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December 24, 2013

Heels look to slow Cincy offense

North Carolina heads into Saturday's Belk Bowl matchup with Cincinnati looking to slow down a potent Bearcats offense that averaged 33.3 points per game in its first season under Tommy Tuberville and ranked in the top 20 nationally in both total offense (482.3 yards per game) and passing offense (313.8 yards per game).

"We know that they're a good offense. I mean, they're averaging 34 points a game," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. "We're going to have to stop the run and try to make them one-dimensional and hopefully create some takeaways and all those things and get the ball back for the offense."

The Bearcats finished 9-3 this fall as Tuberville, a prior winner at Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas Tech, came to Cincinnati and worked his magic through a couple of different quarterbacks. Along the way Cincy finished first in the American Athletic Conference in total offense and rushing offense, and were second in passing offense behind only SMU.

Across the board Cincinnati's offensive numbers were a little bit better than North Carolina's this fall, as the Bearcats averaged 1.2 more points per game than UNC, averaged approximately 60 more total yards per game (over 37 more passing yards per game, and just over 22 more rushing yards) while averaging 31 minutes and 47 seconds of offensive possession.

The latter statistic is a significant number, as it beats UNC's average time of possession of 26 minutes and 47 seconds by exactly five minutes per game.

And though the Tar Heels aren't wasting any time when they have the ball, Cincinnati's proven ability to control time of possession and have the ball longer than its opponents could greatly aid their chances of attaining strategic control of the game.

Cincy opened the season with senior Munchie Legaux under center, and the veteran quarterback had thrown for 237 yards and ran for 52 rushing yards when in the second game of the year (September 7 against Illinois) he severely injured ligaments in his left knee, requiring season-ending surgery.

Brendon Kay came on and the Bearcats didn't miss a beat, as the sixth-year senior took advantage of his last collegiate opportunity and had six 300 yard games and a pair of 400-yard passing games in November on his way to 3,121 yards, making him just the fourth Cincinnati quarterback in history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season.

"More and more of the passing game, I just think the efficiency (is the big thing with Kay)," said UNC defensive coach Vic Koenning. "We're gonna have to play really good, sound defense and cover the receivers. We can't just let guys run free in the play-action game."

While Cincinnati's running game wasn't as productive as its passing game in the regular season---the Bearcats averaged 168.5 yards per game, nearly 150 yards fewer than it got through the air---the rushing totals led the American Athletic Conference.

Sort of like North Carolina, the Bearcats employ a multi-faceted offensive backfield that includes three players with more than 90 carries and likes to wear down opposing defenses with tenacious running inside and outside the tackles with different personnel.

R.D. Abernathy started all 12 games and led Cincinnati with 119 carries, though his 451 rushing yards were bested by teammate Hosey Williams' 609 rushing yards on 105 carries. Tion Green added 409 yards on 90 rushing attempts.

The Bearcats, who are making their second straight trip to the Belk Bowl (they defeated Duke in this same game last December), thrive in play-action situations where they can catch opposing defenses downfield after they've committed to stopping the run.

"They (the Tar Heel linebackers) all have run gaps that they're responsible for, and then all of a sudden there's somebody running behind them," said Koenning, describing the challenge of defending Cincinnati. "We're trying to do our best to simulate in practice what they do, but that's really hard to do when you're going against the Scout Team, and then you're going against a dadgum locomotive coming a hundred miles an hour."

"It will be a little bit of an acclimation, you might say, at the beginning of the game."

The Bearcats have seven different players on its roster with at least 15 catches, led by Shaq Washington's 75 catches and Anthony McClung's 908 receiving yards. Washington added 747 receiving yards, while McClung had 68 catches.

Both Washington and McClung had more receptions this season than anyone on the North Carolina roster, and only Eric Ebron approached the numbers of Cincy's top aerial threats, though Ebron's 55 catches pale in comparison to Washington and McClung's receiving totals, and his 895 yards ranks slightly behind McClung's yardage.

The same can be said for UNC's Quinshad Davis, whose 724 receiving yards are right behind Washington's 747 yards.

In all the Bearcats have five pass catchers with over 400 receiving yards when adding Mekale McKay's 462 yards and Max Morrison's 436 receiving yards.

These numbers, of course, won't mean a thing once the game kicks off on Saturday, but it's worth noting that the Bearcats have multiple threats in the passing game and the veteran signal-caller Kay has shown he's capable of mixing it around to a variety of proven reliable options.

The biggest beneficiary of Kay's passes in the end zone has been sophomore Chris Moore, who is third on the Cincy roster both in catches (43) and yards (599), but easily leads the team with nine touchdown catches.

Moore is clearly Cincinnati's top threat in the red zone, and the Tar Heel secondary will have to account for him in close, along with keeping as good an eye as they can on McClung and Washington while also trying to shut down the Bearcat running game.

"They've got more than one good receiver. They've got a really good running back. The quarterback does a really nice job," said Fedora. "It's not that we're going to be keying on one guy. We're going to have to stay within our keys, have the discipline with our eyes (to have them) where they need to be, and do what we're supposed to do and just do our job."

While Cincinnati clearly has some weapons that can cause UNC some trouble, senior cornerback Jabari Price says the Tar Heels are well-prepared for the challenge given some of the difficult wide receiver matchups they've already had this fall.

"They've got one big receiver---No. 2 (McKay, who is 6-6)---he goes up and gets it. But I think we've been challenged way harder than what we're about to get, you know. I think we've been challenged harder by UM (Miami) and Pittsburgh's receivers, considering their receiving corps," Price said.

From Price's vantage point, the Tar Heels have to stop the big plays.

If they can keep Cincinnati's receivers in front of them and avoid getting burnt, UNC's chances of victory improve substantially of course.

"Cincinnati, they thrive on big plays, you know. If we can shut down the pass game, I feel like the game is going be a runaway," Price said. "I feel like watching them on tape, they're a good team. They're 9-3. A lot of people don't think we'll win it, but we don't pay attention to records. We pay attention to what we see on tape. And I know we have a great offense and a great defense."

"We've got the athletes. I feel like if we all do our job and everybody pays attention to detail, like we've been doing the past few weeks---just doing our job, everybody doing their job---I feel like we can come out with a 'W' in our last game."

"They've got playmakers and we've got playmakers," Price continued. "But at the end of the day, I feel like we're the better team."

"I'm pleased with the plan and I'm pleased with the way the guys are working on it (in practices)," added Fedora.


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