It was a rain-soaked Saturday night as the Bearcats looked to put a stamp on the best season in the school’s history and shake up the college football world. The Bearcats entered the matchup defense ranked 4th nationally in scoring defense, #2 in pass efficiency, and 10th in total defense. The defense came up huge causing turnovers and forcing numerous three and outs. To close out the best season in program history, the Bearcats pulled out a thriller in a 27-24 their first ACC championship. UC quarterback Desmond Ridder won the most outstanding player.
On both opening drives, the defense and offense came out on fire. As Tulsa gained momentum cornerback, Coby Bryant intercepted the Golden Hurricane’s Zach Smith on the opening drive. The turnover expanded the longest turner over streak in by a defense to 19. The Bearcats marched down the field from deep in their territory for the first score. Desmond Riddler spearheaded the drive with 45 yards passing; Jerome Ford capped off the drive with a 42-yard touchdown run. The Bearcats once again drove the ball; the Golden Hurricanes defense held them to a field goal. In the first quarter, Tulsa allowed the one thing they couldn’t afford; Riddler escaped the pocket and made plays with his legs. The QB went 5-7 for 99 yards and 20 yards on the ground. Tulsa scored zero points in the first quarter for the 5th time overall and 4th straight.
The majority of the second quarter was all about Tulsa getting back into the game. They kicked a field entering the quarter after a strong drive to end the first. From there until 3:30, they contained Riddler forcing short drives to tie the game 10-10. Riddler showed his improvement from the pocket by standing tall and delivering a beautiful deep ball to Alec Pierce. Tulsa was able to cause a fumble and set themselves in a position to score. But the Number 10 defense in the country stepped up again to force a field goal attempt. The special teams blocked the kick to close out the half with a 17-10 lead for UC.
Cincinnati came out of half-time sluggish as the rain began to pour down. Their first drive ended in a three and out. Tulsa relied on the running game to tie the game again on the back of Corey Taylor II and Deneric Prince. The two running backs were the only offense sparks the Golden had throughout the first three quarters. While Tulsa running game was on point, their passing game was terrible. Zach Smith was 9-24 through 3 quarters and threw another interception to set up the Bearcats for a scoring opportunity.
Tulsa put themselves in a position to win the game in the 4th quarter down 24-17. The turnover resulted in no points as Cincinnati failed to score on 4th and two from inside the Tulsa 5 yard online. The Bearcats second chance to score ended with a blocked field goal. Zach Smith would come alive and throw a 54-yard pass to Sam Crawford Jr and then completed a 13-yard strike to JuanCarlos Santana to tie the game 24 all. With their slight playoff hopes on the line on 4th and two at the Tulsa 24 yard online, the Bearcats drew Tulsa offside to seal the deal with a game-winning field goal.
“When you build something from the inside out and it’s something that can last, what we’re doing is not just a flash in the pan,” Fickell said. “When you really pour your heart and soul into it and you do it the way hopefully we do it, we want to create an environment where everyone is committed to each other.”
The Bearcats, the highest-rated non-power five schools will find their way into one of the Big 6 Bowl games. Even if it’s not the College Football Playoffs, Cincinnati will have a chance to prove their worth against a Power 5 team. But for now, they celebrate their American Athletic Conference Championship.