The Toledo Rockets took some of the bloom off Friday night's matchup between Louisville and Cincinnati in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. It won't be the showdown of ranked, unbeaten teams that was so highly anticipated a week ago. That's because the Bearcats fell out of the unbeaten ranks with a 29-23 loss to Toledo last Saturday night.
It still will be a game with tremendous impact on the Big East Conference race, however, because both teams are unbeaten in league play. The Bearcats are 1-0, having beaten Pittsburgh 34-10 to open their season. The Cards are 2-0 after beating Pitt 45-35 two weeks ago and South Florida 27-25 Saturday. Both, along with West Virginia, shared the Big East title last year.
UC is 5-1 overall, having also defeated Delaware State, Virginia Tech, Miami of Ohio and Fordham. Of those victories, only Virginia Tech is significant, although the Hokies, who were No. 13 in the nation until losing to Pitt in Week 3, are having a disappointing season at 4-4. Still, the Bearcats are dangerous, having dominated Pitt, which didn't score a touchdown until the final minutes. UofL also beat Pitt, but the Panthers led at halftime and were in contention until late.
The Rockets exposed some weaknesses of the Bearcats, running for 229 yards and controlling the clock (32:08 to 27:52), while UC quarterback Munchie Legaux completed just 15 of 36 passes with two interceptions.
The Bearcats were picked fourth in the preseason Big East poll.
Legaux (6-5, 199, Jr.), who replaced veteran quarterback Zach Collaros this season, is more of a hybrid running back than a quarterback. He's 96 of 180 (53.3 percent) for 1,435 yards (239 a game) and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions. He's 54th in the country in passing efficiency. He's also the team's second-leading rusher with 264 yards (44 a game, 6.0 a rush) and has run for three TDs. He's averaging 283 yards total offense a game, 27th in the country. Against Toledo he threw for 227 yards and a TD and ran nine times for 66 yards and a TD.
UC's leading rusher is senior George Winn with 607 yards (6.26-yard average, 101.8 a game, 27th in the country). He has run for four TDs. He's not much of a receiving threat with just four catches for 16 yards all season.
Ralph David Abernathy IV (grandson of the late civil rights leader) is dangerous. Abernathy (5-7, 161, So.) has run for 245 yards (40.8 a game, 6.62 a rush) and one TD, has caught 14 passes for 209 yards (34.8 a game, 14.9 a catch) and three TDs, and he's 33rd in the country in kickoff returns at 25.6 yards per return, with a long of 58 yards.
The leading receiver is senior Kenbrell Thompkins (6-1, 190), who is averaging 15.3 yards per catch, 46 yards a game. He's caught one TD pass. Tight end Travis Kelce (6-6, 260) is a force, averaging 22 yards a catch and 47.7 yards a game. He has two TD catches.
An experienced O-line, led by guard Austen Bujnoch (6-5, 285, Jr.), is doing a good job, having allowed just five sacks (.83 a game, 13th in the country) and leading the way for the Bearcats to average 225.67 rushing yards a game, 16th in the country.
UC averages 467.50 total yards a game, 24th in the country, and 34.67 points a game, 36th in the country.
Sophomore Tony Milano has made 9 of 12 field-goal attempts this season, with a long of 46 yards. He was 3 for 3 against Toledo.
Senior linebacker Greg Blair (6-2, 252) leads the team in tackles with 54, and he's tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. Cornerback Camerron Cheatham (5-9, 187, Sr.) and free safety Arryn Chenault (5-11, 207, Jr.) also each have two INTs as UC has seven in all. Cheatham returned one of his 68 yards for a TD.
The team's second-leading tackler is senior linebacker Maalik Bomar (6-2, 228) with 46 tackles, and Chenault is third with 32 tackles.
UC is 12th in the country with 18 sacks (three a game) and 31st in tackles for a loss (6.83 a game). The team leader in those categories is senior defensive end Walter Stewart (6-5, 249) with five sacks (28th in the country) and seven TFL (tied for 53rd in the country). Stewart did not play against Toledo, however, because of "an upper-body injury" suffered the previous week against Fordham. His status for Friday's game is unknown at press time.
UC is 36th in the country in turnover margin at plus-.50 a game. The Bearcats are 31st in the country in rushing D, allowing 122.83 ypg, but 64th in passing D at 229.83 ypg. They're 37th in total D at 352.67 ypg and 20th in scoring D at 16.83 ppg.
Junior Pat O'Donnell is averaging 43 yards a punt, 22nd in the country.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Legaux and Abernathy are the big-play guys, and Winn is having a very good season. He could be the key, especially if UofL's run defense doesn't stiffen.
The O-line and the running game.
Butch Jones, 44, is 19-12 in two-plus seasons at UC. After going 4-8 his first season, the Bearcats were 10-3 and shared the Big East title last year, and they beat Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. Before coming to UC Jones coached three seasons at Central Michigan, going 27-13 and guiding the Chippewas to three bowl games. He's 46-25 overall. He served as an assistant at both Rutgers and West Virginia.
UofL and UC have met 52 times in a series that dates to 1922, with the Bearcats holding a 30-21-1 advantage. They have won the last four meetings, including 25-16 last year.
UofL should win, but it won't be easy. As coach Charlie Strong warned the Cards Saturday, every league game is going to be a tough game.