Zech Byrd

Sophomore tight end Zech Byrd catches a pass against South Florida.

A tough stretch on the schedule for East Carolina University’s (3-5, 0-4 AAC) football team only continues to gather strength when the University of Cincinnati (6-1, 3-0 AAC) rolls into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.

Ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll and 18th by the coaches, the Bearcats kickoff back-to-back games that the Pirates must play against ranked opponents. While No. 15 ranked Southern Methodist University (8-0, 4-0 AAC) represents one of the few remaining undefeated programs in the FBS this season, ECU must first worry about a talented Cincinnati team that has some quality wins under its belt.

“One of the top teams in the country,” head coach Mike Houston said about Cincinnati. “A complete program from top to bottom. One that wins by doing things right, by being sound fundamentally in all three phases, by taking advantage of mistakes that opponents make and by not making critical mistakes that beat themselves.”

Recently removed from watching his team falter in the red zone against the University of South Florida (4-4, 2-2 AAC), committing two turnovers in the process, Houston must once again prepare his players for a program that induces a bunch of takeaways.

With 19 turnovers gained (11 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries), the Bearcats are tied for second in the nation, trailing only USF who leaped Cincinnati with their effort in Greenville, North Carolina last week. Having committed just 10 turnovers themselves, however, Cincinnati is tied for sixth in the FBS with a plus-nine turnover margin.

“They don’t make a lot of mistakes,” Houston said. “You’re going to have to be very disciplined in what you do. You’re going to have to be very sound. We’re going to have to play together. “We’re going to have to play very hard and be very physical,” Houston said. “We’re going to have to be the things that we talk about almost every week because if we don’t, they’re not going to give you the ballgame.”

Despite owning a 6-1 record, Luke Fickell’s squad is not an offensive juggernaut like the University of Central Florida has been this season. The Bearcats will enter Saturday ranked 85th in the FBS in total offense, a number hampered by their 90th ranked passing attack.

At the center of that attack is sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder. Coming off 2018 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year honors, Ridder has yet to pass for more than 263 yards in a game on his way to nearly 1,400 this season. Despite that, he does have a four touchdown game to his credit and has failed to throw more than one interception in any game thus far.

“I think the quarterback is highly underrated,” Houston said. “I think Ridder is one of the better quarterbacks we face this year. He does a good job of ball distribution, accurate throws, has good arm strength. Has good height in the pocket so he can see. He’s a much better runner than he probably gets credit for. I think he’s a legitimate threat in the run game as well as on the quarterback scramble.”

Speaking to the ball distribution point, Ridder owns a 61% completion rate this season, a number that has crept as high as 81.8% against Marshall University (5-3, 3-1 C-USA) earlier in the campaign.

With his legs, as Houston speaks to, Ridder is sitting on 202 net rushing yards through seven games. That number places him third on the Bearcats’ roster behind junior running backs Michael Warren II (498 yards) and Gerrid Doaks (214 yards). All told, the aforementioned trio makes up over 75% (914 of 1,214 yards) of Cincinnati’s rushing yards this season.

“He (Ridder) is the unquestioned leader of that offense,” Houston said. “He does a great job directing it. That’s one thing that we’re going to have to do a good job of accounting for him both in the passing game and in the running game as well.”

As has been the case for ECU’s offense at times this season, Cincinnati’s red zone offense has struggled, ranking 126th out of 130 FBS teams entering play on Saturday. That has held the Bearcats to the 71st best offensive team in the country by points scored and kept the pressure on a defensive unit that is continually rising to the occasion

Led by junior safety Darrick Forrest who has racked up 61 tackles in 2019, the Bearcats own the 37th best defense in the country, allowing 344.7 yards per contest. Both against the rush and pass, Cincinnati ranks inside the top-50 in the FBS and has scored 59 points (8.4 per game) off turnovers.

“They’re sound fundamentally and all of their players are very aggressive,” Houston said. “He’s (Fickell) created that culture there. It is very much a look at how we want to play here.”

Junior jack (hybrid of defensive end and linebacker) Michael Pitts and defensive tackle Elijah Ponder have totaled a combined 12.5 tackles for loss for the Bearcats this season and have seven sacks to their credit to anchor Cincinnati’s pass-rush attack and allow it to rank 24th in the FBS by holding opponents to 20.4 points per game.

On the back-end, sophomore safety Ja’von Hicks owns seven (four interceptions, three fumble recoveries) of his team’s takeaways in 2019 while seven different players have picked an opposing quarterback through the same number of games.

When the Bearcats step off the bus on Saturday, it will be the first time since 2017 they have visited Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. While that result was a good one for ECU, a 48-20 win, last season’s matchup was one to forget for the Pirates.

In Cincinnati, under less than stellar weather conditions, ECU lost 56-6, extending a run of seven losses in eight games to conclude the 2018 campaign.

“That was probably the most miserable game I’ve been a part of as a football player was last year there, for multiple reasons,” sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers said. “We remember that, we’re a young team, we were all there last year, so we remember that and we’ll think about that all week.”

Slated to be heavy underdogs at home on Saturday, the Pirates will be without junior linebacker Aaron Ramseur as Houston confirmed he tore his ACL last week against USF. While a hit to ECU’s linebacker corps, it will be on the Pirates’ defense to keep Saturday’s game close for an offense still finding its footing in 2019.

Whether or not that happens remains to be seen as ECU attempts to kick its 2-9 record when playing back-to-back games at Dowdy-Ficklen since joining the AAC.

Kickoff between the Bearcats and Pirates is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday.

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