NCAA Football Preview - Cincinnati Bearcats
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From The Sports Network By Ralph Lauro, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: After finishing either first or second in the Conference USA standings three years straight, the Bearcats fell off in a big way in 2003. The club went just 2-5 in league play and an equally disappointing 5-7 overall. The season started on a high note, as the club won its first three games. However, the 'Cats followed up their three straight wins with three consecutive setbacks, including a narrow 22-20 defeated to C- USA champions Southern Mississippi. The club was able to rebound from its losing streak with wins in two of its next three games, but those victories came against a dismal Army squad (33-29) and a Division I-AA club in Rhode Island (31-24). With just three games remaining the squad still had a shot at becoming bowl eligible, but losses in each put an end to that. Although the team finished under .500 things could have been different if not for several late collapses. Of UC's seven losses, five came by a touchdown or less. Still, the Bearcats decided they needed a change and they did so with the hiring of new head coach Mark Dantonio, who was defensive coordinator at Ohio State the past three years. Dantonio helped the Buckeyes to the 2002 the National Championship and brings with him an entirely new coaching staff, which will hopefully help generate some new energy in the Queen City. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: The Bearcats boasted a respectable offense in 2003, ranking 44th in total offense with an average of 393.4 ypg. As has been the case for the last three years, Cincinnati's offense will be in the hands of Gino Guidugli. The talented play-caller is already the school's career passing leader and has led the team for eight fourth-quarter comeback victories during his tenure. Last season, Guidugli threw for 2,704 yards with 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Guidugli should have even more success this season with a solid returning receiving corps. George Murray II tallied 30 catches for 270 yards a year ago, while Derick Ross, who recorded a team-high 483 yards receiving, will battle Cedric Dawley for the other starting wideout spot. Richard Hall will head a talented and deep corps of running backs this year. Hall, who excels in all aspects of the game, rushed for 777 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games last year, some in which he was limited by injuries. Opening the holes for Hall will be an offensive line that returns four starters. Last year, the Bearcats averaged a solid 165.0 ypg on the ground and with just the center position to be filled this year they should do even better. DEFENSE: In 2003, the Bearcats were among the best defensive teams in the nation as they ranked 27th in total yards allowed per game (333.0). The club was particularly impressive against the pass, permitting just 188.6 ypg. This year's club should be even better with eight starters returning to the fold. All-C-USA ends Trent Cole and Andre Frazier give the Bearcats a strong defensive line. Cole led the team in TFLs and was second in total tackles in '03, while Frazier paced the club with six sacks. While the line is certainly strong, the real strength of the unit comes from the linebacker spots. Three seniors in Jamar Enzor, Tyjuan Hagler and Jason Russell all return with at least one season of full-time starting experience under their belts. Enzor, who was the MVP of last year's team and an All-C-USA selection, anchors the unit from the middle linebacker spot. He led the team in tackles (137) last season, including an average of 14.4 tackles per game over his last five contests. Hagler ranked among the top three in tackling, sacks and TFLs last season, while Russell has the best cover sills of any linebacker on the team. As for the secondary, it is considered the weak point of the defense with only two of four starters returning. Doug Monaghan, a three-year starter at strong safety, heads the secondary with his great football intelligence. He always finds a way to get involved in the play as evidenced by his 259 career tackles. Daven Holly is set to cover opposing team's top wide receiver, as he led the club with six interceptions a year ago. SPECIAL TEAMS: Chet Ervin handled both the punting and long distance placekicking duties for the Bearcats last season and is expected to do the same this year. Ervin averaged 38.9 yards per punt last season, but could be replaced by juco transfer Brian Steel so that he could concentrate strictly on placekicking duties. Carl Jones, the C-USA punt return leader in '03, is expected to be this year's return man once again. OUTLOOK: The Bearcat could be a sleeper in C-USA with a slew of returning talent and a new coach. The club is led by one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Guidugli, who should have another productive year in Dantonio's offense. The Bearcat defense, once again, should rank among the best in C-USA which will help make the difference in close games. Cincinnati had a knack for losing nailbiters last season with five losses coming by seven points or less. Dantonio comes from an Ohio State program which had a knack for winning and his poise on the sideline should give Cincinnati what it needs to become a winner again.