Can Desmond Ridder bounce back against Tulsa?
It wasn't ever a secret what the Cincinnati Bearcats offense needed to do coming into the 2020 season. A stout defense returned nearly everyone, including an elite secondary loaded with talent. On offense, the offensive line was expected to be a strength along with the return of running back Gerrid Doaks. It was all going to come down to whether Desmond Ridder and the receivers could find some chemistry. There have been some great plays from Ridder and the offense, but the consistency needs to follow.
There wasn't ever a question about the potential in Ridder's game. A 6'4" dual threat could run well, but just needed to become more consistent as a passer. Even with limited arm strength, we knew that he could make an impact on any game by throwing accurate passes even if they weren't deep. Cincinnati also doesn't have a player that can consistently beat their man deep, so they have to work with what they've got. Ridder's production as a passer took a step back last year. Though he threw more passes last year, his yards (2,164), completion percentage (55.1), and touchdowns (18) all decreased while his interceptions (9) and sacks taken (28) increased. So how does he turn that around quickly? It's in his control, but he will also get some help out wide too.
Simply put, if Cincinnati wants to win the AAC, Ridder has to be a star. Yes the Bearcats have plenty of talent, but they need their quarterback to be a key contributor. In the biggest games last year, Ridder struggled, averaging 192.3 yards per game and completing just 58.7% of his passes. It's not necessarily a problem if Ridder isn't going to pass for 300+ yards a game, but you can't be limited in both distance and accuracy. Running out of trouble might help in the short term, but the long term solution is to find receivers downfield. That's a group that's still learning how they can help their quarterback, and the return of a couple players can help even more.
Everything you need to know about the Cincinnati Bearcats passing game is in one stat: running back Gerrid Doaks is the second leading receiver with 130 yards. The leader, Jayson Jackson, has 132. So while Ridder needs to address his own issues, either a deep threat must emerge or more separation needs to be created. Alec Pierce, the Bearcats leading receiver from 2019, is hopeful to return this weekend, which solves the deep threat issue for Ridder. We also saw last week what the presence of tight end Josh Whyle can do. He's only caught five passes, but averages 17.6 yards per catch with two touchdowns. With Josiah Deguara gone, he becomes the big (6'6", 235) target for Ridder. His role becomes more vital this weekend against a Tulsa defense that loves to play physical.
Tulsa's secondary doesn't mind getting in the receivers face early in a play. They love to play man and let their corners send a message. That's where Whyle comes in to combat that, and Pierce's speed can help. I'd imagine that the Golden Hurricane won't give as much respect to the speed of the Bearcats receivers as they did to UCF, so there will be less of a cushion pre-snap. Crossing routes and close route combinations can help combat that physical play, which could create confusion for the Golden Hurricane defense. Ridder's capable of making the short to intermediate throws, but there has to be some separation. With Tulsa likely to load the box to stop the run this weekend, there will be a number of opportunities for the junior quarterback to make plays.
It hasn't been the start that either Cincinnati or Ridder wanted for the 2020 season, but not everything's on his shoulders. He gets two players in Pierce and Whyle who can help his development as a passer, and loosen up the box for Doaks. Even if Ridder doesn't take a ton of shots deep, he can be an accurate quarterback that cuts up an opposing defense one piece at a time. Cincinnati needs that. Yes, the occasional deep shot will need to be taken, but Ridder becoming a proficient short to intermediate passer helps them more now.
Tulsa's a team that just stunned UCF. They limited the explosive plays the Knights could make simply by being physical and keeping the play in front of them. Ridder and the offense don't bring the same reputation, but they could change that this weekend. Ridder doesn't need to be a hero every game, because a bunch of four to six yard completions in a row can help open the game up for everyone. It's about building confidence. When he's playing like a confident player, the Bearcats can be scary. We've seen it too, but just not enough. Tulsa's a good team that's more than capable of taking down the Bearcats, but Ridder can ensure that doesn't happen by stepping his game up. Maybe this will be the game that breaks him out of a slump, and makes Cincinnati even more terrifying.