Game Preview: Cincinnati Looks To Avoid Road Trap Against ECU

CINCINNATI — Two more wins.

After moving up to No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, Cincinnati is as close to controlling their destiny as they've ever been in the CFP era. The Bearcats battle the East Carolina Pirates, Friday on ABC at 3:30 p.m. ET.

ECU has won four straight games and seven of their past nine but enters their senior day as 14-point underdogs to the Bearcats. ESPN's matchup predictor gives Cincinnati an 85.2% chance to notch their second-ever undefeated regular season. Bill Connelly's SP+ metric has UC at No. 7 and ECU at No. 78.

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The Bearcats have had zero success traveling to Greenville, North Carolina, under head coach Luke Fickell. His team got hammered 48-20 in 2017, then leaned on a late field goal to escape 46-43 in 2019.

"So, we’ve been there twice I think in the last five years," Fickell said in his weekly press conference. "The first one was really, really, really ugly, and then obviously two years ago was a really difficult game, and someway somehow, we found a way to kick a field goal to win the game in the end. That’s kind of what you have to prepare yourself for, and not just going on the road, but also watching as this team in the last five weeks and how they’ve played. I think that’s where you’ve really got to say; this is what you’ve got to be prepared for.”

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The Bearcats handled ECU at home 55-17 last season in a performance Desmond Ridder is hoping to repeat. The senior leader is on a tear of late and is hoping for a mirror-image showing from last year. In two career home games against ECU, Ridder averaged 331 yards passing on 73.5% completion with 3.5 touchdowns and no interceptions.

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His one trip to Greenville in 2019 turned ugly. He completed 12-of-24 passes for 161 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

“Going down to Greenville," Ridder said during his weekly press conference. "It’s a good bunch of fans they got down there, and they are going to let you hear it. So, it’s about keeping the players in check, keeping them focused and locked in on the game, because the fans are right there at your back, and they’ll let you hear it when you’re not doing so well. And if you let that get to you, then it can really mess up your game."

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Staying focused on this game is crucial; whatever "1-0 each week" clíches Ridder and Fickell muster could go a long way in a definitive trap game. East Carolina is inconsistent on offense but has the top-end talent to pull a home upset if they put it all together.

They'll need to be near perfect to take out a defense where something has to give. Running back Keaton Mitchell is one of the best back in the conference. He's averaging 6.9 yards per carry this season (12th among all FBS players) and has totaled 1,077 yards rushing and 10 total touchdowns this season.

Mitchell hasn't faced many units like Cincinnati's, especially if defensive lineman Curtis Brooks keeps up his stellar play. Cincinnati is 34th in the country defending ground attacks, allowing 3.8 YPC to FBS schools this season.

In the passing game, junior quarterback Holton Ahlers has been the definition of average. He is completing 62.9% of his passes in 2021 for 2,901 yards on 7.7 yards per attempt, with 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Those marks rank 57th, 18th, 67th, and 45th nationally. He is in the bottom-25 qualified quarterbacks in interceptions (21st-most in the country.

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Ahlers doesn't do a whole lot on his own to scare defenses (3.3 career YPC), but he has a pair of explosive weapons to dial up deep balls. Audie Omotosho (13.2 yards per catch) and C.J. Johnson (15 yards per catch) can create big plays in a pinch.

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We'll find out if they, along with leading receiver Tyler Snead (61 catches, 769 yards, four touchdowns), are a worthy matchup for Coby Bryant, Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, and the rest of the Bearcats elite secondary.

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Forde-Yard Dash: Bowl Season Edition


Forde-Yard Dash: Bowl Season Edition