Andrew Gantz connects on a game-winning field goal in the 2015 matchup between UC and ECU. (USATSI)
The Bearcats head to homecoming in search of their first conference win. In their three conference games this season, they’ve been outscored 64–6 in the second half. They haven’t scored a touchdown since the second quarter of their game against USF on October 1. That was more than six quarters ago. Things in Clifton are on the verge of a nuclear meltdown, and the Bearcats will need to get past lowly ECU to get things back on track.
The Bearcats haven’t lost to the Pirates of East Carolina — which isn’t a state — since November 2001. They’ve beaten ECU five straight times, and the last two games ended with winning field goals by sharpshooter Andrew Gantz.
For the fourth time this season, the Bearcats will face an AAC team also in search of their first conference victory. If the Bearcats falter, they’ll be 0–4 in the AAC and be the source of first conference victories for four rivals. Needless to say, that would be very bad.
Here’s a series breakdown and a glance at a few notable meetings between the two programs:
All-time series record: East Carolina leads, 12–7
First meeting: 1986
Last meeting: 2015
Current streak: Cincinnati has won five straight
Record in Cincinnati: East Carolina leads, 5–4
Streak in Cincinnati: Cincinnati has won the last two
Tinker Keck saves a touchdown on a Troy Smith return. (AP photo)
November 13, 1997 — East Carolina 14, Cincinnati 7
By the 1997 season, ECU’s grip on the series was starting to slip. They had won the first seven meetings before UC pulled off two of three victories from 1994–96. The Bearcats would need more of the same in ’97, as they entered the season finale in Greenville with a 7–3 record, needing a win to match their best record since 1976 and safely ensure their first bowl berth since 1951.
ECU entered the game at 4–5, but a rain-soaked crowd of better than 25,000 and a Thursday night ESPN audience had the Bearcats rattled.
The Pirates put kicks through the uprights late in the first half and early in the second half to take a 6–0 lead before a 1-yard smash by fullback Landon Smith gave the Bearcats their first lead at 7–6. In the waning moments of the third quarter, ECU answered with a 5-yard touchdown pass followed by a two-point conversion to take a 14–7 lead heading into the final frame.
The Bearcats made it close before their offense stalled in the ECU red zone on their final possession and the Pirates held on to win.
In a twist, Rick Minter and his Bearcats made a bowl appearance despite the loss. In the 1997 Humanitarian Bowl, UC faced Utah State and won 35–19. It was their first bowl victory since 1949 and completed a remarkable 8–4 record after finishing 2–9 the season prior.
Olinger snags one of his three touchdown catches. (AP photo)
December 6, 2002 — Cincinnati 42, East Carolina 26
In the game that started UC’s run of recent dominance, the Bearcats again faced the Pirates in Greenville with their backs against the wall. The Bearcats entered the game 6–6, needing a victory to secure a share of the Conference USA title and punch their ticket to the New Orleans Bowl.
Gino Guidugli came out firing for UC and the Bearcats were ready. They staked themselves to an early lead with a 78-yard touchdown catch by Jon Olinger and a 12-yard pick six by Blue Adams. The Bearcats maintained a safe lead until the fourth quarter, when ECU made it a 2-point game on a 54-yard touchdown pass.
However, Guidugli hit George Murray on a 26-yard strike and the UC defense sealed it with a 30-yard pick six by Zach Norton on the ensuing Pirate possession.
The game’s MVP was Olinger, who had just four catches, but scored on touchdowns of 78, 49 and 48 yards. It was a historic game for the Bearcats. Olinger tied the UC record for touchdown catches in a game with three. Guidugli tied a record for passing touchdowns in a game with four. The game also set single-season records for Guidugli, as he pushed into first for pass attempts, completions, and passing yards. His 3,319 total yards eclipsed Greg Cook’s 1968 record. The win also gave the Bearcats a share of their first conference title since winning the Missouri Valley Conference in 1964.
The Bearcats lost to North Texas in the New Orleans bowl, finishing 7–7.
Chris Moore runs after a catch. (Gary Landers/Enquirer)
November 13, 2014 — Cincinnati 54, East Carolina 46
This game was fun and miserable. I watched this from front to back, and all I remember was being freezing cold (temperature at kickoff was 27 degrees) and feeling like one of the only people at Paul Brown Stadium (attendance is listed at just over 19,000 — which still feels generous).
Both teams entered with high-powered offense on one side and lackluster defense on the other. It had the makings of a shootout from the start, and it delivered.
Gunner Kiel opened the scoring with a 55-yard strike to Mekale McKay. ECU answered with a pair of field goals before Max Morrison caught one for 17 yards. The Pirates took the lead midway through the second quarter on a touchdown of their own before a 66-yard bomb to Chris Moore and a 2-yard punch by Rod Moore gave the Bearcats a 31–20 lead at the break. Freshman Mike Boone found the end zone to open the second half. UC had a commanding 38–20 lead when ECU mounted their comeback.
A 40-yard touchdown run and a 18-yard touchdown pass made it a four-point game early in the fourth quarter. The Bearcats were able to answer with a 36-yard strike to McKay before they began to hang on for dear life.
A touchdown by the Pirates made it a five-point game with fewer than four minutes remaining. The Bearcats got the ball back looking to salt the clock away. The drive stalled in UC territory and the ‘Cats faced a fourth down with two minutes left and a slim lead. What followed was, with zero exaggeration, the worst play call I’ve seen in my entire life:
ECU had the ball back, deep in UC territory, and they made the Bearcat coaches pay. QB Shane Carden scored on a run with 62-seconds remaining, but the two-point conversion failed. The Bearcats were trailing by one, and needed a field goal to win.
Johnny Holton got things moving in the right direction with a 31-yard return to the UC 35. With 57 seconds left, the offense took the field. 15-yard pass, 4-yard pass, timeout. Ball on the ECU 46. 16-yard pass, hurry to the line, incompletion, ECU timeout. With 26 seconds left on the ball on ECU’s 30-yard line, the Bearcat offense stalled. The Bearcats would need a career-long field goal from freshman Andrew Gantz if they wanted to win this one.
There were 19 seconds left. It was 11 PM. The temperature was probably closer to 20 degrees. The stadium was a ghost town. Out comes Gantz.
It would’ve been good from 57. The handful of kids left in the student section went wild. Gantz sprinted down the field towards us in celebration, and for a moment I was terrified that an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty would put the end of the game in jeopardy. Instead, ECU had time for one last play, and the Bearcats scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown to seal the win and keep themselves on track for a share of the conference title.
Andrew Gantz repeated his heroics in 2015’s matchup, this time connecting on the game’s final play to sink the Pirates. In 2016, UC will have to do it without him, as he sits for the remainder of the year with an injury. The Bearcats haven’t been this desperate for a win in years, and this is probably the AAC team they’d most like to be facing. A win here can get things on the road to salvation. A loss might help trigger program-altering changes come December.