Cincinnati and Louisville meet in tonight’s prime time showcase for the Keg of Nails, but more importantly inside track on the Big East’s automatic berth into a BCS bowl.
The winner of the Keg of Nails — a trophy for the winner of this regional rivalry first played in 1929, and continuously since 1996 — has won at least a share of the conference championship five of the last eight seasons and spanning two leagues. Louisville claimed two of those titles in 2004 and 2006, and had a five-year monopoly on the Keg of Nails that included a 70-7 rout in 2004. But over the last four seasons, the Bearcats have dominated.
Since 2008, Cincinnati has two BCS bowl appearances, three Big East championships , and while last year’s conference title was split three ways with West Virginia and Louisville, a four-year reign over the Keg of Nails. Returning to the pinnacle of Big East football Louisville was seemingly destined to reside in the Bobby Petrino years requires ending Cincinnati’s stay there.
The Big East takes plenty of criticism, and a contributing factor is its lack of a defining program. Cincinnati had its already unlikely BCS championship hopes evaporated in Toledo’s Rocket fuel last Saturday, but the season is salvageable with a fourth Big East title in five years. The conference has not had such a run since Miami from 2000 through 2003.
The Big East embarks on a new era in 2014 with the dissolution of the BCS, and a nationally prominent centerpiece is critical to the conference’s long term sustainability as other leagues divvy up bowl opportunities. Louisville can be that face with Charlie Strong at the helm. The Cardinals were a popular preseason selection to win the Big East, and thus far have done nothing to dispel pundits’ confidence.
Teddy Bridgewater has been outstanding. He’s not producing eye-popping numbers that will generate Heisman consideration, but few quarterbacks have been as effective managing their offense. Should UL win its first Big East title and BCS bowl bid since 2006, Bridgewater’s final drive last week against USF will be remembered as a watershed moment for the true sophomore.
His maturation since Strong replaced Mike Sanford with Shawn Watson as offensive coordinator continues, manifested in a 32.4 point per game average. That’s a nearly 11-point improvement from a season ago. UL now has the offense, but with BCS-defining stretch of its schedule beginning, it will also need the defense. Strong was one of the best defensive coordinators in the country while at Florida, and his first two seasons as Louisville’s head coach won almost exclusively because of preparation on that side of the ball.
This season’s defense isn’t as experienced, thus on a steeper learning curve. The Cardinals are only allowing 21.9 points per game, an impressive average, albeit one somewhat manipulated by some lackluster opponents. UL’s best defensive games came against 1-7 Kentucky, which hasn’t scored more than 17 points since Sept. 15; 2-6 Missouri State, a team that hasn’t scored more than 27 in a game this season, primarily against FCS competition; and winless Southern Miss, the No. 108 ranked offense in the FBS. North Carolina and Pitt scored 34 and 35 points on the Cardinal defense.
Tonight is an opportunity for Louisville to prove itself on that side of the ball against an opponent with a similar air of mystery. And if that opportunity and a BCS bowl berth weren’t motivation enough, Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux added on when he told BearcatReport.com he was better than Bridgewater.
The two have been comparable. Legaux has 12 touchdown passes to Bridgewater’s 11. Both are capable rushers, though Legaux is in a system that calls for him to carry the ball far more frequently. However, discussion of Big East quarterbacks has been primarily focused on Bridgewater and Rutgers’ Gary Nova. Legaux needs to vindicate his assessment with a big performance against a Louisville side that feels disrespected.
Because of offensive inconsistencies, Cincinnati’s unbeaten start had a certain house of cards feel to it. Prior to last week’s loss at Toledo, Cincinnati was a Legaux final minute heave against Virginia Tech from already having a notch in the L column. The Bearcat defense is among the 20 most stingy in college football, and last week became just the third opponent to hold explosive Toledo below 30 points. But Cincinnati’s exceeded 30 points just three times: against Pitt, Miami (OH) and Fordham. All are below .500.
Even the 27 Cincinnati scored against the typically stout Virginia Tech defense seems hollow, with the Hokies allowing an uncharacteristic 24 points per game.
Legaux’s efforts tonight won’t just validate the quarterback, but Cincinnati as a team. He certainly has no better stage to do so, with the Big East finally getting a stage to showcase its better teams.