How on earth is the regular season already over?
I know, I know. “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It just feels like it’s been years (I guess four) since a season breezed by so quickly. Didn’t this team just beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl? Wasn’t that incredible comeback against Ohio just last week? How has this team played 12 games already?
It’s rare, especially in this city, that a season is able to satisfy even the harshest section of the fan base, but I think this team has done it. Knock on wood, but I have yet to see anyone upset about 10-2, and that’s how it should be. Less than three months after everyone infamously expected six (maybe seven!) wins, the Bearcats’ win column reads double figures for the first time since 2012, and for the first time before the postseason since 2009. Conference differences be damned, no Cincinnati team has won double-digit regular season games since Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard were racking up points.
What an incredible year.
This team deserved a celebration, and they threw one for themselves Friday evening at Nippert Stadium.
Barely one year after this same ECU program delivered the Bearcats a November death blow in North Carolina, Cincinnati got to return the favor on their home turf, smearing the hapless Pirates up and down the field for 60 minutes. East Carolina, as has been said, is not good. Since foolishly dismissing a coach with four bowl appearances in six seasons, the Pirates have finished 3-9 three years in a row. I don’t have a clue what the game plan is down there in Greenville, but I liked it Friday.
I predicted a 42-10 blowout. When the Bearcats led 42-6 at halftime, I figured I was probably not going to be correct.
In the end, it was a 56-6 mashing. The Bearcats could do no wrong and the Pirates could do no right. ESPN’s win probability meter never dipped below 95.3%, an embarrassing feat for an ECU program that entered this conference as a near-annual bowl team.
Career outings abounded. Desmond Ridder got extended rest after tossing a career-high four touchdowns on 69% passing. Kahlil Lewis had a career-best 203 receiving yards to match a career-best three touchdown catches in his Nippert finale. Charles McClelland had 114 rushing yards (best against an FBS opponent) and Tavion Thomas added 106 (best against an FBS opponent).
The 21,230 fans that showed up on Black Friday came to see a football game and a party broke out.
After the game, players hugged family and posed for photos. Senior Kahlil Lewis broke down in tears. Mike Warren, whose assault on the UC record book was paused after getting banged up against UCF a week ago, paraded around the field with a stolen megaphone. “Get a win!” he shouted, again and again.
Get a win, they did. If they can get one more, it’ll match the 2008 team for second-most in program history. A bit better than the 6-6 I’d have been thrilled with.
I love that Hayden Moore got to close his career in Clifton the right way—throwing touchdowns at Nippert. Much like Gunner Kiel, his time at Cincinnati came during a rough patch. He was thrown into the fire as a freshman in 2015 and fought against injuries, Gunner Kiel, and Ross Trail to lead a rudderless ship in 2016. The 2017 battle was uphill, and just when it seemed like things were turning a corner, he lost his starting job to freshman Desmond Ridder. Hayden Moore unfairly shouldered a lot of the blame for Cincinnati’s struggles from 2015 to 2017, but handled things with grace. Frankly, I’d have been upset if I were him. Instead, he was named captain this year and the flying success of Ridder is proof that Moore was doing everything right behind the scenes. I’m honestly going to miss having Hayden in red and black. I have so much respect for that kid.
I have only been covering the program from the sideline for two seasons, but I’ve been watching for much longer. This feels like the funnest bunch yet. Sixth-year senior Garrett Campbell compared the way he fell in love with Cincinnati with the way he fell in love with his high school—St. Xavier—after initial trepidation. “I mean, who wants to go to a school with all dudes?” Then Cortez Broughton took the podium and said, “Hey, real quick before we get started, no video.” I had no idea where he was going. “What’s the best seafood place around here?” Running back Mike Warren, who has dazzled on the field, is hilarious in these press conferences as well. One insider described him as “the funniest guy to ever come through this program.” If the wins weren’t enough, these kids are also incredibly endearing. It’s been a treat watching them.
It’s been talked about, and will continue to be a topic of conversation, but the culture Luke Fickell has put in place is his greatest achievement yet. Forget the best recruiting class in program history. Forget the stunning 10-2 record. The way this team has superglued themselves to each other is incredible. There is a serious brotherhood that can’t be faked. The Bearcats may not win 10+ games every year, but they’re going to expect it as long as Fickell is leading the charge.
I can’t thank Ryan Koslen and the athletic department enough for letting me, Matt, and Emily poke around the sidelines all year. I love writing about this school more than anyone realizes, and it’s the coolest thing in the world getting to watch up close. UC has been very good to us. We hope to be back next season. August 31st feels a million miles away.