Ray Jackson lunges for a touchdown against Houston in a game on 10/7/2000. (AP photo)
We have ourselves a showdown. The #6 Houston Cougars are coming to Nippert Stadium on Thursday night. The Bearcats have a history of springing the upset, but let’s take a look at the history between Cincinnati and Houston.
All-time series record: Houston leads, 14–10
First meeting: 1957–58 season
Last meeting: 2015–16 season
Current streak: Houston won last meeting
Record in Cincinnati: Bearcats lead, 6–4
Streak in Cincinnati: Bearcats won last six meetings
Here is a look at some of the important games in the series history:
October 5, 1957 — Houston 7, Bearcats 0
The first meeting between the two teams took place at Nippert Stadium, and the heavily-favored Cougars edged past the Bearcats thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown. “It was by far the greatest effort a Cincinnati team has shown in three years of Coach George Blackburn’s regime,” wrote the Enquirer’s Dick Forbes. The teams finished the season with matching 5–4–1 records.
October 3, 1959 — Houston 13, Cincinnati 12
In the first game of the series to take place in Houston, the injury-riddled Bearcats beat themselves with stupid mistakes. After a first quarter touchdown by Steve Rasso––who would later coach at St. Xavier High School and mentor a young defensive backs coach named Urban Meyer––the Bearcats missed the extra point. They tacked on another six in the second quarter on a touchdown grab by RB Ed Kovac, but the two point conversion failed. Houston slammed the door on the Bearcats offense in the second half and scraped out a win.
November 28, 1964 — Bearcats 20, Houston 6
Cincinnati RB Errol Prisby dives for yardage in the first quarter, 11/28/1964. (AP photo)
The Bearcats got their first win in the series on the final day of the 1964 season in Houston. The win capped off an 8–2 campaign and a MVC Championship, the best year for the red and black in a decade.
Legendary Bearcats QB Brig Owens led the effort, and UC scored on its first possession and never looked back. The only Cougar score came on a desperation heave as time expired. RB Al Nelson––who would go on to a successful eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles––used the game to cap off his historic season. His 973 rushing yards were good for #1 in Cincinnati history and #4 in the country in 1964. His 13 rushing touchdowns were good for #2 in the NCAA (behind Brian Piccolo).
September 25, 1971 — Houston 12, Cincinnati 3
Bearcat defenders close in on Houston QB Gary Mullins, 9/25/1971. (Dick Swaim/Enquirer)
This was the first meeting since the 1968 season, where the #12 Cougars decimated the Bearcats in Houston, 71–33. This time the game was in Cincinnati, and the Bearcats were determined to put up a fight. UC kept the Houston offense at bay for three quarters, leading 3–0 heading to the fourth. On the first play of the final frame, UH scored a touchdown which they matched on their next possession. Cincinnati’s upset bid in Clifton fell short, but the Cougars haven’t won there since.
November 13, 1993 — Bearcats 41, Houston 17
Bearcat RB David Small fumbles on the goal line, but UC would recover, 11/13/1993. (Tim Johnson/AP)
Between 1975 and 1993, the series took a long hiatus before Conference USA would bring the two together in 1996. A crowd of fewer than 11,000 people gathered at the Astrodome to see Houston get railroaded by the visiting Bearcats.
RB David Small was the game’s MVP, amassing an impressive 31 carries for 201 yards to go with four touchdowns, pushing him to first on the UC career rushing touchdown list (a spot he later surrendered to DeMarco McCleskey). UC buried the Cougars from the start, as Small tacked on his third rushing touchdown early in the second quarter to push the lead to 24–0.
Houston only managed a single win in 1993. It was a renaissance year for the Bearcats, who finished the season at 8–3, narrowly missing a bowl game but amassing their best record since 1976 and first winning season since 1982.
November 14, 1998 — Bearcats 44, Houston 43
WR Cornelius Bonner celebrates with QB Chad Plummer after a first quarter 2-point conversion, 11/14/1998.
The Bearcats were riding high following a decisive win over Utah State in the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl. The wheels fell off the following year, as the Bearcats lost their first nine games to open the 1998 season, in which they would finish with the nation’s worst defense. It was a nightmare for a program that seemed to be finally coming into its own. One Saturday afternoon in November, things turned around.
The Bearcats and Cougars started fast and played to a 14–14 tie after the first quarter, but Houston pulled away before halftime thanks to a 75-yard touchdown run and a 22-yard touchdown pass. UC tacked on a field goal on the half’s final play, but faced a 27–17 deficit at the break.
The Bearcats added a touchdown in the third quarter, but two impressive scores from the Cougars made it a 41–24 game heading into the final frame. UC was facing an 0–10 start to the season.
Then came the comeback.
McCleskey opened the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, bringing the game to 41–31. The defenses battled it out for nearly 10 minutes of game clock before Nathan Wize reached the end zone for another touchdown, bringing the score to 41–37. Looking for an extra point to make it a one-possession game, disaster struck as the Cougars blocked the kick and returned it 95 yards for two. Instead of needing a field goal, now the Bearcats needed a touchdown, down 43–37 with 4:19 left.
The Bearcats got the ball back and sophomore QB Deontey Kenner engineered the game-winning drive, completing all three of his passes to push the Bearcats 68 yards down the field where McCleskey punched it in to tie with a minute remaining. This time, the extra point wasn’t blocked and UC held on to win. Several hundred of an estimated 2,000 fans remaining at Nippert stormed the field.
“We had guys laughing, guys crying,” said Bearcat DT Kevin Ward. “Some guys were so confused, they didn’t know what to do.” Head coach Rick Minter called it one of the best games in Nippert Stadium history.
December 6, 2014 — Bearcats 38, Houston 31
QB Munchie Legaux celebrates the conference title, 12/6/2014. (Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports)
The two programs parted ways following the 2004 season, with Cincinnati moving to the Big East and Houston remaining in Conference USA. The Bearcats and Cougars met in Houston in 2013, their first meeting in 11 seasons. It was the 2014 game that was important. The Bearcats had beaten the Cougars four straight times and eight out of the previous ten. None of that mattered if they couldn’t pull out a win in chilly Paul Brown Stadium with an AAC Championship on the line.
The red and black opened the scoring as freshman RB Mike Boone found pay-dirt early in the game before Houston tied it later in the quarter on a run of their own. Two Gunner Kiel touchdown passes in the second quarter offset at Cougar field goal, and UC took a 21–10 lead to halftime.
After the first play of the second half, Kiel left the game with leg cramps and headed to the locker room for an IV. He wouldn’t return, so the game was on the shoulders of Munchie Legaux, the senior who was coming off a devastating knee injury in 2013. Boone and Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. traded rushing touchdowns in the third before Boone’s third TD of the game gave UC a 35–17 lead heading into the regular season’s final quarter.
The Cougars battled to make it a one possession game with a shot to tie, and drove all the way to the UC 11-yard line. The Cincinnati defense held, as Ward missed the end zone three straight times. The Bearcats were conference champs.
The win helped UC finish the 2014 regular season 7–0 to win its sixth conference championship in eight years.