Everything You Need To Know: Wasabi Fenway Bowl

Kickoff: 11:00 a.m. ET

Spread: Louisville -2, O/U 39 (Bovada)

TV / Radio: ESPN / 93.9 The Ville, 970 AM

Last Time:

On a Thursday night at Nippert Stadium, #19 Louisville and Cincinnati played their final game in the annual Keg of Nails battle in 2013.

Cincinnati held a 14-10 lead entering the fourth quarter, but a pair of touchdown passes from Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater put the Cardinals ahead with 2:24 left. Cincinnati sent the game into overtime with a 26-yard field goal with six seconds left in regulation.

Though led by stellar nights from Bridgewater (23/37, 255 yards, three TDs) and Devante Parker (nine receptions, 104 yards, two touchdowns), a two-yard rushing touchdown from Dominique Brown put Louisville ahead 31-24. The Cardinals would get a stop on fourth down on the ensuing drive, giving them the victory to close out the 2013 regular season.

Cincinnati leads the all-time series 30-22. Louisville won the last two games in the series, both in overtime (2012 & 2013).

Entering the Game: Cincinnati

Since the last meeting between Louisville and Cincinnati, the Bearcats have ascended into one of the premier programs among the Group of Five conferences. The Bearcats recently became the first G5 team to reach the College Football Playoff, finishing 13-1 last season and winning their second of back-to-back American Athletic Conference titles. This parlayed into Cincinnati accepting an invite to join the Big XII conference, effective July 1, 2023.

However, head coach Luke Fickell will not oversee the transition, taking the same position at Wisconsin next season. Replacing Fickell at Cincinnati will be the now departed Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield, but Kerry Coombs will be the interim head coach for the bowl game. Cincinnati enters Saturday with a 9-3 record, holding notable wins over SMU and East Carolina (losses are to Arkansas, UCF, and Tulane, all by one possession).

Cincinnati Offense: What to Watch

Cincinnati’s offense replaced a lot in 2022, with their big three of quarterback Desmond Ridder, running back Jerome Ford, and wide receiver Alec Pierce all going into the NFL Draft.

Starting quarterback Ben Bryant had respectable numbers this season, completing 61% of his passes and throwing 21 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 11 games played. But a foot injury ended his season, leaving backup quarterback Evan Prater to lead the team in the final games of the season. Prater has been a backup the last two seasons, but brings a solid pedigree as Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2019. He brings more of a dual threat element that made UC successful when Ridder was there, and though he completed just 38% of his passes against Tulane, he did rush for 83 yards against the Green Wave.

Running back Charles McClelland had a solid season with 834 yards and seven touchdowns on nearly six yards per carry, but he has not logged a 100-yard game since October 22nd against SMU. Furthermore, he hasn’t logged more than 11 carries in Cincinnati’s last five games. I would expect that to change though with Prater’s dual-threat ability, Cincinnati should use their running game more to open up opportunities for themselves.

The receivers group on Saturday is going to feature a skeleton crew on Cincinnati’s side. Leading receivers Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker, along with tight end Josh Whyle, all opted out of the bowl game in preparation for the NFL Draft, and Cincinnati’s next four leading receivers entered the transfer portal (including Jadon Thompson). Among those suiting up for Cincinnati, only Will Pauling has recorded double-digit receptions this season.

Players to Watch: QB Evan Prater (55% completion, 196 rushing yards, one rushing TD); RB Charles McClelland (834 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.96 YPC)

Cincinnati Defense: What to Watch

The Bearcats defense was a hallmark for Luke Fickell in his tenure there, and that did not change in 2022. UC led the American in total defense (328.5 YPG), scoring defense (20.3 PPG), passing defense (186.4 YPG), and tied for second in turnover margin (+4).

Leading the Cincinnati defense is linebacker Ivan Pace, who put together an All-American season with 120 tackles, nine sacks and a whopping 19.5 TFLs. He is an incredibly instinctive player that can wreak havoc at every level, and he should go very early in the 2023 NFL Draft with his instinctive play and aggressive mindset. I’d expect him to make plays against Louisville’s running game often on Saturday, he’s also a solid pass coverage linebacker.

Ivan Pace — along with his brother Deshawn — are really good players, and Cincinnati has been very good in getting into opposing backfields. The Bearcats have logged 86 TFLs, good for 14th nationally and finished in the top three in both TFLs and sacks in the American. Defensive lineman Dontay Corleone earned all-conference first team honors as a redshirt freshman, logging 5.5 TFLs, three sacks and two forced fumbles. Jowon Briggs also joined him on All-AAC First Team with 4.5 TFLs, three sacks, and five QB hurries, part of five UC players on defense and special teams that made it to the first team.

However, Cincinnati’s defense will be missing both Corleone (surgery) and first-team defensive back Ja’Quan Sheppard, the latter deciding to transfer to Maryland. Even with these losses, Cincinnati’s defense should be in good shape for not only the bowl game, but in 2023 when former Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown joins Satterfield at UC. Eric Phillips had a strong year on the line with seven TFLs and four PBUs off the edge. Safety Ja’Von Hicks earned second-team All-AAC honors with a solid year in the back end.

Players to Watch: LB Ivan Pace, Jr. (120 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, nine sacks); S Ja’Von Hicks (60 tackles, four PBUs, two INTs); DE Eric Phillips (seven TFLs, four PBUs)

Key to the Game

  • Which offense is going to create enough big plays?

Louisville and Cincinnati are both going to need to create big plays to make things easier for their offense. Both teams will be without their starting quarterback, their leading receiver, and in Louisville’s case, they’ll also be missing running back Tiyon Evans as he, too, declared for the NFL Draft.

For Cincinnati, it’s going to come down to the backfield of Prater and McClelland. Losing your top six receivers before the bowl game is a brutal deal, especially with Louisville essentially playing their entire starting defense on Saturday. I would expect UC to lean towards a run-heavy gameplan and try to stretch the defense out on the perimeter, maybe using the play action or quick routes to take advantage of being overaggressive towards the run.

Louisville will need to prevent Pace and UC’s front seven from wreaking havoc on their running game. But as far as big plays go, I’d expect either Ahmari Huggins-Bruce or Marshon Ford to be the guys Louisville leans on. Ford generally has gotten more looks in the passing game with Brock Domann starting at quarterback, posting his two season-highs in receiving yards against Virginia (93 yards, TD) and NC State (63 yards). AHB will likely assume the WR1 role on Saturday with Tyler Hudson also opting out of the bowl game for draft preparation, and he’s been due to have a game that features his explosiveness and route running ability. Perhaps Saturday will be his chance to show that and launch a strong 2023 campaign under new head coach Jeff Brohm.

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