Freshman Edwards has emerged as Bearcats prime for UL

CINCINNATI — Zach Edwards didn’t exactly standout when he went through spring football practices for the University of Cincinnati. Of course when you’re an incoming freshman who is trying to get a jump on learning anything in college for the first time it’s not easy to shine.

Edwards has learned his lessons well. The safety from Middletown is expected to start his 10th straight game Thursday night as the Bearcats (9-2) host Louisville (10-1) and preseason Heisman hopeful quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at Nippert Stadium. UC is ranked No. 23 in the USA Today coaches’ poll, while Louisville is No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in USA Today.

Suffice to say, the Cardinals are the best team UC has faced all season. But the Bearcats are on a six-game win streak with a defense that is vastly improved from the one in September that was riddled at Illinois. The Illini put up 522 yards of offense, including five touchdowns of 22 yards or more, in a 45-17 rout of UC in Champaign. The Bearcats lost cornerback Trenier Orr for the season in that game with a knee injury.

Since that game, only Southern Methodist University has topped the 400-yard mark against the Bearcats and only twice have they allowed more than 21 points. The inserting of Edwards into the starting lineup and his growth have been big reasons for UC’s improvement.

“A lot of people don’t know but it’s the safeties who get the defense lined up and in the right calls,” said senior linebacker Greg Blair. “Especially being a freshman, there’s a lot of pressure on him because if you make the wrong call then we’ll be in the wrong front or the wrong coverage and we’ll bust for a big touchdown or a big play. He’s done a great job and stepped up to be a leader in the back end.”

Blair and fellow linebacker Nick Temple lead the Bearcats in tackles, with 78 and 64 respectively, but Edwards is third with 59 stops. Two more safeties, senior Arryn Chenault (49) and junior Adrian Witty (38), follow Edwards. Blair credited Chenault’s leadership with helping Edwards along but Edwards helped himself by being a quick study.

“At the beginning of the year we didn’t have another safety, and he had a very average spring practice,” said head coach Tommy Tuberville. “He got much better at two-a-days, he got much better at camp and you can’t play as a freshman unless you have good football sense. If you don’t understand the game of football, and you have to learn it here, you can’t play as a freshman.”

Edwards isn’t the only first-year player providing significant snaps for the Bearcats’ defense. Freshman Mike Tyson is backing up Chenault. Defensive linemen Terrell Hartsfield, Jerrell Jordan and Marques Aiken, and cornerbacks Howard Wilder and Rod Moore are transfers playing in their first seasons at UC. Moore started the year as a running back but was switched to defense.

Edwards, who was named the American Athletic Conference defensive player of the week after making 11 tackles and recovering a fumble in a 34-21 win at Memphis on Oct. 30, has had the biggest impact of the group.

“We’ve got to communicate with the defense for all of us to be great and for all of us to make plays,” said Edwards. “For me it’s been about communicating with the guys, making checks, making calls and knowing the formations and plays. It’s a big role. It’s their trust in me that allows me to be more confident in making calls and making checks.”

A victory Thursday would secure UC’s sixth double-digit win total in the last seven seasons. At season’s onset this was expected to be the game that would decide the champion of the AAC and a BCS bowl berth. While both teams still have a shot at sharing that title, control of the AAC’s championship rests with Central Florida.

UCF is 10-1 overall and 7-0 in the league, including a 38-35 win at Louisville in October. UC and Louisville are both 6-1 in the league. The winner Thursday would need UCF to lose its finale against SMU on Saturday to claim a share of the AAC title. If things go UC’s way, the Bearcats would be eligible for the BCS bid if they finish ahead of UCF in the final BCS rankings.

UCF is currently 16th in the BCS rankings.

All of that is out of the control of the Bearcats and Cardinals. What is in their control is the last game in the foreseeable future in the Keg of Nails rivalry. Louisville will switch to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season and there are no further games scheduled between the schools at this point.

UC holds a 30-21-1 advantage in the series, including four of the last five games. Louisville won last season, 34-31 in overtime. Both teams will have had 10 days to prepare since their last games; UC won 24-17 at Houston while Louisville beat Memphis by the same score in its final home game on Nov. 23.

Bridgewater’s Heisman candidacy went out the window when Louisville lost to UCF, but he’s still the main focus of the Bearcats. He’s thrown for 3,268 yards and 25 touchdowns this season while being intercepted just three times. He’s averaging 300.5 yards of total offense this season, second only to SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the AAC. The Cardinals lead the AAC in scoring at 35.5 points per game and are second to UC (487.3) in offense averaging 455 yards.

Bridgewater completed 24 of 41 passes for 416 yards, one interception and touchdown passes of 30 and 64 yards to wide receiver DeVante Parker in the fourth quarter last season against the Bearcats. UC led 24-14 in the third quarter.
 
“He’s a good player, he’s a great player, (but) he has his ups and his downs,” said UC senior cornerback Deven Drane. “We’re going to do whatever we need to so we contain him, stop him. We’ve just got to go play football.”