It's officially Keg of Nails Week hump day, so I thought we'd bring in The Cincinnati Post's Josh Katzowitz - who covers UC in both print and blog form - to give his take on Cincy's fast start, this Saturday's game, and Gordon Brown's first three months in office.
We sat down virtually (at virtual Steak n Shake...I'm cheap...and I wanted a milkshake) and had the following conversation:
Card Chronicle: Obviously, the first year of the Steve Kragthorpe experiment in Louisville is off to a rough start. In your opinion, what has Brian Kelly done to make the coaching transition so much smoother at UC?
Josh Katzowitz: Part of the problem for Kragthorpe is that he's following a guy in Bobby Petrino who led Louisville to the Orange Bowl. Brian Kelly is following a guy in Mark Dantonio who led UC to the International Bowl. Big difference there. It's pretty clear the expectations in Louisville were higher than they were in Cincinnati.
Aside from that, Kelly has done an unbelievable job on two fronts:
No. 1: Getting his team to buy into his system. Kelly took over before UC began practicing for the bowl game, so automatically, you've got 15 bowl practices with which to ingratiate yourself. He didn't change much in those 15 practices. He and the new coaching staff learned the old coaching staff's schemes and terminology to make it easier for the players. He introduced a few new changes, but not enough to overwhelm anybody. Then, UC beats Western Michigan in an exciting game. Right there, he gained so much confidence from his players. Plus, they could see how much fun they'd have working in his schemes. Kelly brings in strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo from Central Michigan, and he puts these guys on weight and conditioning programs that have worked tremendously well. It's been quite remarkable.
No. 2: He's gotten the community excited about UC football for the first time since who knows when. He went to a lot of stags, a lot of speaking engagements, a lot of public appearances to get out the word on his team. Then, to back up his words, he goes out and wins with an exciting style of play.
Those two points combined have led UC to this point - a No. 15 ranking and sold-out stadiums.
CC: Two years ago at Nippert Stadium I'm pretty sure there were as many Cardinal fans as Bearcat fans when the two teams met. Now UC is undefeated and in the top 15, and you've got students camping out for tickets. Cincinnati will always be a pro-sports city, but just how high is the excitement level up there right now?
JK: Very high. I've lived in Cincinnati for about 3 1/2 years, and I came here from the south where, as you know, college football is a religion to many. It was very interesting to me (and a little disappointing) when I first moved here that nobody seemed to care about college football. I didn't even get the sense that people in Cincinnati cared about Ohio State. So, my interest in college football waned during the past few years.
College basketball, obviously, is a different story, so I wrote off Cincinnati as one of those cities that just doesn't care about college football.
Well, the city of Cincinnati cares about winning. You can see that with the Bengals the past few years. And you know if the Reds all of a sudden contended for a division title, the excitement here would be off the charts. But in the past few weeks, Cincinnati has taken on a similar feel to what you'd have if you attended a SEC game. You can certainly feel it on campus during the week. Before, we in the media would write 2-3 stories a week on UC football and be done with it. Now, you're at practice every day and writing a story for the next day's paper.
Obviously, the Bearcats football program isn't comparable to the popularity of the Bengals, but it's getting closer. If the Bearcats somehow get to a BCS bowl, the excitement would be out of control.
CC: It certainly didn't seem to take long for Kelly's spread offense to click with the team. How important has it been for him to have a player like Ben Mauk taking the reigns in year one?
JK: I'm convinced Kelly saw something in Ben Mauk, and that's why he went after him hard when it was clear he was leaving Wake Forest and why he's stuck with Mauk all season, even with the continued arm troubles. Mauk played in this system in high school and was extremely successful, but he didn't do much at Wake, so I wasn't sure if Mauk would be any good here. Plus, you've got a guy in Dustin Grutza who played well in the spring game and in the preseason and was the incumbent quarterback.
I'm not sure Mauk is accomplishing things Dustin Grutza wouldn't have accomplished as well, but Kelly obviously disagrees, because he's gone out of his way to make sure Mauk is the guy in there.
The scary thing, at least for the rest of the conference, is that Kelly has been so successful with this offense mostly with players (Mauk being the huge exception) who were recruited for Dantonio's power-run offense. If he continues to get guys like Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones and others who will thrive in a spread offense, UC will be extremely tough to stop.
CC: Greg Moore is a guy who killed Louisville in last year's near-upset, but he started the season below both Butler Benton and Bradley Glatthaar on the depth chart. After sort of re-emerging in the last two weeks, do you think Moore is the guy who will lead the hoard at running back for the rest of the season?
JK: As long as they're healthy, it'll be Benton and Moore. Benton more than Moore. Glatthaar is the short-yardage guy, and Jacob Ramsey is the guy who basically mops up when the game is out of hand. This was a little different vs. Rutgers because Benton and Moore weren't 100 percent and the team needed Ramsey to step in when the game still mattered.
Kelly really likes the depth of the running back position, so he'll continue using this system. He likes Benton averaging about 10 carries per game, Moore about eight or nine, and the rest up for grabs between Glatthaar, Ramsey and Mauk.
CC: Readers of this blog are familiar with my affinity for Mike Mickens, but defensive players like Haruki Nakamura, DeAngelo Smith, Andre Revels and Corey Smith have also been exceptional for Joe Tresey this season. If you could only pick one, who has been the most valuable player for Cincinnati on D so far this season?
JK: Hmm, that's tough. Depends if you count punter Kevin Huber, because he's the guy who's flipped the field and given the defense plenty of space with which to work. In fact, Kelly said Monday or Tuesday that Huber - who's averaging 50.1 yards per punt - was the MVP for the entire team.
But if we're going strictly defense, jeez, I don't know. Maybe you go with a guy like defensive end Anthony Hoke (team-high four sacks, team-high 6.5 TFL, 2 PBU). Him, because he's got the best stats of the guys on the defensive line. There's little question the defensive backs and linebackers have played a big part in the defense, especially with all the interceptions they've secured, but they'd be the first to tell you the fact the defensive line gets so much pressure on the opposing quarterback helps them tremendously.
Those other guys you've mentioned have been important as well (you forgot about Ryan Manalac, the other middle linebacker and the Big East defensive player of the week), but Hoke, Terrill Byrd and Angelo Craig make UC's defense what it is.
So, I go with Hoke.
CC: The Ben Mauk mock chop to the Rutgers crowd: hilariously awesome or sort of uncalled for?
JK: I don't know. Fans get really riled up about this stuff, but it doesn't do much for me either way. Like the Auburn kicker mocking the Gator chomp or somebody mocking Florida State's tomahawk chop, that stuff is just part of young adults playing in a highly-charged atmosphere. As long as players aren't tearing up the field (and jumping on the Cardinals logo at midfield doesn't count) or vandalizing the stadium or punching the opposing fans, it doesn't bother me.
If I have to choose, I go with hilariously awesome, though, in reality, I think it's just mildly amusing.
CC: I still say outlandishly comical at the very least. Any bold predictions for this weekend?
JK: A bold prediction is that I get out of the press box Saturday night before midnight. Doubt that'll happen, though.
As for the game, I think UC wins. For that not to happen, Brohm will have to have an enormous game, and that's certainly not out of the question because UC's pass defense has been vulnerable this year. But I don't think Louisville's defense will stop UC either. Could be, maybe should be, a game where the total points produced is in the 80s or 90s. UC probably wins by about 10 or so. Should be a fun game to watch.