveness to the table, the coaching staff struggled to mold the offense around him. In two years at Cincinnati, head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian were continuously trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when Zach was at quarterback. In short, the Jones/Bajakian offense requires the quarterback to stand tall in the pocket and make players from there when Collaros plays best on designed rollouts or anything where he is moving outside of the pocket. At 6 foot-nothing, he has trouble seeing over offensive lineman and was one of the reasons why he hasn't exactly lit the world on fire in the past two years.
Munchie Legaux on the other hand is a 6'5" tower who can easily peer over his lineman and is a pretty strong runner when he has to carry the ball. He still doesn't have the accuracy on the deep ball that Collaros has but he's made tremendous progress from a mechanical standpoint since coming in against the Mountaineers and is a much more natural fit at quarterback for this offense. So if I'm Coach Jones, I'm not sure if I play Collaros if his ankle isn't 100% because it would inhibit his ability to scramble. Plus, with the way Legaux has performed recently he might warrant the start.

2. Cincinnati's defense has been stout against the rush this year, allowing just 2.6 yards per carry. However, teams with strong tailbacks like Pitt were able to be successful on the ground against you. Are you concerned about the presence of All-SEC tailback Zac Stacy in Vandy's backfield?

Stacy is definitely one heck of an athlete and worries me especially with how the Bearcats were sieves against the run when playing the better rushing offenses in the Big East. On the defensive line, I'm not at all concerned with them getting pressure and if not contained will stop the run themselves. But what Cincinnati fans saw against teams like Rutgers and Syracuse was that although the defensive line crashed into the backfield, running backs were still finding ways to get to the second level. The simple explanation as to why is because the linebackers weren't being gap sound and left huge holes for the halfback to run through.

While UC has veteran talent in J.K. Schaffer and Maalik Bomar, they are surrounded by true freshman in #43 Nick Temple and #52 Dwight Jackson. Temple played safety in high school and Jackson defensive end, so both are still adjusting to the linebacker position at the college level. They are great players but have had to suffer through growing pains this season, and will definitely be tested against Zac Stacy.

3. Tennessee effectively shut down Vanderbilt's offense in the second half through a very effective pass rush. Does Cincinnati have the personnel to keep pressure on Jordan Rodgers and limit Vandy's emerging passing attack?

I've been bullish on the defensive line since the offseason and they haven't disappointed this year, leading the Big East in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and forced fumbles. As an 11-man unit, the defense has led the nation with 44 sacks this year. So the Bearcats can definitely bring the heat and with two 300 lbs defensive tackles really only need the front four to generate a pass rush. This allows the linebackers and secondary to clog up passing lanes and shut down the opponent's passing game that way. But when the defense struggles it's because opposing offensive lines give their quarterbacks time to find open receivers.

UC's secondary is by far the weakest unit of the defense and when the DL isn't getting pressure, they will get picked apart. Tennessee negated Cincinnati's pass rush with their big OL and Tyler Bray had a career day. Also, the defense seems to struggle against more mobile quarterbacks like South Florida's B.J. Daniels. They were able to bust the OL wide open but couldn't bring him down. So, if Vanderbilt can do either of those two things, Cincinnati's pass rush will be kept in check.

4. Vanderbilt's strength defensively lies in its secondary, which is led by All-American cornerback Casey Hayward. Does that concern UC fans if Legaux is starting on December 31st?

Having a strong secondary will definitely limit Cincinnati's offense but the Bearcats have really become a run-heavy offense this year passing for the fewest yards (2,600) since 2006. With or without Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead is the best player on UC and the coaches have tried to get him more and more involved in the offense in recent weeks. The Bearcats will try to get the ball in his hands be it on runs, slip screens, or straight passing plays. Regardless, I don't see Cincinnati racking up gaudy numbers through the air against Vanderbilt, especially with how well your secondary plays.

5. What do opponents need to do to stop Isaiah Pead?

Pead is a handful for defensive coordinators to plan against. Like I mentioned, Coach Jones will try to move him around and get the ball in his hands by any means necessary. Don't be surprised if he gets about half the touches in this game. Pead has put up sensational numbers this season rushing for over 1,000 yards for the 2nd straight year. But when he has bad days it's usually against teams that have strong defensive lines like South Florida and Rutgers who each held him to under 100 yards in those games. It's imperative for the Commodores to get pressure with their front four because if Cincinnati's offensive line blocks properly and Pead gets to the second level he's a threat to take it to the house. There really are few teams in the country with good enough linebackers and defensive backs to bring down Isaiah Pead in the open field.

6. How many UC fans can we expect to see in Memphis for the bowl game?

As of last night, Cincinnati is reporting that they have sold about 8,000 of their 12,000 allotted tickets. I think when it's all said and done, UC ends up selling around 10,000 through the school with another 5-6,000 through secondary markets. That's a solid contingent but Vanderbilt fans will likely outnumber Cincinnati fans at the game. That won't stop us from pounding the 'Down the Drive' chant into your ears all day long. I wouldn't be surprised if most Commodore fans walk out of the stadium with pure hatred for it at the end of the game. Either way, it's going to be a great atmosphere and I'm sure casual football fans in Memphis who have no affiliation with either school will help fill up the stands.

7. Your prediction?

I think it's going to be a low scoring game. From reading all of your responses to my questions about Vandy, it sounds like the strength of both teams appears to be the running games. They can pass the ball but it shouldn't be relied upon to carry either team. The X factor will be how each offensive line contains the pass rush and allows their quarterbacks to create some semblance of a passing attack and keep the defense honest. In this regard, I have to say the edge goes to Cincinnati who will rotate 8 or 9 guys in throughout the game and keep the starters extremely fresh. So when it's all said and done, I think the Bearcats squeak by with a 21 - 17 or 20 - 14 victory.

Well, there you have it. We'll have to plan heavily for Isaiah Pead and be prepared to punch Bearcat fans after several "Down the Drive" chants. For more on Cincinnati as the Liberty Bowl draws nearer, be sure to head over to Bearcats Nation for some great posts. Thanks again to Chris for helping us out with our questions - if you see him on Beale Street, be sure to offer him a liter of beer on behalf of AoG.