Tuesday, December 26|
Herd, Bearcats have come on strong
By Mel Kiper
Motor City Bowl
Wednesday, Dec. 27 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Marshall (7-5) vs. Cincinnati (7-4)
Both head coaches, Cincinnati's Rick Minter and Marshall's Bob Pruett, have to be extremely proud of what their teams were able to accomplish this season.
If you remember all the way back to the season opener on Sept. 4, the Bearcats didn't have an easy time against Army, coming away with a hard-fought 23-17 victory. Coaches always say a team can be expected to make its most dramatic improvement between the first and second games of the season. With the Bearcats, that was the case.
After the close call against Army, Cincinnati was able to upset Syracuse at home 12-10. The following week, on the road at Camp Randall Stadium, the Bearcats lost in overtime to Wisconsin 28-25. After such an emotionally and physically draining loss, it should have come as no surprise that they were dominated at Indiana (42-6) the next week. However, from then on, Minter's squad played excellent football, winning five of its next seven games.
Close victories in the final two games against Memphis and Southern Mississippi propelled the Bearcats into the postseason. The offense, keyed by quarterback Deontey Kenner, along with the effective running back duo of DeMarco McCleskey and Ray Jackson, really started to click around midseason. Kenner has the arm strength to get the ball down the field, but he also tends to run a little hot and cold. With Kenner at the helm, though, the Bearcats were 6-1. While he was missing time with a torn abdominal muscle, the Bearcats lost three of four games. McCleskey also missed two games with a hamstring injury, and the Bearcats lost both games. While Jackson and McCleskey are a quality one-two punch, they averaged only 4.1 and 4.0 yards per carry respectively.
At Marshall, getting back to the top spot in the MAC wasn't an easy task. Not only did the Thundering Herd have to replace super blue-chip quarterback Chad Pennington, but solid, durable running back Doug Chapman and big-play receiver James Williams also moved on to the NFL.
Early this season, the Thundering Herd struggled, dropping four of their first six games. In their defense, the schedule was challenging, with the losses coming against solid opposition such as Michigan State, North Carolina, Western Michigan, and Toledo. Taking advantage of an easier schedule down the stretch, the Thundering Herd gained momentum and confidence, then pulled out a close 19-14 victory in their rematch with Western Michigan in the MAC championship game.
Offensively, quarterback Byron Leftwich has enormous talent and down-the-road potential. With Leftwich's size, arm strength, and feel for the position, the future looks bright for both him and the Thundering Herd. In clutch situations, Leftwich will look for senior wideout Nate Poole, who shows excellent hands along with some ability after the reception. Defensively, the Thundering Herd struggled at times this season, as did Cincinnati, so expect a number of long, time-consuming drives when the Bearcats and Thundering Herd are on the attack.
For Cincinnati, the key defensive performers to watch will be senior defensive tackle Mario Monds, sophomore defensive end Antwan Peek, senior linebacker Troy Evans, and senior free safety DeJuan Gossett. Monds, who totaled 12 stops behind the line of scrimmage, has the ability to use his 6-foot-3, 330-pound frame to really disrupt things when he's performing at an optimum level.
However, the real difference-maker on a week-to-week basis has been the athletically gifted Peek. The former high school receiver and defensive back recorded 13 tackles for loss, 82 sacks, nine QB hurries, and also knocked down six passes. Evans led the defense with 107 tackles, while Gossett was right behind (85 stops) and also came away with three interceptions.
Summary: The game should come down to which quarterback enjoys the most consistent afternoon. Kenner and Leftwich both have shown the skill level to post big numbers. If there is another key, it will be the Marshall defensive front seven's ability to shut down or limit the rushing totals of McCleskey and Jackson. Keep in mind, when Cincinnati needs a field goal of inside 40 yards, sophomore place-kicker Jonathan Ruffin can split the uprights. This season, Ruffin connected on 24 of 26 FGs inside of 40 yards. He was two of three from 40 to 49 yards and didn't have an attempt of over 50 yards.