- Brian Bennett, College Football
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Here are three keys for each team in tonight's showdown between No. 8 Cincinnati and No. 21 South Florida:
Slow the Bulls' pass rush: South Florida defensive ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul will have their ears pinned back, ready to get after Tony Pike. That, more than anything else, can throw off the Bearcats' offense and turn things in South Florida's favor. Pike will likely be in the shotgun most of the night, and look for coach Brian Kelly to use screens and moving pockets to keep Pierre-Paul and Selvie on their heels.
"Those two guys coming off the edge, they'll sack you," Kelly said. "So you'd better have some answers. I think we've got answers."
Strike first and fast: Cincinnati has had very little trouble scoring quickly this season. It is averaging 2:25 and just 6.8 plays per scoring drive. With 12 days to prepare, look for Kelly to have some new wrinkles early in the game. Getting off to a fast start will help quiet what is expected to be a large, loud crowd and force the Bulls to play catch-up.
Contain B.J. Daniels: Kelly compared South Florida's redshirt freshman quarterback to Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor, who of course helped beat the Bearcats in last season's Orange Bowl. Daniels is a dual-threat guy with a surprisingly strong arm.
"When you have an athletic running quarterback, do you stop the run?" Kelly said. "If you stop the run, then you're one-on-one on the outside. If you play just pass, then you give him the opportunity to run the football. It's a great balance, when you have a quarterback that can do both. We've got to pick our spots."
Daniels has been remarkably poised in his first two starts, at Florida State and at Syracuse. But he showed in both games that he is susceptible to the occasional rookie mistake. If Cincinnati can make him one-dimensional or confuse him in coverage, Daniels becomes less of a threat.
Get physical: At Florida State, the Bulls set the tone early with some bone-rattling hits, particularly a fumble-causing shoulder blow from safety Jon Lejiste. Finesse spread teams like Cincinnati usually don't enjoy physical games.
South Florida needs to knock receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage and make ball carriers pay the price. Neither Pike nor Mardy Gilyard is built very sturdily, so a few big hits could have them hearing footsteps, and maybe even create some turnovers. Do that, and the game swings toward the Bulls.
"We've got to try to be intimidating," Selvie said.
Go vertical: If Cincinnati has shown a weakness thus far, it's in the back line of its defense. Injuries and inexperience in the secondary so worried Kelly against Fresno State that he started a converted receiver (Marcus Barnett) at corner and stayed in deep cover-two zone the entire game.
The Bulls have the ability to test those defensive backs with the deep ball. Receiver Carlton Mitchell has four catches of 50 or more yards already this season. If the Bearcats shade their coverage toward him, that should open things for guys like Dontavia Bogan and Sterling Griffin. South Florida will need some big plays to keep up with Cincinnati.
Handle Cincinnati's pace: Selvie said that the Cincinnati's up-tempo offense caught the defense off guard last year in Nippert Stadium.
"We couldn't even get lined up," he said. "It took us out of our game plan a little bit."
The Bearcats are playing even faster this year, and South Florida needs to be ready. The team has recently devoted an extra period at the end of practice to getting the defense used to a hurry-up attack from the Bulls' No. 1 offense. Defensive players must communicate to each other quickly and get in the right spots to avoid mismatches, even if they've just been gashed by a big play.
"We have to be able to maintain our composure and get lined up," linebacker Kion Wilson said.