Cincinnati did not exactly inspire much confidence in its ability to win without Zach Collaros last week.
The Bearcats turned in their worst offensive performance of the season behind Munchie Legaux, but it was a complete breakdown among everybody on offense and defense that doomed them in a 20-3 loss to Rutgers. Receivers dropped passes. The offensive line did not block well. Legaux had passes batted down at the line. The defense gave up over 200 yards on the ground, its worst performance of the season.
That might have been a product of being on the field for too long, but Cincinnati was unable to come up with critical stops on third down when it was needed. After starting league play 3-0 and in control of the Big East, Cincinnati has lost two straight and must win out to clinch at least a share of the conference title.
That quest begins Saturday against Syracuse, a team that also is feeling a bit of desperation as well. The Orange have lost three straight after starting the season 5-2, and need to win one of their final two games to become bowl eligible for a second straight season.
"Overall, we didn't play winning football," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "We didn't make the plays we needed to make. We're moving on, and the exciting thing is we still control our destiny in terms of winning a championship. That's our focus and having to go to Syracuse and play is going to be a tremendous challenge."
Jones spoke a lot about not being able to win first down against Rutgers. Only twice in 17 opportunities did Cincinnati gain 4 yards or more on first down. Three critical drops happened on first down. Cincinnati also was minus-2 in turnover margin, making mistakes that it avoided during its 7-1 start.
Collaros was not only a senior leader, but a veteran starter who had complete command of the offense. Legaux, a sophomore, was making his first career start. So imagine being the backup, tossed into that position with a conference championship on the line.
"It's so hard to really simulate game speed repetitions. You talk about a difficult task," Jones said. "Going against the No. 1 defense in the Big East conference, he saw more blitz looks and pressure looks in one game than we had all season. That's no excuse because everything in our program is based on productivity but again I didn't think he received much help from everyone else around him. Our players understand that."
Syracuse goes into the game off a much-needed bye, in which coach Doug Marrone worked his first-team offense against his first-team defense to help both units get back on track. During this three-game losing streak, the Orange have not been able to do much of anything on offense. Syracuse has averaged 16 points in those three games and averaged just 94 yards on the ground.
The defense has not gotten consistent pressure up front, either.
"I have been coming out here every week saying that we practiced well, but we haven't been able to execute at the level that we needed to, to win football games," Marrone said. "If anything as those three games have gone on, we have progressively gotten worse, in those situations.
"Therefore I thought for myself as a coach, and our coaches and players, we had a false sense of security, of how we were playing, because our effort level was high. I wanted to get to more of a first team offense, first team defense, and going against each other to have a better sense of the level of practice and the level of windows for throws and coverage. I didn't want to have a false sense of security again with this football team."
Syracuse has not played in consecutive bowl games since 1998 and 1999, so there is much to be gained Saturday and next week at Pitt for this program to continue its rise.
"It's very important to go to a bowl game," Marrone said. "There are a lot of accomplishments in that, as far as what we've done as a program. And it's very important to have a winning record. There's a lot on the line for us."