TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — No. 17 Cincinnati can clinch at least a share of the American Athletic Conference East Division title by beating South Florida.
The Bearcats are two-touchdown favorites and determined to play with a sense of urgency.
“The whole team knows it’s there, the whole conference knows it’s there,” tight end Josiah Deguara said.
Despite being the only team in the conference that’s unbeaten in league play, the Bearcats (8-1, 5-0, No. 17 CFP) have a penchant for playing to the level of their competition. They struggled to wins over Tulsa and East Carolina in games they were expected to dominate, while playing their best football in victories over Power Five opponent UCLA and conference rivals UCF and Houston, which both began the season with expectations of runs at the AAC championship.
Coach Luke Fickell implored his players to bring more focus to their preparation down the stretch. The Bearcats responded last week by going out and scoring on seven of their first eight possessions en route to a 48-3 rout of struggling UConn.
The challenge now is to put together another strong performance against South Florida (4-5, 2-3), which is a coming off a 10-point loss to Temple and needs to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible.
It won’t be easy for the Bulls, who host No. 18 Memphis and travel to two-time defending AAC champion UCF the next two weeks.
“I know we’re 4-5 right now, but we feel like a couple of different bounces, and if we made a couple more plays, especially on our side of the ball, that record could be flipped or maybe add another win to that,” USF defensive coordinator Brian Jean-Mary said.
Cincinnati, which has regular-season games remaining against Temple and Memphis, has won seven straight since a Week 2 loss to Ohio State. Although the Bearcats cruised at home against UConn last week, they had to rally late to win 46-43 at East Carolina two games ago.
“Hopefully, we learned a lot about going on the road and knowing what it’s like,” Fickell said. “You have to respect not only your opponent but the energy and momentum in a game.”
UP AND RUNNING
Cincinnati’s Gerrid Doaks missed last season and part of this season with injuries, he’s developed into a complement for starting running back Michael Warren II. Warren has rushed for 699 yards and nine touchdowns, and Doaks has 376 yards and four touchdowns, allowing the Bearcats to keep their running backs fresh.
“Having a two-headed backfield, it’s easy for me,” quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “Having two fresh backs we’re able to rotate really puts a hurt on the defense.”
South Florida running back Jordan Cronkrite, who elected to return for his senior season after rushing for 1,121 yards in 2018, has helped the Bulls rebound from a 1-3 start to climb within striking distance of becoming bowl eligible. Since rushing for just 76 yards on 33 carries through four games, he’s gained 533 yards on 116 attempts and scored four touchdowns over the next five. During the month of October, Cronkrite averaged 6.7 yards per carry and averaged 127 yards per game while topping 100 in three of four games.
TAKE IT AWAY
Cincinnati and South Florida both have 21 takeaways, tied for second-most nationally behind Illinois with 22. The Bearcats have 13 interceptions and eight fumbles recovered. Cincinnati has 11 interceptions and five fumble recoveries in the last five games.
Cincinnati tight end Josiah Deguara had TD catches of 15 and 18 yards against UConn, giving him seven for the season. DeGuara needs 11 catches, 109 yards receiving or three touchdowns to set school career records for a tight end in any of those categories.
“He makes a lot of match-up issues,” Fickell said. “Josiah can do a lot of different things. People don’t have the ability to pinpoint what’s going on with him. He’s come a long way, his ability to be a complete player.”