Waiting to Exhale – UC Powers through Slow Start to Defeat UT Martin 28-7

Let me begin with what matters – the Bearcats prevailed over the University of Tennessee (Martin) Skyhawks in the home opener. The final score was 28-7 to UC’s advantage; however, that score is a bit misleading.

Tommy Tuberville’s team takes the field.

The first week of football, both professional and collegiate, tends to be sloppy. Consistent with that commonality, the Bearcats struggled on offense during the first half. Likewise, UC’s defensive front spent much of quarters one and two on Under Armour roller skates – UT Martin’s running back Jaimiee Bowe gently gliding down the field through gaping holes. In total, the Skyhawks rushed for nearly 100 yards in the first half, and threw for 66 more.

Student section clad in white.

Under new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor, UC’s offense sputtered in the first half due to turnovers. The Bearcats coughed up two fumbles and QB1 Hayden Moore was picked off after the ball was tipped by a defender. After two quarters, UC trailed UT Martin by a point.

The third quarter, too, provided little relief to the Bearcats faithful in attendance, 28,520-strong (despite a Bengals home game the same night). While UC’s Kahlil Lewis caught a 3 yard touchdown pass from Moore and tight end DJ Dowdy added a two-point conversion, the Bearcats stumbled into the fourth quarter up only a score, 14-7.

Gray was a real bright spot on the Bearcats offensive unit last evening.

The team seemed to finally hit its stride in the fourth quarter. The offensive unit, many of whom are first year starters, appeared to find their rhythm with the speed of the college game. During the fourth quarter, RB1(A) Mike Boone scored a redzone touchdown, and the defense stretched the lead even more after safety Tyrell Gilbert scored off an interception return.

Mike Boone displayed flashes of his game-breaking speed.

While UC lost the first half, the Bearcats won the game. Offensively, the Zac Taylor-coached unit tallied 400 total yards, pretty well distributed between the running (140 yds.) and passing game (260 yds.). During pre-season training camp at Higher Ground, Taylor vowed to bring more balance to the Bearcats’ offensive approach and he delivered on that promise last evening. RB1(A) Mike Boone and RB1(B) Tion Green carried the ball 28 times, collectively. Defensively, UC gave up 323 yards but was opportunistic as they picked off two passes and recovered one fumble. The oft-discussed turnover problem has not been entirely resolved as UC gave up the ball (and momentum) on three separate occasions.

Brayden Beard will add some complexity to UC’s offensive approach this fall.

Was it pretty? Well, the weather was magnificent and Nippert is still a gem of a stadium…

The student section was full of enthusiastic students.

And the crowd was decked out in white, with the student section registering a strong showing on a Thursday night game against an unknown opponent…

The tailgate before the Thursday evening game.

That said, the Bearcats struggled to bury an inferior opponent – a team they were favored to beat by 37 points. The Bearcats faithful were not able to fully breathe a sigh of relief until Boone notched a score to put UC up by 14 with five minutes to play.

For those of you looking for optimism, here are some bright spots from last night:

  • We won. A win is a win.
  • Seven freshmen saw playing time in the game. One of those freshmen, WR Brayden Beard, looked great in the slot. His speed and precise route running will present match-up difficulties for opponents.
  • RB1(B) Tion Green nearly rushed for 100 yards.
  • WR Nate Cole remains a reliable option.
  • WR Devin Gray grabbed five balls for 111 yards.
  • There was more offensive balance last night, which should help the defense as the season progresses. UC’s defense is going to need to catch its breath in this spread-offense conference.
  • Freshman DE Caleb Ashworth got some playing time. He has a big frame and he’s quick. While his mechanics/fundamentals have room to improve, some players just have a nose for the ball and fast-twitch instincts that get them to an opponent’s quarterback in a hurry. Caleb will be one to watch.

Next week will be a real test as UC travels to play at Purdue. The game kicks at Noon on Saturday, and will be broadcasted live on the Big Ten Network. The bottom line – the Bearcats are undefeated…at least through Week One.

By Brian Fox

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