Cincinnati-North Carolina Preview

Cincinnati and North Carolina reached the Belk Bowl on almost

identical paths.

Both teams had some early season struggles. Both made midseason

changes at quarterback. Both went on big runs during the middle of

the year, picking up steam to go on long winning streaks. And then

both lost close games in their regular-season finales to longtime


Now each has a chance to end the year on a high note when they

meet Saturday in Charlotte.

“They are a lot like us because they had a slow start and then

won a lot of games in the end,” Bearcats coach Tommy Tuberville

said. “We are probably a much better team now than we were at the

beginning of the year, as they are.”

“This is a resilient bunch of guys that kept believing in one

another throughout the year and I’m glad they were rewarded with a

bowl game,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said of his team.

“We’re looking forward to facing a very good Cincinnati team led by

an outstanding coach in Tommy Tuberville.”

Cincinnati (9-3) is playing in the Belk Bowl for the second

consecutive season after defeating Duke 48-34 last December. This

year, the Bearcats rolled off six straight wins during the middle

of the season, and wound up finishing third in the AAC. With an

offense that averages 33.3 points under the leadership of

quarterback Brendon Kay, the Bearcats rolled through the back end

of their schedule, finishing the regular season with 166 more

points than their opponents.

Kay was not the starter when the season kicked off, but took

over in the team’s second game following an injury to

first-stringer Munchie Legaux. Kay’s play improved as the season

progressed, peaking with a 405-yard, four-touchdown,

no-interception performance in a 38-24 win at Rutgers on Nov. 16.

He hasn’t always been 100 percent healthy himself, but he became

the fourth quarterback in Cincinnati history to throw for more than

3,000 yards in a season.

“I tell you that kid competed and he did it on one leg. His

ankle is so bad. He’s been wanting to play and push through it and

it’s been that way for about six weeks and he has only practiced

about one or two days a week,” Tuberville said of Kay following his

team’s 31-24 loss to then-No. 19 Louisville on Dec. 5. Kay

completed 22 of 40 passes in that game for 304 yards, while also

rushing for two touchdowns, but threw a pair of costly


“He doesn’t throw the ball much because his shoulders are so

banged up but I tell you he is a warrior.”

The Tar Heels (6-6) made their change under center later in the

season, after starter Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder

injury Nov. 2. The more mobile Marquise Williams took over and

finished the season with 14 touchdown passes while also leading the

team in rushing with 531 yards and six scores.

No matter which quarterback has been playing for North Carolina,

the best option has generally been throwing it to Eric Ebron. A

finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end,

Ebron has already announced he will be entering the 2014 NFL Draft

following the Belk Bowl.

The team’s leader in receptions (55) and yards (895) said he is

looking forward to facing the Bearcats defense, but can’t promise

anything big for his final game in Carolina blue.

“I just go out there and do what I do best,” Ebron told the

school’s official website. “Whatever special happens is built up

inside and already packaged for the game. I can’t justify that or

make something spectacular happen, it’s just going to happen. It’s

a bowl game; I’m here to have fun.”

North Carolina started the season 1-5, then went on a five-game

win streak to become bowl eligible. A season-ending 27-25 loss to

Duke hurt, but the resiliency shown by the team resonated with

their head coach.

“I’m excited for our team, especially our seniors, who fought

through some early season adversity and won five of the last six

games to become bowl eligible,” Fedora said.

Fedora says the team hasn’t decided yet who will call plays in

this game after offensive coordinator Blake Anderson took the head

coaching job at Arkansas State.

The Tar Heels are just the sixth team since the regular season

expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and make a bowl game.

North Carolina is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati, with the last

meeting a 51-16 victory Sept. 14, 1991, in Chapel Hill.