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Know the opponent: Cincinnati Bearcats

Duke faces Cincinnati in the 2012 Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Thursday.
Duke faces Cincinnati in the 2012 Belk Bowl in Charlotte on Thursday.

The Blue Devils are bowl-bound for the first time since the 1994 season, and have invaded Charlotte as they prepare for their Belk Bowl matchup against a tough Big East opponent. The Cincinnati Bearcats put together a 9-3 season under Butch Jones, who has since left for Tennessee. Steve Stripling will serve as interim head coach for the Bearcats, who will look to grind it out against the Blue Devils with an imposing rushing attack and stout defense.

With the Bearcats’ program in a state of flux, BDN welcomes in veteran Cincinnati reporter Bill Koch of the Cincinnati Enquirer to give insight into the Blue Devils’ opponent. Bill is an award-winning sports writer, a life-long Cincinnati resident, and a Cincinnati alumnus. His work can be found online via the University of Cincinnati Blog, and on Twitter. With the Bearcats opening the season undefeated on the hardwood, and with the Bengals headed to the playoffs, his plate is certainly full, and we appreciate his time in answering our questions. Thank you!

With the resignation of Butch Jones, hiring of Tommy Tuberville, and uncertainty surrounding the future of the Big East conference, what is the mood of those within and around the Cincinnati football program? How much interest is there in the upcoming Belk Bowl match up?

It’s not something you hear people talking about a lot. The big news in Cincinnati as I write this is that the Bengals finally knocked off the Steelers and will be in the playoffs for the second straight year. Last week, the basketball game between UC and Xavier took center stage, especially after the fight that took place last year. And on the UC football front, there’s been more talk about Tommy Tuberville and the school’s decision to renovate Nippert Stadium than there has about the bowl game.

Senior RB George Winn, who averages over 100 yards per game, highlights a potent Cincinnati offense that led the Big East in scoring in 2012. Despite that success, there was some unrest at the quarterback position, where senior Brendon Kay took over for struggling junior Munchie Legaux down the stretch of the regular season. With Kay listed as the starter heading into Thursday’s matchup, can you give us a brief scouting report on Kay and the Bearcats’ offense?

Munchie Legaux struggled to throw the ball accurately all season long. Butch Jones stuck with him as long as he could but it was clear as soon as Brendon Kay replaced him that Kay was a much more accurate passer and a much better runner than people realized. But this is first and foremost a running offense behind George Winn, Ralph David Abernathy IV and solid offensive line and I suspect it will remain that way for the bowl game.

Led by 1st team All-Big East members DE Dan Giordano and LB Greg Blair, the Bearcats’ defense was dominant at times this season, holding opponents to just 17 points per game. It appears that if there is a weakness to this unit, it might be in the secondary, where they allowed 243 yards per game through the air. What are the keys to moving the ball consistently against this tough Cincinnati defense?

The UC defense lost its best player midway through the season when defensive end Walter Stewart was diagnosed with a chronic neck injury that ended his career. Without Stewart, the defense doesn’t have the edge presence it once did, but remains strong against the run. The secondary, which has been the biggest defensive weakness the past few years, is actually improved this year. Strong safety Drew Frey, who was first-team all-Big East last year, is a solid player and middle linebacker Greg Blair has been a godsend for a team that lost JK Schaffer, one of the best linebackers in school history, to graduation after last season. The strength of the defense is the line but if Duke’s offensive line can give its quarterback time throw it should be able to move the ball through the air.

The Bearcats and Blue Devils have never faced each other on the gridiron, and had only one common opponent in 2012 in Virginia Tech (Cincinnati won 27-24, while Duke lost 41-20). What do you expect to see in the matchup between the Bearcats and Blue Devils in Charlotte?

I can’t really answer this one…I really don’t know enough about Duke to speak with any authority on the specifics of the matchup. But I do think the fact that the UC program is in a state of flux could be important. The last time this happened in 2009 after Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame, the UC players were not well prepared and got blasted by Tim Tebow and Florida. It will be interesting to see how these players handle a similar situation.