CINCINNATI -- After an abysmal first half, the University of Cincinnati’s football team had nowhere to go but up.
The Bearcats trailed by 24 points at intermission and ultimately lost to Marshall 38-21 at Nippert Stadium late Saturday before 35,376 fans – many of whom left at the break.
It wasn’t exactly the homecoming UC hoped for after playing three games on the road for the first time in 17 years. The Bearcats (2-3) played better as the three hour, 36 minute game progressed, but their early deficit was too great to surmount.
These are the top takeaways from the defeat.
1. The team is still a work in progress.
OK, a major work in progress. Coach Luke Fickell won’t use the coaching transition and new system as a crutch, but five games into his new role, the Bearcats are struggling for consistency in the details of their duties.
Consider the last two losses, at Navy and versus Marshall. The Bearcats surrendered a combined 80 points and 935 yards (and to be fair, 569 of those yards were in the Navy outing).
Also consider that against Marshall, UC outscored the Thundering Herd 21-14 in the second half. There are no moral victories and one half does not a game make, but from the ashes UC made progress Saturday.
“It’s a process. And it’s coming. It’s hard to see at times, but this is one of those ones that we’re going to have to go back and we’ll have to study hard,” Fickell said.
He hopes future strides come from tweaking the team’s practice habits to find what’s “not showing up on a Saturday.” That means giving players clips of Tuesday or Wednesday training sessions and addressing how they handle miscues then and there, and not waiting for game footage on the big stage.
2. Penalties haunted. Big time.
The Bearcats lost three fumbles and surrendered 21 points off turnovers in a mistake-addled outing. In all, UC had seven penalties for 78 yards.
The game practically started with a gaffe, as Bearcats linebacker Perry Young recovered a fumble less than a minute into play. But quarterback Hayden Moore fumbled the ball two plays later, and the Herd scored a touchdown at the end of that drive.
The drive, incidentally, was extended by an offside call on UC defensive end Bryan Wright.
Mistakes piled up in the first two quarters. At one point UC’s defense had Marshall just where it wanted it -- pinned back to its own 30 on third down -- but a pass interference call on cornerback Linden Stephens gave the Herd new life.
When Moore finally made headway with an 8-yard rush, a personal foul on Kyle Trout set the Bearcats back 15 yards. UC punted two plays later.
The Bearcats accrued 33 yards of total offense to the Herd’s 188 before halftime. UC maintained possession for just 5:41 in the first two quarters.
Why was the first half so ugly? Fickell suspected it was because this team struggled to shore up success from positive plays. The Bearcats have shown they can scrap and claw back from a major deficit, but they have struggled to set the tone and stick with it.
“Yes, they’re fighters. Yes, we continue to fight through things. Yes, we can see the attitudes of the guys that didn’t quit, whether they were older guys or younger guys,” Fickell said. “We’ve got to find a way to play off some positive things.”
3. The running game started on empty.
The Bearcats gained just nine yards on the ground in the first half. Even with the return of Mike Boone (ankle), who missed the last two games, the team missed a chance to put a dent in Marshall’s rushing defense from the start.
Time of possession played a role -- the Bearcats didn’t have much chance to shore up offense in the nearly six minutes they had the ball in the first half -- but biggest gain was an eight-yard scramble by Moore.
“Our ability not to be able to run the ball early on again put us in a tougher situation,”. Fickell said “We’ve got to find some ways early on to generate (progress) with the running game” -- rather than relying on Moore and others to manufacture more with the passing game.
The good news is that UC finished with 138 rushing yards, fueled by freshmen Gerrid Doaks (10 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown) and Michael Warren (five carries for 39 yards and a touchdown).
Marshall amassed 133 yards on the ground. It was only the second time this season -- and first since the win at Miami University -- that UC outgained its opponent in rushing yards.
4. When it rained, it poured.
It seemed like every time Marshall needed a major play to advance a drive, it conjured just that. Quarterback Chase Litton made clutch plays time and again, including a pass to Tyler King that was reviewed and upheld as a first down in the second quarter.
Linden Stephens’ pass-breakup on a third-and-eight was seemingly the stop the Bearcats needed to change their fortune -- except a UC holding penalty propelled Marshall to its 15th first down of the game.
The Herd capped the drive with a touchdown and surged ahead 17-0 with 1:38 left in the half. A Bearcats fumble after the ensuing kickoff led to a Marshall recovery on the Cincinnati 15-yard line, and the Herd promptly tacked on another touchdown to make it 24-0 with 1:27 remaining.
To reiterate, Marshall scored 14 points in 11 seconds.
The Bearcats missed a 26-yard field goal with 44 seconds left and went to their locker room scoreless. The litany of miscues daunted the home team as much as the challenges posed by its opponent.
“It’s one thing after another. Again, you can’t make excuses for it. You’ve got to make your breaks,” Fickell said. “I think that’s the thing that we’ve got to keep telling our guys. Nobody’s going to hand us anything.”
5. The second act was better than the first.
Doaks converted a 2-yard touchdown run with 9:05 left in the third quarter, and Josh Pasley followed suit with the PAT to make it 24-7, Marshall.
The drive signified major adjustments made by the Bearcats. They dedicated 5:55 of the clock to it, which eclipsed their time of possession in the entire first half (5:41).
The Bearcats stopped Marshall on fourth-and-one late in the quarter, setting up a 31-yard Doaks scamper.
Had UC played with such skill and confidence in the first half, the game may have had a different ending. The bigger query now is whether the Bearcats will be able to translate the lessons from the Marshall loss to their next outing, which is Oct. 7 versus UCF (3-0, 1-0 American).
The 8 p.m., ESPNU-televised outing at Nippert is another crucial opportunity for UC to show whether it can make sustained progress and finish with a win.
Shannon Russell is a freelance sports analyst and columnist for WCPO.com. Follow her on Twitter at @slrussell.