Any remaining doubts about Cincinnati’s defense could get answered Saturday.
A unit that returned one starter from last season has been exceeding expectations, but now it must face the nation’s leading rusher as the 14th-ranked Bearcats host Ryan Mathews and Fresno State.
Known more for an offense which ranks sixth nationally with 516.7 yards per game, Cincinnati (3-0) has seen its once-suspect defense quietly do a very solid job.
The Bearcats have given up an average of 12.0 points - they have yet to allow a team to score 20 - while surrendering 271.0 yards per game. They’ve totaled 11 sacks, forced eight turnovers and held opponents to 2.1 yards per carry.
That’s seven yards less than what Mathews has been gaining per attempt, coming off a game in which he had three touchdowns of at least 60 yards. He leads the country with 447 rushing yards, including 234 last Friday in a 51-34 loss to then-No. 10 Boise State.
“He is unbelievable,” Fresno State quarterback Ryan Colburn said. “I’ve been saying it for a while, everyone knows he’s talented, but that guy is very hungry.”
Colburn has thrown for 637 yards and six touchdowns for an offense which has yet to be held under 31 points, so the Bulldogs (1-2) present the Cincinnati defense with its toughest test to date despite entering with a sub-.500 record.
“We will be challenged against Fresno State defensively moreso than I can remember,” coach Brian Kelly said. “The running game, the ability to throw the ball deep, big plays are what they’re about from an offensive standpoint.
“Yes, they’ve lost two games, but if you look at it, they were on the road against Wisconsin and lost in overtime, then almost beat Boise State before giving up some big plays late.”
The biggest challenge of the season for Kelly’s defense was probably last Saturday in a visit to Oregon State, which entered 2-0 with 335 yards rushing behind reigning Pac-10 offensive player of the year Jacquizz Rodgers.
Cincinnati limited the Beavers to 104 yards on 36 carries and had a season-high five sacks, becoming the first team in nearly two years to hold them under 20 points in Corvallis, Ore.
While Fresno State can beat a team on the ground and through the air, Cincinnati is more one-dimensional offensively behind the formidable duo of Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard.
Pike ranks 13th nationally in passer rating, completing 70.8 percent of his passes for 923 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions. Gilyard has caught at least one TD pass in all three games, totaling 23 receptions for 265 yards, and also has scored on a punt return and a 1-yard run.
“We’re only going to get better,” Gilyard said. “I’m glad we have had these tough games early, so we could get it rolling.”
Fresno State has stumbled the last two weeks but played a pair of tough opponents close. Following a 34-31 double-overtime loss at unbeaten Wisconsin, the Bulldogs were within seven points of Boise State after Mathews’ 68-yard touchdown run with 13:26 to play.
“We have a tough road ahead of us but we will get better,” coach Pat Hill said. “I still think we have a chance to have a very, very good football team this season.”
However, Hill’s squad has lost all 10 of its games against Top 25 opponents over the last four-plus seasons.
Fresno State has never faced Cincinnati, which has won seven straight and 16 of 18 at home.