Do you remember where you were a year ago today? I do.
November 18, 2017. I was in Toledo visiting a friend. We were camped out on the couch to watch the Bearcats take on East Carolina in Greenville. The Bearcats entered the day at 3-7, losers of six of their last seven games. ECU was bad, just 2-8. Maybe a game against the Pirates was what Cincinnati needed to get things back on track before a long offseason.
I blinked and East Carolina was up 21-0 en route to a 48-20 beatdown to send the Bearcats to 3-8. All the optimism that came with the dawning of the Fickell era was beginning to evaporate, if I’m being honest. I knew it would be a long road back to relevance, but I didn’t expect the team would need to claw to match 2016’s abysmal 4-8.
Stunningly, the program would go on to win ten of their next 11 games, with the only loss coming on the road in overtime. Before the next calendar year was up, the Bearcats would be 9-1, listed in the College Football Playoff rankings, and playing on ESPN’s College GameDay.
Oh, yeah, they lost the big one. It really sucked. But honestly, in the grand scheme of things, how much does it truly matter? From the beginning of 2016 through that horrible afternoon a year ago, the Bearcats were 7-16. From the miracle win against UConn at the end of 2017 through the USF game a week ago, they went 10-1.
The fact that they lost to UCF (winners of 23 straight) on the road feels less like a pie in the face and more like Chick-fil-A forgetting to put the cherry in your milkshake.
Saturday night’s game was a tough one. The Bearcats struck first, with Malik Clements laying the wood on McKenzie Milton on the Bearcats’ first defensive play, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Kimoni Fitz for a touchdown.
What followed was a flurry of special teams errors, missed opportunities, abysmal offensive line play, mounting injuries, and crack-pipe officiating like you read about. The first half of the game’s opening quarter was like we all dreamed about. The next 53 minutes were a nightmare.
I won’t rehash it all. There’s not much point in doing so. At the end of the day, the Bearcats were beaten by the better team. UCF is good, but it’s never fun when it feels like the insults outweigh the injuries, and that’s what last night felt like.
Short-term thinkers had plenty to be mad about. The offensive line got deep fried. The receivers lacked explosiveness. Cincinnati’s defensive backs were chasing UCF’s wide receivers all over the yard. The officiating crew working last night’s game clearly had no respect for the Bearcats.
Long-term thinkers, however, have a lot to be excited about. Desmond Ridder ran for his life all night, mostly upfield through the heart of the UCF defense. The atmosphere was crazy and it seemed at times like UCF was trying to cripple him, but he never seemed consumed by the moment. He’s a freshman and entered the season as QB2. Mike Warren and Tavion Thomas pounded it down the throats of the Knights to the tune of 160 yards on 30 carries. One is a sophomore, the other is a freshman. One was expected to be RB2, the other wasn’t even listed on the depth chart for the UCLA game. Three of Cincinnati’s four leading tacklers are sophomores. So is their punter, the nation’s best.
The veterans up front are huge on both sides of the ball, but young faces are beginning to lead this program, and everybody from top to bottom has the kind of fight we simply didn’t see in 2016.
ESPN cameras caught Tyrell Gilbert hobbling to the locker room in the midst of Saturday’s madness. The sideline reporter announced he’d be out for the game. Suddenly, there’s Gilbert on my screen, making a third down stop and jogging off the field, unable to move his arm. And there he was on the sidelines writhing in pain while trainers worked on his shoulder.
I watched with my own two eyes as Kahlil Lewis made a catch and was awkwardly tackled, his ankle twisting beneath the defender. He was down on the turf grabbing at his leg and I’d have been willing to bet it was a fully broken ankle. The game was all but decided by that point, but Lewis got himself taped up and somehow made it back onto the field.
This unrelenting fight is something we hadn’t seen in the past. Nine wins in 11 tries is something we’ve been missing as well. While I would’ve given an internal organ to see the Bearcats emerge victorious last night (and I frankly thought they would), it’s hard to be even slightly disappointed by where Luke Fickell and these kids have taken the program in just 23 months since his hiring.
They’re back at Nippert on Friday for Senior Day, a game against ECU that will—for real this time—be a fulfilling victory. An unbelievable 10-2 record is still ripe for the taking. If you’d have predicted 10-2 in August I wouldn’t have given you the time of day. If they can get a win this week and eventually bring home a bowl victory, the same Bearcats I predicted would go 6-6 can tie for second-most wins in 131 seasons of Cincinnati football.
Not bad at all, especially considering where we were a year ago.