Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Aberration or Achilles' heel? Fluky or fatally flawed?
Those are the questions surrounding Cincinnati's defensive performance last week against Connecticut. The Bearcats entered the game with one of the best defenses, statistically speaking, in the nation. They left bruised, battered and barely hanging on after giving up 462 yards in a 47-45 escape.
Friday's game against No. 25 West Virginia is not just a critical conference game for No. 5 Cincinnati, but also a chance to atone for last week's lapses.
"It's a great feeling to be able to redeem ourselves," linebacker Marcus Waugh said. "Everything that happened can be fixed. It was just one guy out of position here, two guys out of position there. We just need to get everybody back on the same page and tighten the screws, as [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco tells us."
West Virginia's offense has sputtered of late but is capable of exploding at any time with its abundance of speed, including Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. The Mountaineers, though, have a totally different attack and philosophy than the power-minded UConn; Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly called this week's matchup "a race for space."
The Bearcats have fared quite well against the two true spread teams they've played this year. In a 28-18 win at Oregon State, they limited the Devine-esque Jacquizz Rodgers to just 73 yards on 20 carries. They frustrated B.J. Daniels and South Florida in a 34-17 win last month.
Matching speed for speed doesn't seem like a problem for the Cincinnati defense.
"We go against our offense every day, and it's the definition of a spread team," Waugh said. "It's nice to have that kind of electric offense to practice against."
The two teams that gave the Bearcats the most trouble this year -- the only opponents, in fact, to stay within 10 points of the Big East juggernaut -- are Fresno State and UConn. And both employed similar philosophies: heavy doses of running between the tackles, augmented by play-action passing. Fresno's Ryan Mathews ran for 145 yards against Cincinnati, while UConn's Jordan Todman had 162 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Those games led some to wonder if a big, physical offensive line and power running game are the way to beat the Bearcats. After all, Kelly made the switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme this year because he said he wanted to defend the spread better.
All of which means that maybe Cincinnati is well suited to stopping West Virginia on Friday but could be in trouble in the regular-season finale at Pitt, which loves to pound the ball on the ground. Or maybe we're just reading too much into a bad second half last week.
"I think it's an overreaction to a couple of things that have happened," Waugh said of that line of thinking. "We have a big, strong defensive line that's fast as well. It's all about game planning and stopping the players who make big plays."
There will be plenty of those types of players on the field Friday from West Virginia. Cincinnati can begin to show whether its defensive flaws last week were a hiccup or a sign of a defect.