Ohio will travel to Nippert Stadium on Saturday to take on Cincinnati. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.
The Post caught up with former Post reporter and The Athletic's Cincinnati beat writer Justin Williams to discuss the matchup.
Q: Is Nippert going to be crowded Saturday? I know they’re two in-state teams, but really no connection other than some matchups long before any of us were covering football.
JW: “It should be pretty good, there was almost 29,000 at the home opener at Nippert last Saturday. That was a night game, which helps, there was a good student section. I think night games usually helps with students. But it was Alabama A&M, so not necessarily a draw. I would think that with an in-state team, I do think there will be a decent amount of OU fans, whether they are traveling or just live in the Cincinnati area. I think something in the area of 30,000 would probably be what one would expect, so I think it should be a pretty good crowd.”
Q: I know hindsight is 20/20. You can look back and say UCLA is not good, but how big was that win for Cincinnati to go out there in the Rose Bowl and get that win?
JW: “I think it was huge. No, I don’t think UCLA is going to be very good. I don’t think people thought they were going to be good going into the year, and now it’s probably worse than what people thought, but that’s still a Power Five school. UC is still a really young school and to go out on the road, opening week, especially getting behind 10-0 and come back, to get that win is big regardless of the opponent. The Alabama A&M game, that’s one where they should have won, but the FCS team they played last year, Austin Peay, that was the first game of the season, and that was kind of a tough victory. So even though they should win that game, that shows a little bit of progress. Miami, that game was kind of a downpour. And Miami, who looked all right in their opener against Marshall but has not looked very great since, you can make the argument they have really played against a strong team. But this is a team that went 4-8 last year and really struggled to get to four wins easily. I thought if they went 2-2 going into conference play, that would have been good for them. 3-1 would have been really good, and now they have a chance to be undefeated, I don’t think anyone expected that.
Q: Where does the biggest jump come? I know Luke Fickell is a physical guy. Is his presence the biggest thing right now?
JW: “I think part of it is just the system. The coaches have been there for now two years, the guys who he kind of inherited when he came have got acclimated to him and the system a little bit more. I really think the defense has had the biggest turnaround, and again, you can make the argument they haven’t played anyone that’s had that strong of an offense. I know the Miami game was terrible weather and that’s all valid, but this is a team that just got gashed last year, run game, pass game, whatever. They got beat around the edges, they got beat over the top, that’s not happening this year. They’ve moved a couple guys around in positions. Their middle linebacker, Bryan White, was a defensive end last year. They have a safety playing corner, they have a safety playing linebacker now. Moving some of those guys around has allowed them to do different things on defense and kind of give them a different look just in terms of their speed. It has also allowed them to keep their better players on the field, even though its not in their natural position they’ve always played. The fact the defense has been able to improve so much starting the season. What has really made the difference is they’ve run the ball a lot, they’ve been a good running team, which is what people expected since they have good running backs. But the fact that they’ve been able to rely on their running game, because their defense has played so well, has been huge.”
Q: On paper it seems like it would be a good measuring stick game for Cincinnati because Ohio is an offense that spreads the ball out, they like to run the read option and the RPOs and really get onto the edges of the defense. Do you see it that way?
JW: “I think so. I think this is going to be the toughest game UC has played this season, including UCLA, because of what you said, they have a good offense, they can run the ball, they can pass the ball. Obviously I’m watching OU, because I went there. I don’t think they’ve looked that great the first few games, so it’ll be interesting to see. They had some high expectations coming into the season, they were predicted to win the MAC, we’ll see how they look without the kind of weird travel they had to do this past week moving the game and everything. I think it’ll be the toughest opponent, from a defensive standpoint, that UC has faced. It’s an in-state team, all that stuff kind of matters, some of these guys know each other, I don’t know how much it’ll impact the play but I think it’ll heighten the interest and the excitement of the players a little bit. It’ll show a lot for both teams, honestly.
Q: A lot of times, when you think of AAC, you think of noon starts, you get a weird game. When you mix it with the fact that it’s Ohio and Cincinnati, do you see this game getting a little weird?
JW: “Yeah, especially just because I don’t know that either team has either really — I think UC has played well, I wouldn’t say OU hasn’t played well, in a sense — been tested on the level they would expect. I think Virginia was expected to win that game last week, even though they had to go on the road and stuff. With the in-state, and the noon start, noon games are always a little weird, I know UC fans tend to hate it because it’s a different vibe.
Q: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but do you have a prediction for me?
JW: “From what I’ve seen, I think UC will win. I really think, unless you’re Alabama A&M, they’re never going to blow someone out this season. It will be something like 23-21.”