Saturday’s miraculous 26-20 overtime Bearcat victory gave fans a lot to chew on, but the thing that sticks out the most to me is how well this team tightened the screws when the time came.
Through 58 minutes and 39 seconds—and all of last week, for that matter—Cincinnati’s offense looked disjointed. Desmond Ridder and Mike Warren misfired on a handoff for a costly fumble, Warren never got much of a chance to get going, Ridder threw a pair of interceptions, and the ‘Cats failed on two fourth-down conversions.
All told, Cincinnati’s 477 yards of offense yielded just two touchdowns—both on passes to Kahlil Lewis and both on the opening drive of each respective half.
But the Bearcats defense, yet again, locked down and, yet again, forced a three-and-out. The offense found itself with the ball and 1:21 on the clock. A team that spent all afternoon beefing things up took their final opportunity and made things right.
Ridder threw to Lewis for eight yards, Warren for six yards, ran for seven yards, threw to Geddis for five yards, ran for 20 yards, and spiked the ball. He threw it to Warren (who successfully eluded a defender en route to a clock-stopping first down; an underrated play) for 11 yards and spiked it again.
To set up a Cole Smith field goal attempt, UC used nine plays and went 56 yards in 1:18. Ridder—who looked like a freshman at times Saturday—buckled down and went 4-for-5 for 29 yards and ran for another 27 to give UC a shot after they appeared to be dead in the water.
Then it was Cole Smith’s turn. I can’t give enough credit to this kid. Last week I wrote how a going 1-for-4 in an overtime loss to snap an unbeaten record has to be hard for a freshman to handle. Smith doesn’t seem fazed by it. He canned a 24-yarder in the third quarter before stepping up with the game on the line.
The attempt was from 41 yards. Smith made the first, but was forced to re-kick after a late timeout came in from the SMU sideline. He made the second, but was forced to kick again when the Mustangs used their final timeout to ice him once more.
The third attempt was frightening, but it went through. Bouncing back after a tough game to make a game-tying field goal with three seconds left is hard. Doing it three times is incredible.
When the game went to overtime, James Wiggins did what he does and jumped a route on the period’s third play, snatching a Mustang pass and streaking 86 yards for a touchdown and a Bearcat victory. It was the longest Cincinnati interception return in 62 years.
How many close games is this team going to play? They’re giving me heart issues, and I think we’re far enough into Fickell’s UC tenure to establish some trends.
Fickell’s first Heart Attack Game was last year’s Battle for the Bell, a stunning UC victory on a late pick six by Malik Clements. The second came a month later, as UC lost an overtime game to SMU on a game-ending interception. The following week, the Bearcats beat Tulane in New Orleans on a missed 36-yard field goal with 1:26 remaining. Three weeks after that, UC got UConn on a missed PAT at the end of regulation.
This season, they wasted no time. The ‘Cats beat UCLA by nine points, but it’s easy to forget that required a pair of heart-stopping fourth-down conversions late in the game. James Wiggins sealed a victory in a comeback against Ohio three weeks later and the Bearcats lost in OT to Temple last week before Wiggins again sealed a win with an 86-yard pick six on Saturday in Dallas.
Fickell’s record in these games is 6-2, which is great. But eight of a possible 20 games ending in chest-pounding fashion is a lot for me to handle. More than half of Fickell’s 11 Bearcat wins have ended like this.
I don’t like to pick nits after wins, so I’ll stick to one. The offensive balance was a bit strange on Saturday, no? Desmond Ridder threw the ball 50 times and ran it 17 times—three more attempts than Mike Warren.
The Bearcats generated 477 yards of offense, so it’s hard to say what they were doing wasn’t working. They also won the game.
But as opportunities dried up and the UC offense failed in a few key moments, it was hard not to wonder what had happened to the running back that had rushed for 800 yards on the season, hitting triple digits in every FBS game that wasn’t played in a biblical downpour.
I don’t have a real answer here. I suppose the Mustangs did a good job of containing Warren, and it took two solid runs to get him above three yards per carry in the first half, but this game will still stick out on Warren’s 2018 game log. It was a season-low in yards and his first 2018 outing without a touchdown.
(He did get involved in the passing game, and his six catches for 65 yards are both career bests.)
I gotta start with Kahlil Lewis. His 12 catches and 174 yards are both career highs, as you’d imagine. Those numbers pop off the page, and he did most of his damage from the slot. Chad Brendel mentioned it on the podcast before the season, but Lewis is more of a natural fit inside. While he did score on a deep pass down the sideline on UC’s first drive of the game, you could usually find him catching them in the flats. He was soaking up yards like they were going out of style, looking like a Bearcat Jarvis Landry.
I also have to give some credit to Desmond Ridder. The aforementioned late-game precision is the only reason UC was in a position to win. The early fumble may or may not have been his fault, but the two picks definitely were. On the other hand, this is a guy whose scouting report said “Great athlete, not a polished passer yet” two months ago, yet he was called on to throw 50 times. He completed 33 of them, even with a couple drops mixed in. He also generated UC’s two touchdowns. Others will certainly disagree, and still others will call for Hayden Moore (this seriously happened in my Twitter mentions during the game), but being asked to throw that many times (on the road) as a freshman isn’t easy. And, after all, Ridder won.
I thought Rashad Medaris had a sneaky-good game. Lewis stole the show, but Medaris was a worthy sidekick, pulling in four catches for 56 yards on several big plays. He also had a long touchdown catch called back on a penalty.
Defensively, it was Bryan Wright leading the way again, with usual suspects Cortez Broughton and Marquise Copeland in tow. Also, James Wiggins makes a Top Performer appearance for housing one to give UC its first overtime win in a decade.
(UC’s last OT win was at West Virginia in November 2008. They were on an 0-for-5 streak until Saturday. For the curious, the Bearcats haven’t won an overtime game at home since September 2003, which is pretty crazy. That game was a triple-overtime thriller over Temple.)
The Aulden Knight punt return shouldn’t go unnoticed, as it set up UC’s second touchdown.
Cole Smith, as stated, was huge. 2-for-2. Heck of a game, kid.
I didn’t mention in before the game (for fear of raising the stakes, and therefore blood pressure) but this was an important win. The difference between 6-2 with a losing streak and 7-1 with two games coming up at Nippert is massive. Plus, at 3-1 in the conference, the ‘Cats still control their own destiny. As unlikely as it may seem, running the table means an AAC title game appearance out of the stacked East division. A loss would’ve effectively ended those chances, as it would require seemingly unstoppable UCF to lose another AAC game even if UC can beat them.
EDIT: I was wrong about UC controlling their own AAC destiny. Fellow East-division team Temple is still 4-0, with a pair of road games against UCF and Houston looming.
I don’t know what to make of the uniform combination. The white and red is clean, and I’m down for any uniform experimentation, but it didn’t particularly look like the Bearcats out there on the field. I mean, the ‘Cats matched SMU’s midfield logo perfectly, which was weird. Someone flipping on the game had to be very confused.
Kahlil Lewis has a great Bearcat tattoo and I always forget that.
A whole mess of top-25 teams lost Saturday. I guess this could be said about any UC misstep, but it would certainly be nice to have the Temple game back. 8-0… Undefeated in the conference… Top-20 and rising… Coming back home for two games… Gah.