Bearcats students and fans swarm the field following a 30–11 upset win over #7 Rutgers, 11/18/2008. (Mark Lyons/Getty)
As you may have heard by now, the Bearcats have a date with #6 Houston this Thursday night. There’s nothing quite like the opportunity to face a highly-touted team, because the potential for something magical to happen is endless. The Bearcats have nothing to lose. If they can’t find a way to derail the Cougar locomotive, nobody is going to hold it against them. Houston, on the other hand, has everything to lose. If this season goes just right, they’re looking at a potential College Football Playoff appearance. An early slip-up in Historic Nippert Stadium would almost certain put a hole in that balloon.
By all reasonable expectations, the Bearcats should not win this game. Top 10 teams should never lose to unranked teams. That said, the Bearcats have some recent history in springing the upset. Here’s a look at all the times Top 10 teams have come to Clifton.
Pre-BCS Bearcats football is usually something to shield your eyes from. The Bearcats are unique in that they’ve earned a reputation as a consistently successful team over the past decade despite the fact that the first 120 or so years of Bearcats football was a veritable wasteland of success. The ‘Cats stack up well with some of the best teams in the country since 2006, but it’s brutal looking back earlier than that.
October 24, 1942 — #2 Georgia 35, Bearcats 13
Scenes at Nippert Stadium in 1942, dates unknown. (UC Libraries)
While the globe was wrapped up in World War II, the 1942 Georgia Bulldogs were the first AP-ranked team the Bearcats faced in program history. Georgia would go on to finish the season 11–1 with a Rose Bowl win, and were recognized by several publications as National Champions. (9–1 Ohio State was given the crown by the AP.) The Bulldogs raced out to a 21–0 lead in the first quarter, which essentially killed any hopes of an upset. The Bearcats were able to fight for the next 45 minutes and the score over the next three quarters was a very respectable 14–13. The Bearcats went on to finish 8–2 that year, becoming the best UC squad since the red and black went 9–1–1 in 1897. Because of the ongoing World War, there would be no Bearcats football in 1943 and 1944.
November 3, 1979 — #6 Florida State 26, Bearcats 21
Cincinnati vs Florida State official game program
In November 1979, the Seminoles of Florida State ran out onto the Nippert Stadium AstroTurf as the first Top 10 team to visit Nippert Stadium in more than 37 years. The ‘Noles were led by Bobby Bowden in his fourth of 34 years as head coach in Tallahassee. A crowd of 14,539 gathered in Clifton and had no idea what they were in for. “Cincinnati just scares the daylights out of me,” said Bowden. His fear was justified. An early Bearcats turnover and a long touchdown drive put Florida State up 7–0 after the first quarter, but the tides quickly turned.
The Bearcats, having not registered a first down in the opening quarter, came to life. Tony Kapetanis was a scrambling QB, and would finish his career with 19 rushing touchdowns to just 10 through the air. He found freshman WR Ralph Williams for a touchdown, one of three TD passes on the season for Kapetanis. Following a quick fumble by Florida State, Kapetanis put another TD on the board for the Bearcats, this time on a nine-yard scramble. Late in the first half, a 39-yard run by RB Ellis Johnson helped to power a long touchdown drive that ended when Kapetanis plowed his way into the end zone again on a one-yard run. The Bearcats found themselves entering halftime with a 21–7 lead over the nation’s #6 team.
After a scoreless third quarter, Florida State woke up. Following a pair of fourth-down conversions, the Seminoles found the end zone. For some bizarre reason, they elected to attempt a two-point conversion and failed. The score was 21–13 in favor of UC with 11 minutes remaining. The ‘Noles engineered another long drive on their next possession, finding the end zone via the air again. They attempted another two-point conversion––this time to tie the game––and failed again. Clinging desperately to a 21–19 lead, the Bearcats mustered a first down on their next drive before being forced to punt.
In the pivotal play of the game, Seminoles punt returner Gary Henry returned the ball 38 yards and into Bearcat territory. Three plays later, Florida State was in the end zone for the game-winning score.
If this defeat weren’t crushing enough, the Bearcats lost in a nearly identical fashion the year before in Tallahassee. In that game, the Seminoles also enjoyed a 26–21 victory in which they also came from behind to escape the Bearcats. In 1978, the winning score came on a 4th-and-29 play with 1:29 remaining. (Thank God I wasn’t alive for that.) In 1979, the winning score came with 1:38 remaining. If it’s any solace, the Houdini maneuver didn’t impress voters, and FSU slipped to #7 in the following week’s poll. Florida State was happy. In the week following the game, they offered Bowden a $125,000 contract, which he signed.
The Bearcats finished just 2–9 in 1979, and the FSU loss was the first of a 12-game losing streak that stretched into the 1980 season. The Seminoles finished the regular season undefeated before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
October 18, 1986 — #1 Miami (FL) 45, Bearcats 13
The #1 Miami Hurricanes, powered by eventual Heisman Winner Vinny Testaverde, made a stop at Nippert Stadium on their march to the 1986 National Championship Game. A sellout crowd of nearly 30,000 (the best in stadium history at the tiem) came out to see the nation’s top team, who was in the midst of a season where they steamrolled everyone they played.
The prior week, the Bearcats nearly sprung the upset on #5 Penn State in Happy Valley, losing 23–17. UC didn’t have enough ammo for the high-powered Hurricanes, who threw up 14 points in the game’s first two minutes. In all honesty, it could’ve been worse. The ‘Canes dropped 61 points on Texas Tech earlier that season, and 58 points on West Virginia the week before. Considering the ‘Cats were in the middle of their fourth of ten-straight losing seasons, they did well to keep this one respectable.
Miami eventually lost in the National Championship to the same Penn State team the Bearcats nearly knocked off.
September 5, 1992 — #8 Penn State 24, Bearcats 20
How amazing is this picture? Richie Anderson dives over the line, 9/5/1992. (The Sporting News)
The first thing to know about this game is how bad the previous meeting in Happy Valley was. In 1991, the Bearcats lost at #5 Penn State 81–0. Seriously. Here’s proof. “It was a helpless feeling,” said head coach Tim Murphy about that game. “We were coming off seasons in which we went 1–9–1 and 1–10. And then that. We were groping for straws trying to keep the players together because we had nothing tangible to go on.”
“After that game,” said UC linebacker Nate Dingle, “I felt less than human.”
The Bearcats were outscored by opponents 132–16 in the first two games of the 1991 season, but Murphy was able to rally the troops to close the season 4–3, creating some momentum into the 1992 campaign in which the Bearcats opened the season at a newly-renovated Nippert Stadium in front of the Penn State team that humiliated them the year before. They wanted revenge.
The Nittany Lions strolled into a rainy Nippert Stadium ranked #8 on opening night, and a crowd of better than 29,000 came out to show support for the red and black. The Bearcats returned the game’s opening kickoff 69 yards, setting up a quick score. After getting shut-out in the previous meeting, the Bearcats led 7–0 against the 8th-ranked Nittany Lions.
PSU entered the game shorthanded, as starting QB Kerry Collins (yes, that Kerry Collins) broke his finger in August playing volleyball. The team’s backup QB, John Sacca, injured his throwing shoulder on a scramble in the second quarter. Turning to freshman QB Wally Richardson, the Nittany Lions were forced to scrap most down-field passing plays. Knowing Penn State would be leaning on their running game, the Bearcats stacked the box with as many as eight defenders, committing themselves to holding the hobbled PSU offense at bay. It worked, and the halftime score was 7–7.
In perhaps the turning point of the game, the Bearcats lined up for a 37-yard field goal with 10:30 remaining in the third quarter, aiming to take a 10–7 lead. Nittany Lion nose tackle Vin Stewart blocked the attempt, and the Lions drove 66 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing drive, putting PSU ahead 14–7. These kinds of swings in momentum are nearly impossible to recover from in upset bids.
In the fourth quarter, Bearcat RB David Small grabbed an 8-yard touchdown pass to bring UC to within three, 17–14. After Penn State jumped ahead 24–14, the Bearcats brought it back to a one-possession game on a 2-yard rush by QB Paul Anderson with 1:08 left. They couldn’t muster any late-game heroics, and again UC was on the short end of the stick in a shot at a monumental upset.
Like the Florida State game 13 years prior, the Bearcats near-upset knocked the opposition down the rankings, as Penn State fell from #8 to #10 in the following week’s polls. PSU fell apart in October that year, losing five of their final seven games en route to a 7–5 finish. The Bearcats closed 1992 at 3–8.
In 1994, Rick Minter took the reigns of Bearcats football. After a lousy 2-win effort in his first season, Minter managed winning records in 1995, ’96, and ’97. Things seemed to be on the up-and-up in Clifton, until a disastrous 1998 campaign that saw the Bearcats lose nine consecutive games to open the slate. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, the Bearcats lost at Nippert to FCS Troy State on September 11, 1999. Looming large the following week were the mighty Badgers…
September 18, 1999 — Bearcats 17, #9 Wisconsin 12
QB Deontey Kenner (7) celebrates the upset, 9/18/1999. (Ernest Coleman)
The Wisconsin Badgers came to Nippert Stadium in 1999 surrounded by a ton of hype. RB Ron Dayne, en route to a Heisman Award and an NCAA career rushing record, was poised to steamroll a hapless UC team coming off a loss to FCS Troy State. Nearly 28,000 Bearcats faithful filed into Nippert Stadium expecting to see a bloodbath. Instead, they got their money’s worth.
Early in the second quarter, the Bearcats took a 7–3 lead on a 51-yard dash by senior RB Robert Cooper. Somehow, they never looked back.
Late in the fourth quarter, reality nearly came calling. Leading 14–12, UC defensive back Tinker Keck nearly intercepted a Wisconsin pass, but forced the Badgers into a fourth down. On the ensuing punt, Keck tried to field the ball inside his own 10-yard line and muffed it. Wisconsin recovered the ball, giving them incredible field position, trailing by just two points. On the second play of the drive, the Bearcats were able to jar the football out of the giant mitts of Dayne on the 2-yard line, getting themselves out of extreme danger. UC failed to score on the following drive, and were forced to punt. This time it was the Wisconsin returner who muffed it, and the Bearcats fell on the ball, eventually leading to a 41-yard field goal by freshman kicker Jonathan Ruffin that gave UC a 17–12 lead that would hold up.
Joy in Clifton.
Fans storm the field after the Bearcats knocked off #9 Wisconsin at Nippert Stadium on 9/18/1999. (Ernest Coleman)
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan wrote the following day:
Paul Klaczak had tried to plan for it. During an athletic department meeting last week, UC’s associate athletics director/operations had said if the students decided to storm the goalposts, he wanted campus security to get out of their way. The campus police laughed at his presumption, convinced the Bearcats were 26-point underdogs for a reason.
This was the same UC team, after all, that had lost the preceding Saturday to Troy State, a Division I-AA team presumably playing above its station. If the Bearcats couldn’t beat a podunk school like that, what business did they have on the same field with a Big Ten power such as the Badgers?
Of all the improbable wins in Bearcats football history, this has to be the most unlikely. The ‘Cats pulled this one out of thin air. In the Enquirer, Mike DeCourcy laid it out:
Although the Badgers held the ball for 15 more minutes, gained 164 more yards, produced nine more first downs and drew 231 rushing yards from All-America tailback Ron Dayne, who played part-time because of an ankle injury, they left town with a defeat they could not have conceived.
UC students storm the field and bring down the goalposts, 9/18/1999. (Ernest Coleman)
Of all the bad luck UC has experienced over the years, this one seems awfully lucky. They escaped every bad break unscathed and relied on a few incredibly unlikely mistakes by the Badgers.
Wisconsin lost to #4 Michigan the following week, and then ran relatively seamlessly through a tough Big Ten schedule, finishing 10–2, winning the conference, earning a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, and finishing the season as the AP’s fourth-ranked team. The Bearcats, after knocking off a championship contender, finished the season just 3–8.
“Is this an upset? Well, we’re not upset,” said Minter. “You’d have to ask someone else if it’s an upset.”
The Bearcats travelled to Madison the following season for a rematch with the #4 Badgers, but needed Nippert’s magic. They lost 28–25 in overtime.
November 18, 2006 — Bearcats 30, #7 Rutgers 11
Students and fans storm the field following the upset over Rutgers, 11/18/2006. (Brett Hansbauer)
Nine days before playing in Cincinnati, Rutgers knocked off #3 Louisville in New Jersey, launching themselves to #7 in the polls, right in the thick of the National Title conversation. On November 18, their hopes came crashing down in Clifton, inside a packed Nippert Stadium.
Senior QB Nick Davila, starting his first career game, piloted the Bearcats to an upset of college football’s newest Cinderella, the 9–0 Scarlet Knights.
Leading 3–0 late in the first quarter, a 38-yard pass from Davila to Derrick Stewart helped set up a 1-yard QB sneak for a touchdown early in the second quarter. The Bearcats were up 10–0 with some momentum.
Rutgers began to move the ball on the following drive, nearly working their way into the red zone. Facing a 3rd-and-2, Rutgers QB Mike Teel’s pass was picked off by DeAngelo Smith, who sprinted 84 yards for a touchdown, putting the Bearcats up 17–0. The Knights were in shock, and the halftime score was 17–3.
Late in the third quarter, the Bearcats received a punt at their own 17-yard line. One the first play from scrimmage, Davila flicked a pass to TE Brent Celek, who scampered 83 yards for a touchdown, pushing the lead to 27–3.
Rutgers finally found the end zone and grabbed a touchdown and a 2-point conversion, but the game was well out of reach. Bearcats students hopped the brick wall and prepared to storm the field after the final whistle:
November 17, 2007 — #5 West Virginia 28, #21 Bearcats 23
Ben Mauk uncorks a pass, 11/17/2007. (GoBearcats.com)
That’s right, the Bearcats once faced two Top 7 teams at Nippert Stadium in less than a calendar year. My, how times have changed.
The 2007 NCAA football season was wild. You may remember 2007 as the year #1 Ohio State lost their second-to-last game, at home, against unranked Illinois, and still worked their way back to #1 to appear in the National Championship. In September of that year, the West Virginia Mountaineers were ranked 5th and coughed one up to #18 South Florida in Tampa. Because of the massacre happening to Top 10 teams that season, all it took was a month for WVU to work their way back to #5 in time for a Big East showdown in front of a sold-out Nippert. The Bearcats were ranked that season for the first time since 1954, and the fans were hungry for a repeat of 2006’s upset win.
The high-powered WVU offense, led by QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton, stormed down the field to take a 7–0 lead on their first possession. At the end of the opening quarter, the ‘Cats responded when QB Ben Mauk found WR Marcus Barnett for a 70-yard strike to even the score. The Mountaineers found the end zone twice more and entered the half with a 21–10 lead over UC.
The third quarter was scoreless, and West Virgnia scored again early in the fourth quarter to take a 28–10 lead with less than 11 minutes remaining in the game. The ‘Cats needed points, and they needed them in a hurry. Following the West Virginia touchdown, Mauk engineered a 71-yard drive of his own, capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass, again to Barnett. Two crucial fumbles by White allowed the Bearcats to hang around, and RB Bradley Glatthaar punched it in with two minutes remaining, bringing the score to 28–23. An onside kick attempt failed, and the Mountaineers survived Clifton.
The Bearcats got their schadenfreude two weeks later, as WVU choked against arch-rival Pittsburgh on the doorstep of a National Championship. The Bearcats won their final game in Syracuse, ensuring a bowl appearance, where they beat #23 Southern Miss.
By The Numbers:
- Since 1986, the highest-ranked opponent to play at Nippert Stadium is a tie between the #5 West Virginia Mountaineers (in 2007) and the Bearcats themselves, who were also #5 (in 2009).
- The Bearcats were 2–1 at Nippert against Top 10 teams in the BCS era, after going 0–4 before that.
- The Bearcats, when unranked, have won the last two games at Nippert vs Top 10 teams. They’re unranked for this week’s matchup.