Tommy Tuberville's first season with the Bearcats veered along a similar path of the Tar Heels with a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Munchie Legaux early paired with a six-game win streak in the back end of their schedule.
Backup quarterback Brendon Kay took over the reigns in the pocket during the second game of the season and became just the fourth quarterback in Cincinnati history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season.
"They're very fast, have a solid offensive line and maturity," UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. "They've got a fifth year quarterback who's been there forever. He didn't start off the season as the starter but it's a lot easier when you've got a guy that's been there for a while and been through the ropes and understands. He's a quarterback that leads the NCAA in some categories of efficiency and completions."
Cincinnati averages 33.3 points per game and finished the regular season outscoring their opponents by 166 total points. The Bearcats rank 15th in the nation with their passing offense (313.8 ypg) and 12th (.500) in third-down conversions. The key to success, according to Koenning, stems from their screen game and play-action passing attack.
"Their little flash fakes and play action plays are really hard to defend because it takes away the linebacker's eyes and then all of a sudden there's someone in behind them," Koenning said. "As we've shown, we don't do a good job on the backend being erasers. If we don't cover them initially then we're not going to go run a bunch of folks down back there so we have to do a great job from the get-go."
The problem exists due to a dual responsibility entrusted upon the linebackers with the role of covering receivers down the field while also sticking in their gap to defend the run.
"It's extremely hard because they all have run gaps that they're responsible for and then all of a sudden there's somebody running in behind them," Koenning explained. "We're trying to do our best to simulate in practice what they do but that's really hard to do when you're going against the scout team and then all of sudden you're going against a daggum locomotive coming 900 miles per hour. It'll be a little bit of an acclimation at the beginning of the game."
Senior safety Tre Boston pointed to film study as a way for the Tar Heel secondary to combat the offensive approach employed by the Bearcats in the passing game.
"It's just one of those things where you've got to watch a lot of film to see what their tendencies are and when they like to do different stuff," Boston said. "You have to take it upon yourself and have that ownership of doing your assignment. I think in this game we've prepared a lot already and I like that we have a couple more weeks. I think we'll get the job done."
Film work is pivotal but Koenning also stressed that the studying falls in the hands of the individual players and that overexposure can be detrimental with so much time leading up to the bowl game in Charlotte on Dec. 28.
"A lot of it is on them," Koenning said. "We try, but we have an attention span of about 30 to 40 minutes. Then the colors start moving around and they might as well be watching Deputy Dawg, Underdog and Bugs Bunny and all that stuff. We try to split it up.
"The best way to learn is spaced repetition so you can't do too much at one time because then it becomes counterproductive. We're counting on them to do a lot of film work on their own and obviously we watch a lot of things that we do and how it matches it up to what Cincinnati does."
Boston pointed to the simple idea that the key revolves around the Tar Heels knowing their assignments.
"It's all about guys knowing where we're at and guys knowing who should be in that spot to help make the play," Boston said. "When you know where the player next to you is going to be then you get to play as free as you want and do your assignment. Guys knowing what they have to do and knowing their assignment really helps."
The Tar Heel defense has only allowed one team to score more than 30 points this season (55 points against ECU) and rank 52nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game (224 ypg).