Bowl eligibility, conference race on line for Bearcats

Bearcats wide receiver Shaq Washington celebrates a touchdown catch with Johnny Holton. After a slow start, the Bearcats have turned their season around.

Chuck Cook/Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — The thought of the Cincinnati Bearcats playing in any sort of bowl game seemed pretty absurd back on Oct. 11. They had just gone down to their third straight decisive defeat, this one a 55-34 beating at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes in South Florida. The defense was a mess and quarterback Gunner Kiel might as well been playing with one crutch he was so banged up.

A win Thursday night and UC will become bowl eligible with its sixth victory. A win against East Carolina, a team that two weeks ago was ranked in the Top 25 of the College Football Playoff system, would be just its second against a team currently over .500 and a sign that, yes, there has been significant improvement in the last month.

It would also keep them in the running for the American Athletic Conference title.

"Our number one goal right now is to keep running towards the end of the season, to stay in the race for the championship," said head coach Tommy Tuberville. "This will be a big game for us. Our schedule is going to be pretty tough for the next month with two games on the road. This is a team that I knew going into the season we had to play well and had a chance to beat to win the conference. Last year, was Central Florida, this year it’s East Carolina."

Kickoff at Paul Brown Stadium is scheduled for 7 p.m.

East Carolina (6-2, 3-1 AAC) is coming off its first conference loss of the season, 20-10 at Temple, when it turned the ball over five times. The Pirates outgained Temple 432-135 but couldn’t hold on to the ball. East Carolina is third in the nation in passing offense, averaging 361.3 yards a game. Quarterback Shane Carden is in the top four nationally in completions, yards and total offense per game.

The Pirates own wins against Virginia Tech (one week after it won at Ohio State) and North Carolina of the ACC. Its lone loss prior to Temple was at South Carolina.

"They can score points (and) they run a lot plays," said Tuberville. "I’ve faced and coached this type of offense for several years and it can carve you up pretty good and they got the guy that can do the carving at quarterback. So it’ll be a huge challenge for our players and fortunately for us we’ve had a little extra time to practice and get people back healthy."

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UC (5-3, 3-1) hasn’t played since beating Tulane on Halloween night, 38-14. The Bearcats have won three in a row against SMU, South Florida and Tulane, teams that are a combined 6-20 this season. Kiel and his ribs are healthy, said Tuberville. While Tuberville said he wouldn’t name a starter until game time, it will likely be Kiel although Munchie Legaux has taken a lot of snaps in practice the last couple of weeks while Kiel has been on the mend and should also see playing time. Kiel leads the American in passing efficiency and touchdown passes (20).

The Bearcats have road games at Connecticut and Temple before closing out the regular season on Dec. 6 at PBS against Houston. Just how much those games will mean in terms of a conference title chase depends on how much UC can show against East Carolina that it no longer is the team that was blown out in consecutive games against Ohio State, Memphis and Miami.

"I’m still at the point of: where are we? Where is this team at? How good are we? How good can we be?" said Tuberville. "The last month, there are a lot of possibilities but we still have a lot of young guys making all kinds of mistakes. We’re getting ready to play four teams that can give us a pretty good idea of where our program is right now. Most of the offensive guys are healthy. Defensively, continue to worry about holding up. We’ve done a few things on defense that’s helped us but sooner or later our guys have got to hold up on our own, base defenses and technique which we went back to last week. Hopefully that will show up and all the work we’ve done in the past two weeks going into these last four games."