Starting two seasons under center prior to Ben Mauk’s arrival in the Queen City last season, senior quarterback Dustin Grutza possessed the experience and leadership necessary to lead this season’s University of Cincinnati Bearcats, and he wasted no time in showing so. Quarterbacking a 12-play, 72-yard drive, Grutza went 4-of-6 for 57 yards on UC’s opening drive, including a 15-yard touchdown down the right sideline to wide receiver Marshwan Gilyard, who recorded the first TD of Cincinnati’s season for the second straight year and gave the Bearcats the early 6-0 lead.
The offense was firing on all cylinders early, as staring running back junior Jacob Ramsey collected 18 yards on his four carries during the opening series, and red shirt sophomore wide out Marcus Barnett reeled in three catches for 42 yards, including Grutza’s first completion of the season, a 24-yard strike down the middle of the field.
After the opening drive, Grutza would throw only five more incomplete passes on the night on his way to completing 21-of-28 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, as well as creating plays with his feet, running the ball ten times for 33 yards and another score before leaving the game midway through the third quarter, allowing red shirt junior Tony Pike to throw 5-of-7 for 52 yards and a touchdown to senior Dominick Goodman. Another important stat for Grutza in his season opener- no interceptions.
“That’s the kind of clean work, high percentage that we’ve talked about from day one,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “If he can stay in that kind of rhythm offensively we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
After setting new career marks both for yards and touchdowns in a single game, Grutza was quick to acknowledge his teammates and make a point there’s still things to be improved upon in the UC offense.
“I felt comfortable out there playing,” said Grutza following the game. “I think we’ve got some great, great receivers out there, great running backs, and my line was protecting for me, so I definitely have to give them the credit. And I think that even through we did well tonight we still have room to improve.”
Coach Kelly, though happy with his quarterback’s performance, agreed that there is space to grow and improve in his play.
“I thought he did some very good things. Clearly his ability to make some plays outside the pocket we knew was a strength of his,” said the coach. “He threw the ball okay in the pocket; he’s got to get better there.”
Elsewhere in the backfield, while Ramsey started the game as the team’s number one running back, red shirted sophomore John Goebel quickly made his own case for top honors at the position. Fighting and powering his way through tackles all night, Goebel ran for 62 yards on his nine carries and a one-yard touchdown run with just under nine minutes remaining in the first half to give Cincinnati a 19-0 lead. Ramsey was able to pick up 34 yards on his nine carries, but the biggest surprise in the Bearcat’s running game was red shirt freshman Scott Johnson. After losing a fumble in the second quarter, Johnson came back in the second half with a vengeance and ended up leading the UC running attack with 83 yards on his nine carries, 50 of which coming from a speedy run down the left sideline late in the fourth quarter.
The dominating physicality of Goebel and others was one thing that made coach Kelly happy about the night’s events.
“We ran physical,” he said. “I mean, we lowered our pads, Goebel ran physical, Ramsey ran physical. So many times when you run a spread offense you get tagged as a finesse team. We can’t be a finesse team. I thought we played physical tonight”
Having not played at the running back position since his days at Brother Rice High School in Milford, Michigan, Goebel felt an overflow of emotion following his impressive performance.
“I’m so honored to even just to be out there. I was really nervous when I first went out there. They called a few plays and I was kind of still giddy,” said Goebel of his early time on the field Thursday night. “My offensive line they did such a great job… They made it easy for me.”
Goodman was the star of the show in the receiving game, finishing the night with ten catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Goodman’s sixth catch of the game moved him past former Bearcat Marlon Pearce for sole possession of third place on UC’s all-time receptions list. His touchdown catch from Tony Pike in the third quarter, Goodman’s second of the night, moved him into a tie with Deeno Foster for second place on the Bearcat’s all-time touchdown list. Goodman, not aware of the marks until the post game press conference, said there were more important things than records he’s concerned about this season.
“I guess it’s a good feeling, but I’m not really worried about the records and all that,” said the Colerain High School grad. “I’m really worried about this whole season and seeing what we can do this year and make a lot of people believers.”
While Goodman and the offense were busy making believers out of Cincinnati’s high-powered, balanced offense, the Bearcat’s stout defense was making believers with their play, as well. Allowing just 48 yards on 28 Eastern Kentucky rushing attempts and 195 total offensive yards, the speedy and strong UC defense forced eight Colonel punts and allowed just two third down conversions on 12 attempts. Their lone error was giving up a 61-yard touchdown bomb from quarterback Allan Holland to a wide open Cody Watts late in the fourth quarter. After the game, after making his first career start at defensive end, Connor Barwin commented the lone EKU scoring play.
“They got that play with some of the backups in. We wanted to get the shutout but you know- it happened,” said Barwin. “That play, I will say, was pretty nasty that they ran two times in a row to get that touchdown. I bet coach Kelly will put it in the offense next week.”
Barwin had an active night in his first start on the defensive line. He was present in the face of Holland a number of times before recording his first career sack with just under 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter, causing a loss of 11yards and sticking the Eastern offense deeper into their own territory.
“I had to do a bitch stick, which means you’ve got to go all the way to the center,” said Barwin of the play in which he got the sack. “So I did that and then I saw - I think it was Alex Daniels – flush the quarterback out, and so I was already in the middle of the field. I just ran him down on the side, and I kind of didn’t even know what to do after I did it, I didn’t know how to celebrate. I was kind of surprised, but it was exciting to get my first sack.”
Barwin led the Bearcat’s defense with five total tackles, three of which for a loss.
It was a night of firsts for Cincinnati football. It was the first game of the season. Barwin made his first defensive start and earned his first career sack. Cedric Tolbert also recorded his first career sack. D.J. Woods touched a football for the first time as a Bearcat, when in the second quarter he returned a Logan O’Connor punt, made the first defender miss, and take the ball 25 yards down the field. Woods also made his first career collegiate reception as a wide receiver, as part of a screen play delivered by Pike in the fourth quarter, and resulted in a loss of two yards on the play. Red shirt sophomore defensive back Justin Moore grabbed his first career interception off a Holland pass with just over ten minutes left in the game.
Most importantly for the Bearcats, the night brought them their first win of the 2008-2009 college football season.
“A good start for us offensively, defensively, I like the way we started the game,” said coach Kelly of his team’s season opening performance. “I thought we got control immediately and left very little doubt about the control of the game. I thought that was very important.”
But despite all of the good news coming out of Nippert Stadium Thursday night, there will be plenty for UC to work on in practice this week. While the offense looked more than impressive with 557 yards of offense and 40 first downs, they were just 4-of-11 on their third down conversions. A lack of discipline reared its ugly head as Cincinnati was called for 11 penalties, giving up 106 yards. But the most noticeable Bearcat struggles came from special teams, which was an area given a lot of work in preseason camp.
“Special teams stunk; I mean it was terrible, very disappointing,” said Kelly.
Two missed PATs by Jake Rogers as well as a kickoff out of bounds highlighted the special teams problems for the night. After looking more than impressive in camp, Rogers’ shortcomings Thursday night came as a surprise.
“Well he obviously has game day anxiety,” said Kelly of his starting place kicker. “I mean, does anybody have a clinical degree in here? It’s game day anxiety. He looks like a million bucks kicking the ball all over the place, then he gets in the game and he gets really anxious.”
The Thursday night game means extra practice to work out their kinks before their week two showdown with number four-ranked Oklahoma in Norman. The undisputed MVP of the EKU game, Grutza, sounded optimistic when mentioning his teams’ clash with the Sooners.
“I just think that we’ve got to just keep on doing what we’re doing and we’ll be good for next week.”
Cincinnati and Oklahoma will kick things off next Saturday at 3:30 eastern, and can be seen on ABC.