A board on the wall in Cincinnati's football meeting room lists six defensive goals for each game. In the last three weeks, only two of the goals were met _ including winning the game.
That's a bad sign.
The fifth-ranked Bearcats need a stout game from their struggling defense on Saturday at No. 14 Pittsburgh, where the Big East championship will be decided.
It shapes up as the defense's biggest test yet.
In the last three games, the defense has slid from one of the nation's best to one just trying to keep up with the Bearcats' quick-strike offense. Cincinnati (11-0, 6-0) has given up 45, 21 and 36 points in the last three, having a particularly tough time stopping the run.
It's too late in the season to make any drastic changes.
"They are who they are," coach Brian Kelly said. "They battle. We've got a lot of inexperienced players."
Up next: Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis, who ranks fourth nationally in rushing with 131 yards per game. How well the Bearcats hold up will be a major factor in what amounts to a championship game. If Pittsburgh wins, the Panthers (9-2, 5-1) would share the title with Cincinnati and get the league's automatic BCS berth based on their head-to-head win.
The outcome could depend on Cincinnati's defense, which has developed a reputation as the weak link in the last few weeks.
"By now, we're pretty used to it," linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. "We don't like it. But that gives us a little chip on our shoulder every week coming in, knowing we need to prove ourselves to the country every week. We're confident in ourselves on defense, but our offense is awesome."
And that's part of the problem.
Knowing he had a high-powered passing offense with senior quarterback Tony Pike and a deep corps of receivers, Kelly decided to go with a conservative defensive scheme that would allow yards but not many big plays. Only one defensive starter returned from last year's team, which also was a factor in the decision.
A problem developed as the season went along. The offense was scoring so fast that the defense was on the field a lot and tended to wear down in the second half, allowing opponents to make comebacks. The Bearcats rank near the bottom of the country in time of possession.
Rather than running the ball more to give the defense a rest, Kelly has decided to stay with the formula that has led to an 11-0 start.
"We don't help our defense very much on offense, we really don't," Kelly said. "If I wanted to put lipstick on it, I could make it look a little bit better. But we want to win. We've got an offense _ let them go.
"I just want to win, and it doesn't necessarily paint a great picture for our defense when we try to win that way."
The offense's penchant for scoring quickly has become a topic in the locker room.
"Our defense doesn't like us too much because we score too fast sometimes," tight end Ben Guidugli said. "We're fine with that."
Linebacker Andre Revels declined to get into the topic of Cincinnati's lopsided time of possession. The Bearcats have held the ball longer than their opponent only twice this season. In two games, opponents had the ball for more than 40 minutes.
"That's for people on the outside to think about," Revels said. "We don't go into statistics, we don't go into why this is happening, why that is happening. The only thing we're worried about is putting up Ws and right now, we're doing a good job of it. So we can't really question why things are happening. We just need to make sure they continue to happen."
Of course, much of the problem rests on the defense itself. It could get a little more rest if it got itself off the field more quickly. It doesn't force many turnovers, which is another shortcoming.
With only the Pittsburgh game left on the schedule, the Bearcats seem inclined to let the offense lead the way, scoring whatever is necessary to win.
"It could be a shootout and if that's what it comes down to, we're ready," Guidugli said.
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