The Flight of Icarus
Well, it finally happened.
The Cincinnati Bearcats lost, and it really sucked.
I say this occasionally when UC loses, but sometimes I just wish they’d get blown out. Maybe this is a stupid way to think, but give me 2016’s 34-13 Owls victory. I’d rather leave thinking “Welp, they didn’t have it today” than want to pull my hair out like I did after Saturday’s debacle.
Here’s the thing: The Bearcats losing this game was not a stunner. I talked about it on the podcast after the Tulane win, but my spitball prediction for the rest of the season was losses against Temple, USF, and UCF with wins against SMU, Navy, and ECU. It’s a realistic, yet remarkable 9-3 finish with a shot at an inconceivable 10th win in a bowl game. Before the season even started, I predicted a loss Saturday. The ‘Cats weren’t even favored in Philly.
Yet, watching that game—even though it’s the stance I’m taking—it’s a bit hard to leave saying, “Well, they lost to a team that was better today.”
The poor Bearcat defense was stellar. The offense put them in a no-win situation on their first appearance and Coby Bryant nearly intercepted one in the end zone before Temple kicked a field goal. Just moments later, the special teams did the same thing and an instant-replay debacle cost them seven. Temple then proceeded to do absolutely nothing on the offensive end for the next 52 minutes. The Owls were just 4-for-18 on 3rd and 4th downs and rushed for just 80 yards. Cincinnati’s run defense was like a brick wall and the secondary played its best game in what felt like ages.
The offense did not return the favor.
After Mike Warren piloted a short touchdown drive, Cole Smith knotted the game at 10 before it was UC’s turn to fall stagnant. Smith missed two kicks before halftime—one due to a… TV timeout confusion? They probably should’ve been made, but the freshman was put in a poor situation. Fickell’s aggressive approach means Smith has gotten little action this season. He entered the game just 2-for-3 in his career, with only one kick longer than 30 yards: An end-of-half attempt from 49 yards that was blocked in the Ohio game.
I love Fickell’s approach and I frankly haven’t missed the kicking game for UC, but Saturday saw the negative side of that style of coaching. At some point the freshman was going to be called on, and he didn’t stand much of a chance to be ready. Hopefully he can bounce back. He has the talent and three misses in an OT loss will be hard to shoulder for a freshman. This one wasn’t his fault.
The Bearcat offense wandered through the desert for a full quarter before a Charles McClelland-led drive gave Cincinnati a 17-10 lead with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. The Owls went three-and-out on their next possession, Aulden Knight returned the punt 21 yards, and UC’s win probability hit 85.3%, per ESPN.
This is where things started to go wrong.
The Bearcat defense, as stellar as it’s been, is not stockpiled with ironman athletes. No defense in the country is. The issue for UC arose when the ‘Cats followed up the McClelland touchdown with a turnover on downs and four punts on their next five drives. It looked like this:
4 plays, 8 yards, 2:01—turnover on downs
3 plays, 6 yards, 1:22—punt
3 plays, 6 yards, 1:32—punt
3 plays, 4 yards, 1:28—punt
3 plays, 3 yards, 1:35—punt
That’s 16 plays for 27 yards. That’s 1.7 yards per play. That’s less than eight minutes total UC’s defense was given to rest.
Meanwhile, they were turning in a heroic effort, forcing punts of their own on the first three drives following the McClelland score. When the offense refused to move the chains, the defense upped the ante. Tyrell Gilbert intercepted a pass on UC’s 5-yard line. When the offense still did nothing, Bryant got in on the action, picking off a pass on the next drive on UC’s 24-yard line.
There’s nothing else the Bearcat defense could’ve done. The Owls were bound to break through at some point, considering they hadn’t had a legitimate scoring drive on the afternoon.
Finally, WR Branden Mack shook loose, QB Anthony Russo found him, and Temple tied the game, sending it to overtime.
The Owls woke up, the sideline woke up, and the stadium woke up. It was a swing of momentum that felt crushing, and the Bearcats collapsed under its weight. The Owls scored on the third play of overtime before the Bearcats sealed their own fate. The final three plays of the game were a botched snap, an incompletion with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty tossed in for good measure, and the game-ending interception.
It was a cavalcade of errors to bring Cincinnati’s semi-miraculous win streak to a close.
Coby Bryant was simply stupendous. There’s no other way to say it. It’s not often a corner sticks out as the game’s MVP, which tells you how dominant he was. He turned in four tackles, three pass deflections, two interceptions, and a partridge in a pear tree. The kid can flat out play.
It’s hard to pick another defensive standout—each of them seemed to be involved in at least one critical play—but how about Tyrell Gilbert, Perry Young, and Malik Clements, for starters.
The running game was good! Mostly. Mike Warren and Charles McClelland combined to rush 29 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, the ground game stopped succeeding when UC needed it most, but it’s hard to deny the numbers. On a day when the Bearcats didn’t have it from their 19-year-old quarterback, the running backs shouldered UC’s entire offense—at least for about three quarters.
The tight ends were the closest thing UC had to a steady passing target for Desmond Ridder. Josiah Deguara and Bruno Labelle caught six passes for 52 yards. The wide receivers caught six passes for 58 yards combined.
James Smith, The Thunder From Down Under, continues to be an absolute freak of nature. He punted six times for 314 yards. That’s an average of 52.3 yards. He also had a bonkers 72 yarder, tied for fourth-longest in program history. In the last forty years, only Pat O’Donnell (NC State, 2011, 76 yards) has kicked one further.
What To Make Of It
Not much? I know that sounds like a cop out, but I’m not sure there’s anything that happened in this game that seems alarming going forward. It took what felt like an historic offensive dry spell to keep UC from winning. Someone check on Ridder and make sure he didn’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight. Otherwise, I think we’re in the clear.
Look, this one was frustrating. That being said, UC losing a game in which they were underdogs is not going to have me punching the panic button, especially after a 6-0 start in which I’d hope this team has earned a longer leash. The sample size of Good Bearcats is large enough that a dose of Bad Bearcats shouldn’t taint it.
If I’m back here a week from now writing about a continuing offensive famine, maybe you can start to think about where this team is headed in November.
Until then, I’m expecting to get back to winning. Let’s get the train rolling again. Give me another six-game win streak.