CINCINNATI -- University of Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said in his introductory press conference that rebuilding the football program would take time, and that point has been underscored in the first half of the regular season.
The Bearcats (2-4, 0-2 American) have lost three straight games. Their defense surrendered 51 points in last week’s weather-shortened loss to Central Florida, their rushing offense is ranked 10th among the league’s 12 teams and they’ve played from behind for almost 345 minutes -- which is just 53:57 shy of their total game time in the first six outings.
Things don’t get easier this week.
Instead of their originally planned bye week, which was rescheduled due to Hurricane Irma, the Bearcats head to No. 18 South Florida (5-0, 2-0) for Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. showdown against Charlie Strong’s Bulls in Tampa. USF marks UC’s third Top 25 opponent in 36 days.
Grading out the Bearcats midway through the season thus far would yield tough results considering their struggles on the field. The way Fickell sees it, success moving forward means building on team strengths, improving weaknesses and bolstering morale.
“We’ve got to move on and find a way to continue to get better at what we’re doing. We’re not going to change. We kind of focused this week on going to back to ‘let’s not forget who we are.' The culture of our program, the things we want to do,” Fickell said Tuesday.
Gaining confidence is crucial for these Bearcats, if only to eliminate emotional swings that affect players and, in turn, outcomes. Youthfulness is one part of the equation but mounting losses have taken tolls on UC veterans as well. In order to extend the continuity established during preseason and reinforce his belief in the team, Fickell has devoted extra time being around players off the field.
Asked how the Bearcats are faring mentally after the 2-4 start, Fickell said “time will tell.”
“I haven’t been in a whole lot of these situations but what is most draining is when you’re working so darn hard, you’re committing so darn hard to doing something and you don’t get the results you want,” Fickell said.
“That’s one of those things that go through my head, to say, ‘OK, where are these guys?’ They’ve done everything you’ve asked them to do and yet they don’t get the results that they want. That’s when you look them in the face and say, ‘That’s a part of life. We told you from the get-go: You can rip your chest open, hand us your heart, do everything we ask you to do, and guess what it guarantees you? Nothing. It doesn’t. It guarantees that you’ll be a better person. It guarantees that you’ll be able to handle whatever comes your way in the future, but it doesn’t guarantee you success right now.’”
So what has gone well thus far?
- The team has two wins -- against Austin Peay in the opener and a thrilling come-from-behind victory at Miami University for the Victory Bell.
- Quarterback Hayden Moore is coming off a solid performance versus UCF, during which he rushed for a game- and career-high 75 yards on 13 carries with a career-high-tying two touchdowns. He also rolled up 278 yards on 23-of-40 passing with one touchdown and one interception.
- Moore’s success of late has been a product of the offensive line’s improvement, notably in its pass protection.
Those strides obviously are imperative in games ahead. But to snap its six-game skid in conference play and squelch USF’s 10-game winning streak, UC desperately needs to shore up a defense that has allowed a combined 1,503 yards in the last three outings.
The Bulls most recently rolled up 575 yards of offense against hapless East Carolina. How well the Bearcats respond to the USF’s stringent brand of adversity could be the difference between another losing season and a jaw-dropping turn-around.
Although Fickell said the season has “been difficult,” he expected bumps along the way and knew maintaining focus would be important. He called the seniors his motivation, from the changes they’ve made to the commitment they’ve shown.
“It’s making sure I look at those guys in the face and knowing when all is said and done that I’ve given them -- our coaches have given them -- everything that we possibly could,” Fickell said. “Practicing what we preach, that hey, we knew we were going to give them everything we’ve got, not guaranteed what results we were going to get.”