Bearcats give season a kick
By Al Myatt, Special to CNNSI.com
When Cincinnati was 3-4 after a 38-24 loss at Louisville on Oct. 14, Bearcats athletic director Bob Goin had indicated to the universityís board of trustees that he was thinking in terms of a coaching change.
Circumstances changed dramatically as the Bearcats, a woeful 3-8 in 1999, put together a four-game winning streak.
Instead of kicking Minter out, Cincinnati is headed to the Motor City Bowl in Pontiac, Mich. to meet Marshall on Dec. 27 ó- and little Jonathan Ruffin, the Bearcats kicker, is a big reason why.
Ruffin was a consensus All-America and won the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nationís outstanding kicker. Ruffin led the country with 26 field goals, none bigger than a 31-yarder with 45 seconds left for a 27-24 win over Southern Miss in the final game of the regular season. The Cats erased a 24-7 deficit with 20 fourth quarter points that also included a 41-yard field goal by Ruffin with 8:08 left.
Yes, the rugged Golden Eagles got beat by a guy wearing a slipper.
"The slipper is better to me because it doesnít have cleats on the bottom," Ruffin said. "Itís very light, which I feel helps my kicking."
Until this season, Ruffinís career seemed in danger of slipping away. Now thereís talk that he may follow in the footsteps of former Bearcat and Denver Broncos kicker Rich Karlis into the NFL.
"What a success story," Minter said of Ruffin, who was just 5 of 12 on field goals last year -- including a dismal 1-for-4 between 30 and 39 yards. "He went from the outhouse all the way to the penthouse. It has been that way for us and for him."
Groza passed away just days before the formal presentation of the honor to Ruffin, but the former Cleveland Brown would have been proud that a kicker with Ohio connections got the honor that bears his name. But itís a funny thing about how Ruffin would up at Cincinnati -- the Bearcats can thank Clemson for hiring former Tulane coach Tommy Bowden.
"I was interested in Tulane," said Ruffin, who hails from nearby Metarie, La. "I really thought I was going there until they switched coaches. Our defensive coordinator Rick Smith was at Tulane and when he went to Cincinnati he told them about me and I got recruited by them."
Ruffin is a real bayou guy. When it comes to hunting and fishing, heís Ruffin-ready.
"I have done some alligator hunting," he said.
Ruffin, who was also named Conference USAís special teams player of the year is a real specialist. Heís just Cincinnatiís short-range field goal kicker. Jason Mammerarelli is the long-range guy.
"Pretty much the cutoff point between Jason and me is 45 yards," Ruffin said. "The reason he took the kicks over 45 yards is because his leg is a bit stronger and that is not really a long field goal for him. Not that I canít reach from 45 yards or longer, but we feel that it is a lot easier for Jason to make those kicks."
Mammerarelli kicked three field goals this year, giving the Bearcats 29 for the season to tie the NCAA team record.
"Mammo is a real good friend to Jonathan and really helped him out this year," Minter said.
Mammerarelli is a senior, which means that Ruffin, a sophomore, will likely do all of the placekicking in 2001.
"Leg strength is something I need to work on and I will run and lift to improve," he said. "I am kind of happy that I will get to try longer field goals next year and that I will get to kick off."
Smith stayingLouisvilleís recent turnaround coincided with the arrival of coach John L. Smith in 1998. Since going 1-10 in 1997, the Cardinals have secured three consecutive bowl berths, including a trip to this yearís Liberty Bowl, the reward for winning C-USA. The Cards meet Colorado State on Dec. 29.
His job performance that led to this seasonís 9-2 mark had made Smith a hot topic when names of potential candidates for coaching vacancies were bantered about. Cardinals fans were more than a little worried until Smith agreed to a new eight-year contract.
"Not only does this agreement give my family and I stability but my coaching staff and their families as well," Smith said. "Iíve said all along that we havenít taken this program where we want it to be year after year.
"Weíre not talking about one conference championship, weíre talking about conference championships. Itís not about a brief appearance in the Top 25, itís about being there week after week, year after year."
Smith can look forward to two more years with quarterback Dave Ragone, the leagueís offensive player of the year as a sophomore. Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick has been thinking about just one game involving Ragone, their Liberty Bowl matchup.
"He is an outstanding quarterback," Lubick said of the left-hander who completed 61 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns. "When you see him on tape, he is really impressive. He stands in there and really has poise. We are going to have to find a way to put pressure on him."
Air raid from Red RaidersThe Pirates also face a wide open offense when they meet Texas Tech in the galleryfurniture.com Bowl in Houston on Dec. 27.
Like Lubick, Logan has been watching tape. His films show Red Raiders quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, the national leader in pass attempts with 585, in a starring role.
Two seasons ago Ricky Williams ran for 1,582 yards for the Red Raiders. Now a senior, Williams seems just an afterthought in the new scheme of first-year coach Mike Leach. Once compared to the Heisman winner of the same name at Texas, Williams has rushed for just 421 yards on 127 attempts this season.
"Itís grass basketball," Logan said as he watched the Red Raiders on his VCR. "Itís a jailbreak every play."
Texas Tech has an advantage at the Astrodome. They should have vastly greater fan support, plus theyíve played on artificial turf nine times this season compared to once for the Pirates, a 42-24 loss at West Virginia. Magnifying that defeat were injuries to four ECU offensive linemen on the Mountaineersí rug. Only two of those, center Sherwin Lacewell and versatile James Bell, are expected back for the bowl.
Southern Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack knew what he was talking about.
"Youíve got to stop the run to be successful," Wommack said before the Eagles' Mobile Alabama game against LaDainian Tomlinson and TCU.
Tomlinson was limited to 118 yards on 28 carries by Southern Miss for his lowest rushing total of the season, while USMís Jeff Kelly threw his third touchdown pass with eight seconds left, a 29-yard strike to freshman Kenneth Johnson, for a 28-21 Golden Eagles win.
The Golden Eagles were second nationally in total defense coming in, allowing 268.2 yards per game. Wommack indicated Tomlinson was the best back the Golden Eagles had faced, better than Travis Henry of Tennessee.
"Travis is more straight ahead, he doesnít put on a lot of moves," Wommack said. "LaDainian has got good vision. ... Heís going to play a long time at the next level."
The Horned Frogs, who enter C-USA next season, were making their second trip to the Mobile bowl having won the eventís inaugural encounter 28-14 over East Carolina in 1999.
Worth notingArmyís Michael Wallace ran for 1,157 yards this season, the third highest total in school history. ... The Black Knights averaged 38,516 fans at home, their highest average since 1986. ... Cincinnati quarterback Deontey Kenner finished his career as the programís total offense leader with 6,558 yards. ... Despite missing three games with a knee injury, ECU inside linebacker Pernell Griffin finished as the Piratesí leading tackler with 87 stops. Pirates senior Keith Stokes led C-USA in all-purpose yardage (1,427). ... Houston senior linebacker Wayne Rogers shared C-USA defensive player of the year honors with Southern Miss senior defensive end Cedric Scott. ... Tommy West was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at Memphis, the leagueís only head coaching change. Memphis ranked first nationally in rush defense at 72.7 yards allowed per game. ... Tulane won its last three games for a 6-5 record and its third winning season in the last four years. Green Wave running back Mewelde Moore was C-USA freshman of the year.
Al Myatt covers Conference USA for the Raleigh News & Observer.