No. 17 Cincinnati at East Carolina
When and Where: Saturday, Nov. 2, Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, N.C., Noon EDT
Looking to remain the only unbeaten team in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference, 17th-ranked Cincinnati comes out of its bye week in search of a sixth straight win as it faces East Carolina on Saturday.
The Bearcats (6-1, 3-0 AAC East) are one of two remaining unbeatens in the AAC along with West leader SMU. Cincinnati has reeled off five straight victories since getting thumped 42-0 at then-No. 5 Ohio State on Sept. 7 and went into its break after defeating Tulsa 24-13 on Oct. 19.
Gerrid Doaks had a season-high 91 rushing yards and added a 28-yard scoring reception as he replaced Michael Warren II in the first quarter after he suffered a pair of leg injuries. Doaks -- who sat out all of last season due to a groin injury -- accounted for all three of Cincinnati's touchdowns, including a game-sealing 27-yard scamper with 3:37 to play to seal the victory..
East Carolina (3-5, 0-4 East) is again looking for its first conference victory under first-year coach Mike Houston. The Pirates are in the midst of a brutal stretch of schedule and will play both division leaders in the next two weeks.
They are coming off a 45-20 home loss to South Florida last Saturday, getting gashed for 347 rushing yards and 525 overall. East Carolina is giving up an average of 274 rushing yards in conference play, allowing 5.3 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns.
Holton Ahlers threw for 217 yards and an interception, continuing an uneven season. The sophomore has completed 55.6 percent of his passes for 1,672 yards with seven touchdowns and seven picks. His accuracy has improved from his 48.3 percent mark as a freshman in 2018, but he also had 12 TD passes with only three interceptions.
Cincinnati has won seven of the last eight games between the teams, including a 56-6 thrashing last season as Desmond Ridder threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns. Three of them came in the first quarter as the Bearcats stormed to a 42-6 halftime lead.
East Carolina, though, did post a 48-20 victory in 2017 the last time it hosted Cincinnati.
Fickell with a chance to come full circle with a win at ECUWhile the Bearcats have won 17 of their last 20 games under Fickell since the start of the last season, the 2017 loss to the Pirates sticks out to the third-year coach. He was in his first season at Cincinnati trying to lay a foundation for the program, and a quarterback named Gardner Minshew tore apart his defense for 444 yards and four touchdowns.
“I don’t know if that was just a loss. That wasn’t just any loss," Fickell said at his Tuesday media availabilty. "That was probably a true low point if anything for me. But it’s a part of the game. I don’t know if there’s any one thing you can pinpoint. I don’t know if all of a sudden we got this win and all the momentum and energy changed. It’s a process. It’s a really tough process."
Already bowl-eligible, Fickell appears to have a 1-2 punch at running back with Warren and Doaks since it appears Warren, who leads the team with 498 rushing yards, will play in this contest.
Desmond Ridder continues to be steady at quarterback, throwing for 1,399 yards and 14 touchdowns while completing 60.6 percent of his passes. Tight end Josiah Deguara leads the team with 21 catches and four touchdowns, while receiver Alec Pierce has a team-best 410 yards and is averaging 20.5 per catch.
Cincinnati has a plus-9 turnover margin and has recorded 14 takeaways in its last three games after racking up five versus Tulsa. The 19 turnovers forced are tied for second in the nation and the plus-1.29 margin per game is good for fifth. Ja'Von Hicks has four of the Bearcats' 11 interceptions.
"We’ve put ourselves in a position to get a lot of people’s best shots. Last year even with the season we had, I’m not sure at the end of the season, going to play an opponent, I don’t know if they really believed, ‘Hey, this team is ranked,'" Fickell said about facing ECU. "Or they are as good as they are. I don’t think that was circled on the schedule. We know this for a fact. What happened and how we finished last year, especially against ECU, I’m sure this is one that was circled for them."
ECU looks to move on after Ramseur's season-ending torn ACLAfter giving up 38.3 points per game last year, Houston had plenty of work to do after successful stops at both The Citadel and James Madison at the FCS level. Progress has come in small increments -- East Carolina is giving up 28.3 per contest -- but the Pirates have been torched for 86 in their last two games and must overcome linebacker Aaron Ramseur's torn ACL that has ended his season.
Ramseur was fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss and was ninth with 32 tackles.
“Unfortunately, Aaron tore his ACL and he will have surgery late this week. He’s done for the year. He and I had a talk Sunday night," Houston said at his Tuesday press conference. "His family was here this weekend. They’ve been very supportive with him. We’ll help him through that rehab and be excited to have him back next year. But that was a tough blow. He had played very well against Central Florida and was really starting to come around so it’s disappointing for all of us to see his season come to an end.”
Offensively, East Carolina is trying to find the right balance for Ahlers to thrive. A dual-threat quarterback who is second on the team with 256 yards and has a team-high four rushing touchdowns, Ahlers had season lows of five carries and minus-3 yards against USF. Some of the lack of carries was by design to lessen the amount of hits on the sophomore, but Houston acknowledged his signal-caller is still going through a learning curve.
WATCH: #ECU Football QB Holton Ahlers talks about his health is holding up 8 games into the season. Join Pirate Radio at 3pm Saturday for the #BudLight Pregame Tailgate & join us after the game for the US Cellular 5th Quarter Call-in Show.— Pirate Radio ☠️ (@PR927FM) October 29, 2019
Watch in full - https://t.co/HLwJZ4DLrM pic.twitter.com/g9lMvRsd16
"I think it's been up and down a little bit. I don't say that negatively," Houston said of Ahlers' play. "Certainly, he's had some games where he's played at a higher level. He's had some games where he's made a few mistakes. I think he's still a young quarterback that's developing in a new offense.
I think that he did some really good things on Saturday and I think he made some mistakes Saturday that were critical. That's part of that position. ... A lot of the success of our offense is predicated on the decision-making there. When he does things well, it's going to be really highlighted and when he makes a mistake, it's going to be criticized."
Despite forcing at least one turnover in the last seven games, the Pirates still have a minus-2 turnover differential for the season.
- 4-1 ATS in its last five games vs. East Carolina.
- 6-2 ATS in its last eight games vs. sub-.500 opponents.
- 4-1 ATS in its last five games.
East Carolina is:
- 2-8 ATS in its last 10 games following a double-digit loss at home.
- 6-13-1 ATS in its last 20 home games.
- 11-32-1 ATS in its last 44 games vs. conference opponents.