November 2013

Tuberville Looks To Add To Big Game Reputation

When Whit Babcock introduced Tommy Tuberville as Cincinnati’s new head coach at a quickly-arranged news conference last December, he brought up the time they spent together at Auburn and said that he was impressed with Tuberville’s leadership style, family-centered values, and how he treated people.

“I was also impressed with his knack for winning the big games,” said Babcock.

I thought that might be worth bringing up before the Bearcats host Louisville a week from Thursday in one of the biggest games in Nippert Stadium history.

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Tuberville has a 7-3 record in bowl games, went 7-3 vs. archrival Alabama during his years at Auburn, and has gone 6-3 in his career when facing teams ranked in the Top 5.

So what’s his secret?

“I was fortunate to grow up as an assistant coach in a lot of big games and rivalry games with coaches like Dennis Erickson, Jimmy Johnson, and R.C. Slocum and the one thing that I took from all of those guys was to let the players win the game,” Tuberville told me.  “Don’t try to outcoach the other team.  If you try to do too much and throw too much on the wall and players are confused, you always end up with problems.  So we’ll prepare them and get them ready to go, but it’s going to happen between the whistles and between the lines at Nippert Stadium.  Just get out of the way and let ‘em play.  There’s no secret to it.  Get ‘em ready to go and turn ‘em loose.”

Cincinnati is clearly playing its best football of the year going into the showdown against the 10-1 Cardinals.  After beating Houston on Saturday for their sixth straight win, the 9-2 Bearcats have climbed into the Top 25 for the first time this season.  That seemed hard to imagine in early October when the Bearcats walked off the field after a loss at USF with a 3-2 record.

“We were just trying to find out if we could score points, much less win football games because we were struggling on offense,” said Tuberville.  “About midseason we were flopping around just trying to find an identity and we started getting a little bit better and better and guys started to make plays.  We haven’t done anything different – our guys are just kind of absorbing everything that we’ve put in over the past year and it takes a while to do that.  I’m proud of all of the players.  The seniors have done a great job of keeping this team focused and the leadership has just been outstanding.” 

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No senior has played a more important role than quarterback Brendon Kay.  During the Bearcats’ six-game winning streak, Kay has averaged 330 passing yards and thrown 15 TD passes while completing 72% of his throws.

“It’s remarkable – 60% is good,” said Tuberville.  “You’ve got to give some credit to the receivers like Mekale McKay, Chris Moore, and the two little guys inside (Shaq Washington and Anthony McClung) catching everything that he throws.  But still, you’ve got to find the open man and get the ball there.  And people forget, he’s been about 70 to 80 percent healthy for the last few games because he’s been beat up.  I’m really proud of Brendon.  He came in and he was the back-up quarterback before Munchie got hurt and he struggled for a couple of games, but he’s just been gangbusters for the last few weeks.

“He’s the most accurate guy that I’ve been around, and I’ve been around some Heisman Trophy winners at Miami (Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta).  But none were as accurate as Brendon for such a long period of time.  He’s been on target for the last five or six weeks.  He’s throwing the deep ball, the short ball, the screen passes – all of those things are on target.” 

While the offense has made huge strides since the USF loss, the defense has been solid in every game this season but the week two loss at Illinois.  Cincinnati is ranked 5th in the nation in rushing defense, 9th in yards allowed, and tied for 9th in points allowed.

“We’re not overpowering,” said Tuberville.  “We don’t do anything fancy.  We’ve got two or three guys that are good senior leaders.  We’ve got a lot of first-time players, but those guys are 11 games into the season and they’ve gotten much better.  I think it’s the overall scheme of Art Kaufman and all of his coaches pulling the trigger and saying, ‘Listen.  Let’s do what we do and don’t do anything special and let ‘em play.’  It’s worked out pretty well for us.”

The Bearcats are one win from reaching 10 victories for the sixth time in the last seven seasons and still have a chance to win their fifth conference title in the last six years.  Additionally, if Cincinnati beats Louisville and UCF loses one of its final two games to either USF or SMU, the Bearcats could earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

If only Bearcats had not have dropped their conference opener at USF…

“We’ll take 9-and-2 after the start we had,” said Tuberville.  “You can always look back and say, ‘Man, what if?’  But you don’t want to do that.  You want to look at where you are today and what you have in front of you.”

What Tommy Tuberville has in front of him is his biggest game so far at Cincinnati.

And if you’re like me, it can’t get here soon enough.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Zimmer Expresses Confidence Despite Mounting Injuries

If you know anything about Mike Zimmer, you know that he’s not about to say “Woe is me” after injuries ravaged his 5th-ranked defense.

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Even after losing Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Robert Geathers, and Taylor Mays with season-ending injuries, the Bengals defensive coordinator exudes confidence.

“Obviously we can’t replace some of the talent we’ve lost, but we can play really good as a team,” said Zimmer. “We can do our job, we can play really hard, and we can make sure that we understand all of the situations and those kinds of things. This is the NFL and this isn’t the first time that this has happened. I take it as a great opportunity and a great challenge to get this group of guys to play really good defense.”

Still, the loss of Atkins will force Zimmer to make changes since the two-time Pro Bowler is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL and helped the Bengals consistently get pressure on the quarterback without constantly having to blitz.

“Obviously we won’t have the same pressure that we had with Geno with just three guys or four guys, so we’re going to have to manufacture it a little bit more. That will be our challenge as coaches – to try to find ways to still create pressure on the quarterback.

“It hurts because there were a lot of times where schematically we were trying to put Geno in one-on-one situations. Now we won’t be doing that quite as much. We’re going to have to turn to our ends and try to find situations where we can get them into one-on-one matchups.”

The bulk of Geno’s playing time figures to go to second-year pro Brandon Thompson who was in for 36 snaps in Thursday’s loss at Miami. Like Atkins, Thompson is freakishly strong as evidenced by this YouTube clip of him bench-pressing 495 pounds.

“I look at it as an opportunity,” Thompson told me. “It’s my chance to showcase my talents and what I bring to the table. It’s hard losing a player like Geno. He’s probably one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL if not the greatest. I’m not going to be able to replace him, but I’m going to come in and do what I do. I’m rough in there and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get to the ball.”

“Whoever is playing in place of Geno is going to step up and make plays – I can tell you that for sure,” said Terence Newman. “That’s how good our depth is on the line.

“It’s a great challenge. Geno is a great player. He’s one of the best in the league at his position. He’s one of the best defensive players in the league period. It’s a great blow, but like I said, it’s an opportunity. Whoever is in that position is going to try to step up and make his presence felt.”

As a rookie with Dallas in 2003, Newman was part of a Zimmer-coached defense that finished number one in the NFL in yards allowed and second in points allowed despite not having a dominant pass rusher (Greg Ellis led the team with eight sacks).

“We had a great group of guys that were unselfish and did what they were supposed to do,” said Zimmer. “They played really hard, and played really smart, and I think this group can be like that. Obviously we still have more talent than we probably did when I was in Dallas. Collectively if we all play good together, we’ll still be a good defensive team.”

Zimmer was named the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009 when the Bengals finished fourth in the league in total defense despite not having a Pro Bowler on that side of the ball.

“When I first got here, we obviously didn’t have the talent that we have now and we played pretty good,” said Zimmer. “I take a lot of pride in getting 11 guys to do their job, and do it as well as they can, and playing great team defense. I do feel like we have a nucleus of guys and we have some other good players that can go in there and play well.”

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