MEMPHIS, Tenn. – If Cincinnati wants to stay close in the chase for the inaugural American Athletic Conference title, they must avoid any letdown against the struggling Memphis Tigers.
The Bearcats (5-2, 2-1) are a game behind Houston and UCF. Memphis (1-5, 0-3) has been close with five losses by an average of 7.6 points, and the Tigers, losers of three straight, have lead or been tied for the lead in the fourth quarter in several losses.
These teams tried to take advantage of the longer break between games to rest and heal. Playing Wednesday night offers a rare national platform for Memphis and something different for Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville.
"I've coached about every other night, but not on a Wednesday night," Tuberville said. "It's been interesting."
Cincinnati quarterback Brendon Kay likely needed the rest the most. He's completing 71.5 percent of his passes, but the sixth-year senior who took over after Munchie Legaux suffered a season-ending injury has had his own injury problems including a balky throwing shoulder.
"He was sore all over from taking a pretty good beating for the last four or five weeks," Tuberville said
This game should feature plenty of stingy defense. The Bearcats rank seventh nationally allowing 286.9 yards a game, including 103.7 yards rushing.
"They're very physical up front," Memphis coach Justin Fuente said. "They do some things schematically that can cause you problems. I think the strength of their defense is in the front seven, as big and physical as a team that we've played in the front seven."
Memphis' strength also is on defense with the Tigers ranking 13th nationally allowing 331 yards a game. They are seventh giving up only 99 yards rushing per game.
That helped make the Tigers' 34-29 loss to SMU on Oct. 19 more respectable. Linebacker Ryan Coleman returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns and Reggis Ball's 93-yard interception return set up another TD.
Offensively, Memphis struggles to find the end zone. Paxton Lynch has completed 117 of 192 passes but has more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (three). The Tigers have scored only 13 TDs, three by the defense. Freshman kicker Jake Elliott is their best threat, converting 11 of 12 field goals this season including a 52-yarder. His only miss came in the Tigers last game against SMU.
Here are five things to watch for Wednesday night:
BEARCATS' ROAD WOES: While Cincinnati has won four out of the last five games in the Memphis series, including three at the Liberty Bowl, they have struggled on the road this year. Both Bearcat losses - to Illinois and South Florida - were on the road, and their only road win was 14-0 over winless Miami of Ohio.
ANOTHER BEARCAT BLITZ?: The Bearcats haven't blitzed much until their last game against UConn. They went after freshman Tim Boyle in only his second start and sacked him a season-high eight times. Tuberville likely will play it safe. Even though Memphis starts redshirt freshman Paxton Lynch at quarterback, Tuberville said he is not a blitz guy. "I've never believed in living and dying off that," Tuberville said.
FUMBLE FORTUNES: The two fumble recoveries for touchdowns by Memphis linebacker Ryan Coleman against SMU tied an NCAA record held by several players. It was the first time it has been accomplished since 2004.
SACK ATTACK: Memphis defensive lineman Martin Ifedi ranks third nationally in tackles for loss. The junior averages 1.9 tackles for loss a game, just slightly behind Michael Sam of Missouri with a 2.0 average.
SHOULDERING ON: Kay's sore shoulder has bothered him since summer camp and helped him lose the starting job at the start of the season. When Legaux hurt his knee against Illinois, Kay took over and has continued to play despite the shoulder limiting what he can do in practice.