CINCINNATI – The University of Cincinnati Bearcats head into the bye week off to their best start since 2009. They are unbeaten, already bowl eligible and on the cusp of the national rankings. Still, head coach Luke Fickell isn’t about to let his players rest on their laurels, or be satisfied with what they’ve accomplished to this point.
“I don’t want any type of satisfaction,” Fickell said. “I don’t want anything to slow us down. I want them to stay hungry. It’s a good thing to have to try and balance, because we didn’t have to worry about that last year. I’m excited about what we’ve built inside the locker room where guys will take care of those things themselves.”
These are heady times for the Bearcats football program, which is coming off back-to-back 4-8 seasons. After Saturday’s 37-21 victory over Tulane, UC is 6-0, its best start since Brian Kelly’s 2009 team went 12-0 before losing to the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl.
But, the bye week won’t be handled any differently. In fact, Fickell said the schedule was laid out prior to the season, in order to avoid the temptation to shift gears based on how well or poorly the season was going to this point. The Bearcats’ next game is Oct. 20 at Temple, and that’s where the focus will stay this week, along with getting healthy.
“You can’t flip out and change everything you do whether you’re 0-6 or 6-0,” Fickell said, of his bye-week plan. “You want to be consistent. You want to have some sort of plan in place. You don’t want to have emotion about where you are in the season affect you in a bad way.”
As of Saturday, Fickell hadn’t addressed bowl-eligibility with his players, and he doesn’t plan to. He called reaching the six-win plateau the “elephant in the room” going into the bye because it never was among his team’s goals heading into the season. The season doesn’t end with six wins, of course, and Fickell wants his players to remain focused on the process and not the press clippings.
The Bearcats are among the youngest teams in the nation with more than 70 percent of their roster comprised of underclassmen, including 35 true freshmen. On the surface, it might appear overconfidence could be a concern heading into the bye. But, not for this team.
“We’re just going to come to work and practice on Monday like we do every week,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder. “We’re going to practice as hard as we always do. Coach (Fickell) said in the locker room he’s going to push us just as hard. We don’t have a different mentality. We’re just going to keep going.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t a thing of beauty. But an 81-yard touchdown run and 130 rushing yards from sophomore Michael Warren, plus two TD passes from Ridder to Kahlil Lewis, who overcame a couple drops the week before, helped the Bearcats cruised to a methodical win on a steamy Homecoming afternoon before 32,200 fans at Nippert Stadium.
The Bearcats blocked a punt for the first time in 10 years and allowed fewer than 200 yards of total offense to Tulane through three quarters.
While it was another slow start for the Bearcats, who trailed 10-0 at UCLA, 21-0 at home to Ohio, 7-0 at UConn and 7-3 to Tulane on Saturday, they rallied to win again.
The Bearcats received 35 votes in this week’s Associated Press poll, good for No. 29 in the rankings. But, “We just want to play ball,” said Warren.
One advantage of having the bye week now is to allow more time for freshman center Jakari Robinson to get comfortable in his new starting role. When sixth-year senior center Garrett Campbell, a St. Xavier High School product, went down with a leg injury in last week’s victory at Connecticut, the Bearcats lost not only a key cog in the offense but a senior leader. There is not timetable for Campbell to return.
Kelly’s “Next Man Up” philosophy served the Bearcats well during his tenure, which included trips to the Orange and Sugar Bowls, particularly when he had to use five QBs during the 2008 season. Fickell has had to deal with some key injuries as well this season, the most significant being Campbell.
Robinson made his first career start on Saturday and mostly performed well, aside from a couple of false start penalties.
“He did a good job,” Fickell said. “There was a bad snap, a little flinch of the football twice. All in all, that’s a tough situation. There’s a lot of energy and a lot of momentum for this team right now and he’s taking over for a guy who’s the captain of the team, the heartbeat of the offensive line. Those are big shoes. That’s a lot of pressure. I’m proud of what he’s done.”
The Bearcats’ confidence heading into the bye week is sky-high. Warren said the locker room these days is “like a party.” That doesn’t concern Fickell much. At the bye week last season, the Bearcats were 2-6. The mood is noticeably different now, for all the right reasons.
“In the locker room last year, guys have their headsets on, kind of doing their own thing,” Fickell said. “Now, a half-hour, 45 minutes before practice, you’ve got guys holding court, you’ve got guys dancing. There’s a better energy about them. They are enjoying what they do. We’re going to keep this train rolling.”