By Jordan Collier
Eastern is looking to accomplish several things in tonight’s 2008 season opener. The Colonels are trying to win their first season opener since 2000, beat a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, and avenge a 31-0 loss to Cincinnati in 2006. Whenever an FBS team meets up with an FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) team, whispers about an upset like Appalachian State’s over Michigan start up. But don’t hit the upset alert button just yet. Head Coach Dead Hood used last year’s Michigan upset to show the Colonels that it’s not as easy to slay Goliath as it looks.
“We cut out 15 or 20 clips where Michigan was totally dominating [Appalachian State],” Hood said. “That’s what our guys need to understand. They overcame unbelievable odds and adversity to win that football game.”
“If we are going to go down there and win a football game like that we have to understand what that environment is going to be like, what kind of odds we’re up against, what kind of adversity we’re going to have to overcome. That’s all about mental toughness,” Hood said.
The meeting in 2006 was the first ever between the two schools separated by a little more than 100 miles.
In the loss at Cincinnati, Eastern had very few highlights. Colonel quarterback Josh Greco threw three interceptions, two of which were inside the Bearcats 10 yard line. Running back Mark Dunn was held to only 58 yards.
The Eastern defense had even fewer stats except for forcing six punts. The defense allowed a season high 410 yards of offense and season high of 31 points.
Cincinnati went on to finish 8-5 that season and earn a trip to the International Bowl in Toronto, Canada. The Bearcats slipped past Western Michigan with a 27-24 victory.
Eastern beat Western the next week but finished the year at 6-5 and 5-3 in conference play.
Both teams have grown by leaps and bounds since the last time they played each other. Cincinnati is coming off their best season since1976, when they went 9-2. In 2007 they went 10-3 with a 31-21 bowl victory over Southern Mississippi in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. The Bearcats had key wins over Rutgers, USF and Connecticut who were all ranked in the top 25 at the time. Cincinnati was ranked 17th in the AP top 25 at the end of last season.
Ben Mauk, a UC quarterback who played at Wake Forest with Allan Holland in 2005, suffered a serious shoulder injury while playing for the Demon Deacons in 2006. Mauk then transferred to Cincinnati and threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last year.
Mauk has now appealed to the NCAA for an extra year of eligibly. The NCAA has rejected three of his appeals. He claims that injuries suffered his freshman year prevented him from playing.
Mauk is being allowed to practice with the team until the NCAA makes its decision.
For the time being senior Dustin Grutza will be taking the snaps for Cincinnati. Grutza saw limited playing time last year but has 24 career passing touchdowns. Against Eastern two years ago he completed 9 of 15 passes for 161 yards.
Coming out of the backfield will be junior Jacob Ramsey. Ramsey had three rushing touchdowns last season and less than 400 yards on the ground.
The receiving core has two returning starters in Dominick Goodman and Marcus Barnett. The two were the leading receivers last season in catches and touchdowns. Barnett had 13 touchdowns in 13 games.
The Bearcats also had one of the best defenses in the country last year. They led the nation in 42 takeaways and 26 interceptions. They also had the 13th highest scoring defense in the country at 18.8 points per game.
Cincinnati’s defense also has 16 starters returning this season, which adds to their experience and depth.
The cornerbacks for the Bearcats are highly skilled. Last season Mike Mickens picked off six passes while DeAngelo Smith picked off eight passes.
The linebackers in the middle are also a force to be reckoned with. All three linebackers had over 60 tackles last season.
Cincinnati lost two key players at defensive end and has been forced to bring in offensive players to fill the voids. Craig Carey, a quarterback until last spring, and Conner Baldwin, a tight end during last season, have been brought across the line to defend.
And with any luck Eastern will get to see a lot of All-American punter Kevin Huber.
But the most interesting player in tonight’s game plays for Eastern-well, he does this season.
Jones arrived at Eastern just before the start of last season. The school he left? Cincinnati. And he says he’s already heard from his old friends.
“A couple of the corners have been saying when Holland throws the ball they’re gonna pick it and run it to the house and stuff,” Jones said. “It’s just a family thing. But I’m just gonna do my thing.”
But that doesn’t mean playing against his old teammates won’t get to him a little.
“Yeah I’m a little nervous,” Jones said. “But [on the] first hit I’m gonna lay somebody out. Then I’ll be alright the rest of the game.”
While Jones mostly played special teams last year, he is slated to play linebacker this season.
The season opener will prove to be challenge for Eastern as a whole and individually.
Kickoff is at 7:30 at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.