Analysis: Cincinnati Bearcats' secondary finds 'swag' in 42-7 win over Murray State

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

The first half Saturday for the University of Cincinnati football team was shaky to say the least.

Head coach Luke Fickell credited FCS opponent Murray State for coming into Nippert Stadium with a great game plan.

More:No. 7/8 Cincinnati Bearcats survive sluggish start to defeat Murray State, 42-7

"Give them a lot of credit," he said. "I think they did a phenomenal job coming out. It wasn't anything with the way we prepared. I think we really respected who we were playing and all of our preparation. I just think they came out and did a really good job to start the game offensively of just monotonously moving the ball. I think that's probably the thing that can frustrate us as much as anything."

After going into the locker room tied 7-7 with the Racers, the No. 7/8-ranked (Associated Press/Coaches) Bearcats rallied to a convincing 42-7 win.

Up next: UC will travel to Indiana on Sept. 18. Kickoff is scheduled for noon ET on ABC/ESPN.

What we learned from Saturday's win:

Murray State may have shown the way to beat the Bearcats

Despite a solid start Saturday, the Racers just didn't have the talent to keep pace with Cincinnati.

Committing eleven penalties, throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles didn't help either.

But Murray State did do something offensively that the Bearcats hadn't seen in quite some time: Huddle.

"Being methodical, huddling, I don't know if our guys have seen a huddle in a couple years," Fickell said. "It's just those kinds of things that just kind of slow it down a bit. ... Those methodical things are something we've got to grow with."

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

The Racers' ironic slow pace helped them control the clock and thus the game. Murray State dominated the time of possession, particularly in the first half (MSU 21:53, UC 8:07). The Bearcats had the ball all of 1:30 in the first quarter.

Murray State may not have been able to secure the victory, but they may have unlocked Cincinnati's kryptonite.

Cincinnati secondary found its 'swag'

The UC defense finished in the top 15 nationally in five categories last season, including tied for third in interceptions (16). The Bearcats had the top touchdown-interception ratio (7-16) in the nation a season ago.

Interceptions is something that has come naturally to Cincinnati over the past three seasons. But oddly enough, the Bearcats didn't get any in their Week 1 win over in-state rival Miami University.

What we learned: Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder shows growth in rout of rival RedHawks

Cincinnati flipped the switch Saturday, particularly the secondary.

The unit had three interceptions. Senior safety Ja’von Hicks’ interception on Murray State’s first drive was the sixth of his career, All-American cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner’s pick in the second quarter off a tipped pass by safety Bryan Cook was his seventh career interception, and nickel Arquon Bush’s pick in the second quarter was the fifth in his four years at UC.

"I would say that for us, it was just getting that type of swag back," Cook said. "... Now, we're meshing really well together and we've got that swag in the defensive room, as well as the DB (defensive back) room."

Cincinnati Bearcats safety Bryan Cook (6) and Cincinnati Bearcats safety Ja'von Hicks (3) celebrate a fumble recovery in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

Running back Jerome Ford needs more carries

Jerome Ford racked up 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries last week. But Fickell said Tuesday he wasn't ready to anoint Ford as the feature back.

"He had 12 carries. I don't know if you could ever say you're ready to be that feature guy with only 12 carries," Fickell said. "Now, I wanted to see him get 18 carries, but the way the game worked, with his 12 carries, we had probably seen what we needed to see from him. But you're never quick in this program to throw a crown on somebody or anoint them anything until, like anything, you do it over time."

More:'Competition breeds excellence': Ford, McClelland lead crowded race to be UC's No. 1 RB

Well, Coach, how about now?

Ford finished with 113 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries Saturday. The junior Alabama transfer is now averaging 8.7 yards per carry dating to the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day where Ford had an explosive 79-yard run against Southeastern Conference powerhouse Georgia.

"It means that we don't give him the ball enough," Fickell said after Saturday's win.

It's time to give the ball to Ford and get out of the way.

Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) stiff arms Murray State Racers cornerback Cayvian Holmes (14) in the second half of the NCAA football game between Cincinnati Bearcats and Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.