Monday, December 29, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Bearcats are quiet but steady in their rising success

MIAMI -- You know what Cincinnati does better than anyone else in the country? Net punting. Yes, the glorious statistic derived by taking the length of the kick, then subtracting return yardage and touchbacks.

When you're trying to break down keys to a game, you don't often see "win the net punting battle" listed. And likewise, when ESPN and FOX run their highlight-laced bowl promotions, footage of a sweet punt -- complete with a delicious net -- is almost always absent.

But that doesn't mean net punting is useless. Quietly, in its own way, net punting wins games.

Kind of like the Bearcats themselves.

Let's be honest: If you want boatloads of national hype, look elsewhere. Sunday's initial Orange Bowl media gathering in Fort Lauderdale drew a handful of reporters and roughly three dozen crickets, all of which confirms the early suspicions: Thursday's game has a chance to be the lowest-rated BCS bowl ever. Particularly when NBC is countering with a prime-time, two-hour episode of "Deal or No Deal."

The widespread apathy is easy to understand. On one side, you've got a four-loss Virginia Tech team with an uninspiring offense making its second straight appearance in the Orange Bowl. On the other, you've got an upstart program that toils in the shadow of Ohio State.

But on a local and regional level, the stakes for Tech are enormous. We know this. And the potential windfall for the Bearcats? Impossible to ignore, both for the team and the individuals.

"For me, it's huge," Cincinnati senior Kevin Huber said. "This is my fifth year. I was here from Day 1, where if we had 10,000 fans in the stands, it would be a good game. Now all of a sudden we're selling out games, and now we're actually in a really good bowl."

Huber is the punter. Just two years ago, when Tech and Cincinnati last played each other, he was on the bench. He remembers watching the crowd at Lane Stadium get riled up every time the Bearcats attempted a kick, marveling at an entire fan base conditioned to expect a block.

"It was probably the most intimidating thing I've ever seen in my life," he said of the atmosphere.

But that intimidation is gone now. The Associated Press just named Huber a first-team All-American for the second straight season. And while he's the only Bearcat ever to earn such recognition, Huber has plenty in common with his unheralded yet productive teammates.

"The main thing is it's a bunch of guys that want to play," Huber said. "You don't have a lot of hot-shot guys that are in it just to move along or go to the NFL or something. You've got guys that will come in and put in the effort, work hard every day."

Sound familiar? What the Hokies will face Thursday -- at least in terms of attitude -- is very similar to the team they faced in this game last-season, Kansas: A newcomer to the national scene that is embracing its opportunity.

Ten of Cincinnati's 11 defensive starters are seniors. The other is a junior. Several are former walk-ons. Most were lightly recruited by the big schools. One -- linebacker Torry Cornett -- began his career as a basketball player at Prairie View A&M before deciding to change schools and sports.

"I can still remember sitting in the meeting room early one morning," fellow Cincinnati linebacker Corey Smith said. "And the coach comes in and he said, 'Well, we've got a new player joining us. He's a basketball transfer. He decided football was what he really wanted to do in life.'"

Smith smiled. "I was like, 'Oooo-kayyyy....'"

So they were taking just anybody now?

But then Cornett arrived. He won over his teammates with a warm personality and solid practice performance. He won a job. He started making tackles. And now he's among the team's senior leaders, a steady contributor, a major component to an 11-2 season.

In other words, he's a walking net punt.

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