Cincinnati travels to Tulsa on Saturday for its first road game of the season, a game which will feature defense.
Tulsa was never expected to be the team to beat in the conference, but early on they have defied expectation. Their opener against then-No. 11 Oklahoma State was surprisingly close. Mike Gundy was forced to make a surprise quarterback switch in order to stave off the upset. Now, Oklahoma State is running the table in the Big 12.
The Golden Hurricane took on No. 11 for the second game in a row with an upset against UCF.
After the off week, Cincinnati’s upcoming opponent is outperforming expectations this season. The Bearcats need to be careful they are not added to the list of ranked Tulsa casualties.
Defense Will Dominate In Cincinnati vs. Tulsa
There’s a reason that Tulsa has played two close games against ranked teams so far this season. Their defense is surprisingly good.
Tulsa likes to play out of a 3-3-5 formation, like Baylor did under Matt Rhule. The three down lineman give the opposing quarterback enough pressure that they can drop eight linebackers and defensive backs in coverage. This makes throwing windows very tight, and basically eliminates any passing options between the hashmarks.
The Golden Hurricane outside cornerbacks are big, and like to play physical. More often than not, they play in press coverage, which slows the development of the play long enough for their three defensive linemen to get to the quarterback.
Cincinnati is going to have to rely on their athletic receivers winning one-on-one battles on the outside. The outside receivers will get plenty of single coverage. They just have to win their battles. Desmond Ridder needs to look outside the numbers for his receivers.
Tulsa also boast three athletic linebackers that are instrumental in the run game. Zaven Collins is the star of this talented group. The linebackers are typically quick to plug the gaps in the defense and stop the opponents from running on the inside. Even though they usually show light boxes, the front six for Tulsa are excellent at stopping the run.
There are some ways to exploit this unconventional run defense, however. Essentially, the Bearcats need to know how to take advantage of light boxes.
First of all, Cincinnati needs to attack the perimeter of the run defense. Getting the ball to the edges, and quickly, is key. Not pitches, tosses, sweeps, and screens will catch the Golden Hurricane out numbered and out of position.
Another thing Oklahoma State tried that worked effectively was to add lead blockers. Tulsa bottled up star running back Chuba Hubbard until Oklahoma State put extra blockers behind the formation. Gundy added a fullback and a tight end to the mix until he had a decisive numbers advantage. Suddenly, the Cowboys had a numbers advantage and were able to run between the tackles. The passing game also opened up since the Golden Hurricane couldn’t commit eight defenders to pass coverage after that.
However the Bearcats choose to attack, one thing is clear. The two best defenses in the conference will be on the field.
When Cincinnati and Tulsa get together, defense will stand out for both sides.
For as good as their defense is, Tulsa’ offense doesn’t match up.
Their quarterback, Baylor transfer Zack Smith, is not consistently accurate. He can make some good throws, but not regularly enough to sustain the offense.
Their offensive line are decent pass protectors, but weak run blockers. Tulsa’s running backs aren’t exceedingly talented either. This results in a measly 3.64 yards per rush. Out of 76 FBS teams that have played a game this fall, Tulsa is 54th in rushing yards per game.
Keylon Stokes is by far the most talented Tulsa player on offense. Stokes is Smith’s favorite target, so he is the one Cincinnati’s secondary will focus on.
There are a few other factors to note outside of the X’s and O’s.
First of all, penalties are a huge problem for Tulsa. They led FBS in penalty yards per game in 2019, and after two games lead again this season.
Last season, Cincinnati was down there with Tulsa in penalties per game and penalty yards per game. This year, they have cleaned things up, so the penalty differential should swing in the Bearcats’ favor.
The other consideration is that Tulsa only played two games in the last four weeks. Due to scheduling peculiarities, they have yet to play two weeks in a row this season. They will be rusty, and the Bearcats need to take advantage.
Expect a low scoring affair between Cincinnati and Tulsa as defense takes over.