Virginia Tech already has seen its share of Cincinnati, and there is a consensus opinion on the coaching staff: the Hokies are going to have their hands full.
In preparing for Saturday's game, Virginia Tech studied the Bearcats' victory over Pitt a few weeks ago, and their win over NC State on a Thursday night last season. Cincinnati won both those games by dominating up front, particularly on the defensive line. In the NC State game last season, the Wolfpack had minus-26 yards rushing.
Though several names have changed up front for Cincinnati, the Bearcats have picked up right where they left off last year, and had six sacks against Pitt in their win a few weeks ago. In two games this year, Cincinnati has eight total sacks and 17 tackles for loss -- both ranking in the top 10 in the nation.
"Thank God we’re not playing them in Cincinnati on a Thursday night," said Shane Beamer, Virginia Tech associate head coach/running backs coach. "The thing that jumps out about them is just how hard they play. My gosh they play hard. They’re good. They’ve got nine seniors on defense. … I saw my dad said they’re going to be the most athletic defense we’ve played this year and I’d agree. They’re a veteran group that plays hard and does well in the system they play in."
It is a system that preaches aggressiveness, first and foremost. Cincinnati ranked No. 1 in the nation last season in tackles for loss and No. 2 in sacks. The Bearcats had co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe wreaking havoc from the middle, along with senior John Hughes as well. Both ended up getting drafted.
Without them, some wondered if Cincinnati would be as effective. The Bearcats returned excellent senior ends in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart, but they were unproven and undersized at tackle.
"Going into the season, obviously we had a lot of doubters," said Giordano, third on the team with 12 tackles. "You could tell everyone was worried about the defensive line, but we've had a couple guys step up in the defensive tackle role, me Walter and Brandon Mills being fifth-year seniors, we knew what to expect. It was all on us. The way coach (Steve) Stripling, coaches us, we had a motto this year: 'Undisputed.' We wanted to shut up any questions about us as a defensive front. It doesn’t matter who’s in there: everyone is going to do their job and be accountable."
Going into the season, coach Butch Jones worried about depth on his front. A big reason his defense had as much success as it did last season was the ability to rotate eight to 10 players along the line. Jones was going to be asking some of his younger players to step up in order to keep a rotation going. So far, they have been able to rotate eight to nine players in games.
But the Bearcats have only played twice this season, where Virginia Tech has been tested already in four games. The Hokies are still seeking consistency on offense, particularly at running back, where there is no workhorse that has distinguished himself. Last week against Bowling Green, Tony Gregory, J.C. Coleman, Michael Holmes and Martin Scales all getting opportunities.
"On Saturday they all gave you something," Beamer said. "I thought Tony Gregory really played with speed, and was at a different level. Holmes had a couple plays where he showed ability, and Coleman the same thing. Scales, his toughness and downhill running. They all bring something, it’s trying to figure out. It’s hard to get all of them a lot of work. That’s what we’ve got to figure out right now."