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.
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.”
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
If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard
And I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dan.hoard.1