No. 23 Cincinnati's defense behind its turnaround

BY foxsports • November 8, 2011

The last thing Cincinnati wanted to see in 2010 was its defense on the field in the fourth quarter of a close game. The Bearcats knew that by then, one of the nation's youngest and thinnest units was running on fumes.

''We were getting scored on,'' running back Isaiah Pead said. ''Last year was just a total mishap, and this is a total flip around from last year.''

This year, the defense is winning games for the 23rd-ranked Bearcats, who have taken control of the Big East behind a unit that's grown into one of the league's best.

Cincinnati is giving up 19.5 points per game, which ranks third in the league. The Bearcats have the top rushing defense, allowing only 86 yards per game. They've piled up 22 sacks in the last five games, all wins.

It's a reversal from last year, when the defense gave up 28 points per game overall and 31 or more in five of the last six. The two-time defending league champs slipped to 4-8 while going through a lot of growing pains in coach Butch Jones' first season replacing Brian Kelly.

Quickly, they've grown up.

''I think that's a great way to phrase it: Growing up,'' quarterback Zach Collaros said on Tuesday. ''I think they're older, more mature. I don't think they get as down on themselves as maybe in the past. When we as an offense put them in a bad situation, they embrace that and they want to get out of that.''

The focus will be on that defense when the Bearcats (7-1, 3-0) try to extend their six-game winning streak against high-powered West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. A victory would leave Cincinnati in control of the league race with three games to go.

They've won the last three with second-half comebacks made possible by a stingy defense.

''I've got all the confidence in the world in them because they've proved it all year,'' Pead said. ''They've been holding us together. They're truly the reason we're 3-0 right now in the Big East.''

The defense had a lot going against it last season.

Kelly left behind an inexperienced unit. There were no senior starters and only six players who had started a game during their college careers. Midway through the season, as injuries added up, they had the youngest defense in the BCS with eight sophomores starting.

There was so little depth that the defensive line had to play virtually the entire game. And the Bearcats were learning their third defensive scheme in three years - Kelly had switched defenses in his final season as well.

It was all too much. This year, it's all different.

''Maturity, experience, more depth, leadership - everything,'' senior linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. ''Guys know the defense now. Now our attitude is we're going to keep playing no matter what, no matter what the score is or how much time is left in the game.

''I think that's really changed from last year. We really didn't have that mindset and that attitude last year, and that hurt us. Having guys with more experience has really helped us.''

Jones would like to have a little more depth on the defense, but there's enough to give his linemen a break and keep them fresher for the fourth quarter. Last year, defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was forced to play 80 to 85 snaps a game because there was no one capable of filling in without causing problems.

''It's huge to be able to take a couple of snaps off,'' said Wolfe, a senior who leads the Big East with seven sacks. ''You can't get a quality pass rush when you have dead legs. After 80 snaps, really there's not a lot left to give.

''Last year in the fourth quarter, your legs are just dead and you're not getting anything productive done. On our fourth-quarter pass rush now, we can all get there. We're not dead.''

They've also developed a confidence that they can change a game around, something that was too much to ask last year.

''A lot of these games we wouldn't have won last year because we didn't have the experience to push through that,'' Wolfe said.

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