After nearly eight months of waiting, Bearcat football is finally back. Later tonight, they’ll be matching up against the UCLA Bruins in front of a packed crowd at Nippert Stadium. To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited for football season to start. Following Luke Fickell’s incredible year two turnaround last year, the Bearcats are looking primed for a huge season, and that all starts tonight.
Speaking of Luke Fickell’s second year, he started it off with a 26-17 win over UCLA in the Rose Bowl last season. Although a few early scores put Cincinnati down 10-0, the Bearcats never gave in, and eventually took a 17-10 lead heading into halftime. After a long touchdown run from UCLA’s Bolu Olorunfunmi tied it up to start the second half, neither team scored until the Cincinnati defense came up with a huge safety to take the lead with about ten minutes left in the game. With just under two minutes left in the contest, Cincinnati put the game on ice with a touchdown run from Michael Warren II.
Last year’s opener against UCLA was notable for a few reasons. First of all, it helped set the tone for the remainder of the season. Coming off a train wreck of a season in 2017, Cincinnati had nowhere to go but up. They went into that game as huge underdogs, and came out victorious, which in a sense, could sum up last season. Nobody in their right mind expected Cincinnati to go 11-2, but somehow, some way, they did just that. Secondly, it was the beginning of the Desmond Ridder era at Cincinnati. After two series ending in failure from senior Hayden Moore, redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder came in and took the reigns. While statistically, it may not have been Ridder’s best game, he played well enough to lock up a starting spot the next week against Alabama A&M, which led to him starting every remaining game last year. Lastly, it was the start of a truly special season for Michael Warren II. Warren was an absolute workhouse for the Bearcats last season, and his performance against UCLA was a preview of what was to come for the remainder of the season. His 142 rushing yards and three touchdowns were a really great start to what eventually came to be a record setting season for the sophomore running back.
While last year’s game was definitely one to look back on, it’s in the past now, and the Bearcats are looking at an even bigger year this time around. Cincinnati returns loads of talent from last year, including the majority of one of the nation’s top defenses last season, and nearly every one of their offensive weapons. While a torn ACL will sideline sophomore running back Charles McClelland for the entirety of this season, the Cincinnati offense will see the return of Gerrid Doaks, a redshirt junior who didn’t see the field last year, due to a lingering groin injury. In 2017, Doaks ran for 513 yards on the year, good for second on the team. While losing McClelland takes away a major playmaker for this year, Doaks being ready to go is huge for the depth in the backfield.
After a spectacular freshman campaign, Desmond Ridder returns as one of the more exciting players on this year’s team. With one full season under his belt, expect the coaching staff to put much more trust in Ridder’s arm and playmaking ability this time around.
On the other side of the ball, the Bearcats return the majority of players that made up one of the country’s top defenses. However, Cincinnati appears to have lost one of their top performers, safety James Wiggins, with a knee injury. From what I’ve read, the outlook for him returning in the near future seems pretty bleak, but nevertheless, we should know later today whether or not he’ll be able to see the field later this season. Although Wiggins was absolutely vital to the Cincinnati defense last year, the Bearcats have two really solid players who will end up filling in, those being true sophomore Ja’Von Hicks, and Alabama transfer Kyriq McDonald. Regardless, I have firm belief that the Bearcats’ front seven will be enough to contain the UCLA offense just fine.
Speaking of UCLA, they’re led by second year head coach Chip Kelly, who had one of his worst seasons in his coaching career last season, finishing 3-9. However, they began to find somewhat of a grove late in the year, beating USC, and only losing by one score at Arizona State and against Stanford. After battling Wilton Speight throughout last year, true sophomore quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson will be making the start tonight. Thompson-Robinson was ranked one of the top quarterbacks nationally in the class of 2017, and wasn’t expected to see the field during last year’s matchup with Cincinnati, but after Speight went down with an injury, the true freshman was forced into his debut. While last year wasn’t anything spectacular for Thompson-Robinson, after an offseason of preparation, he’ll have a much better grip on this Bruin offense.
UCLA also returns Joshua Kelley, a redshirt senior running back who rushed for 1243 yards and twelve touchdowns last season. Kelley was also a pretty significant target through the air, amassing 27 receptions and 193 receiving yards. With an inexperienced defensive line starting for Cincinnati, Kelley could very much be one of the deciding factors in tonight’s game.
On the defensive end, UCLA was one of the worst in the PAC-12 last year, but with ten returning starters, they’re bound for a major improvement. However, the Bruins will be without two of their top linebackers, Tyree Thompson and Keisean Lucier-South. Lucier-South was among the Bruins top pass rushers last year, and by taking him out of the equation, Desmond Ridder should be looking at some more time in the pocket tonight.
After waiting all summer long, football season is finally among us, and I couldn’t be more excited. While both teams have both made significant improvements since they last played about a year ago, I still really like the Bearcats in this game. Although the injuries mentioned in this article could definitely be a setback, in most areas, depth isn’t much of a concern for Cincinnati. Looking to build off of last year’s success, I’m very confident in the Bearcats to get the job done tonight at a packed Nippert Stadium.