Standing in rain-soaked Clifton on Saturday, I tried to think of how many games I’ve seen in Nippert Stadium. It’s a lot. My four and a half years as a student meant five seasons in the Nippert student section, minus the season played at Paul Brown Stadium in 2014. I’ve been a season ticket holder for the last two seasons while covering the team on the sidelines for most of those games.* I looked it up, and I think the number is 36. I’ve now seen the Bearcats play 36 times inside Nippert Stadium, and I think Saturday’s game against the Ohio Bobcats may have been the strangest.
*Saturday was my wife’s birthday, so I actually got to spend the game as a regular ole fan. For a while, I was regretting it. This game was not fun for much of the afternoon, but we’ll get to that.
Football games, as we all know, are 60-minute affairs, played out over three or four hours. If you’ve watched any amount of football, you can get a feel for the game and begin to guess where things are headed pretty early.
Saturday’s game was putting off all kinds of bad signals. On Cincinnati’s first offensive series, QB Desmond Ridder sandwiched incompletions between a three-yard run from RB Mike Warren before James Smith was forced to punt.
Ohio got the ball and marched 84 yards down the field to take a 7-0 lead. Things went like that for a while. James Smith punt. Ohio touchdown. James Smith punt. Ohio touchdown.
Cincinnati trailed 21-0 in a game marred by some of the most bizarre officiating I’ve ever seen. I’m very rarely a ‘blame the refs’ guy, but it’s hard not to get frustrated when penalties look like this:
By the end of the afternoon, the Bearcats had amassed 14 penalties for 150 yards. The number of flags was the third-most in UC history, and tied for the most since 1958. The penalty yardage was the fourth-most in UC history, and the most since 1968. It was not a normal afternoon.
Miraculously, none of it mattered.
The Bearcats continued to chip away at that 21-point deficit, scratching and clawing their way back into a game against a team and an officiating crew determined to bury them.
With 3:24 remaining in the game, and the rain continuing to fall, Warren broke through for his second touchdown of the afternoon, giving the Bearcats their first lead and capping off an improbable 34-9 scoring run.
Ohio got the ball back with too much time left. The game was in its fourth hour, and I was frankly worried about a defense that had spent the better part of three quarters trading field goals for touchdowns. They’d done a good job after a rough start, but finishing the job would be tough. The Bobcats’ strength is their offense and 3:18 to go 75 yards felt daunting for fans in red and black.
For a few minutes, our fears were confirmed. A 37-yard run and two Cincinnati penalties had the Bobcats in the UC red zone in just three plays. Then something seemed to click. After an eight-yard OU run, the defense stiffened up, backed inside their own five yard line.
On second and goal, with the ball on the one yard line, OU tried to run it in. Sophomore Jarell White burst through the line, sticking RB A.J. Ouellette for a three-yard loss. Warren would later call it the play of the game. Considering it set up what happened next, it’s hard to argue.
Now facing a third down four yards from the end zone, Ohio decided to pass.
Sophomore safety James Wiggins jumped the route at the goal line, snatching the pass in the corner for an interception, putting the game away.
Football games are 60 minute affairs. On Saturday, I spent 59 minutes and eight seconds thinking Cincinnati’s fate had been decided for them. Things started very, very poorly. The Bearcats looked flat on both sides of the ball, Ohio came prepared, and the refs were determined to saddle the Red and Black with as many penalties as possible.
Yet, as the game wore on, the lead dwindled. The Bearcats started to play marginally better on each drive, Ohio slowly wore down, and the continuing rainfall and hail of penalty flags ultimately weren’t enough to keep the Bearcats from marching forward to 4-0, matching 2017 and 2018’s win total in Week 4.
It was a semi-miraculous victory from a program that’s starting to make the miraculous seem routine.
A lot was said after the game about how a UC team during the Tuberville Era could’ve never pulled off the program’s biggest comeback victory since 2009. It’s the kind of negative callback I try to avoid, but it’s hard to argue here. The change in leadership is obvious, and we saw it last season, too. While the talent pool overall has deepened, the culture change from the top down is obvious. This is a group that never quits. I wish it didn’t take the occasional heartburn, but the results are unassailable early in Year 2.
Cincinnati hits the road against lowly UConn next weekend, looking to stake a claim to the program’s best season since 2015, before the calendar has a chance to read “October.”
We’ve seen just a third of this season, and the ‘Cats have already won two games I predicted they’d lose. What a time to be a Bearcat fan. The Fickell Era is coming up roses earlier than even a stringent optimist like myself could’ve hoped.
I think Desmond Ridder is gonna be a good quarterback. In a weird way, I think Saturday may have been the greatest evidence of that. Ridder did not start the game well. The offense sputtered on its way to a 21-point deficit and the freshman was right in the middle of the muck, even throwing his first career interception.
He fought back though, engineering that 21-point comeback victory and finishing with a solid stat line: 19-for-29 for 274 yards and two passing touchdowns to go with another on the ground.
The running back situation was weird. The team’s intention was to get injured RB Gerrid Doaks back into the mix this week, but his nagging groin injury persists and he sat out a fourth consecutive game to start the season. Mike Warren has been the team’s bell cow thus far, racking up the third most rushing attempts in the country through four games.
I think many, including myself, expected to see a bit of Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland on Saturday to give Warren some support, but it never came. He rushed alone, 23 times for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It’s worth mentioning that Doaks was probably 2017’s team MVP, at least on the offensive side of the ball, and Cincinnati has marched to a 4-0 record without him. That’s unbelievable to me. I can’t get enough credit to Warren.
Josiah Deguara is my Sleeper MVP right now. The reliable tight end caught six passes for 69 yards on Saturday, several of them on crucial downs. With talent and intrigue littering the offensive side of the ball this season, I feel like Deguara and his steady hands have been overlooked. He’s now tied with Khalil Lewis for the team lead in catches with 13 and he’s also the only guy with multiple touchdown catches.
Elsewhere in the receiving corps, Rashad Medaris had a coming out party, catching a huge 77-yard touchdown pass to open the second half for Cincinnati. Jayshon Jackson joined in on the fun with a pretty catch of his own later in the half.
The defense got banged up for the first time this season, partly due to a distinct lack of LB Perry Young, who was sidelined with an injury. Jarell White filled in nicely, however, leading the team with nine total tackles, including a huge tackle for loss to set up the game-clinching interception by James Wiggins. Usual suspects Bryan Wright and Cortez Broughton also stuck out to me, and I thought Kimoni Fitz had a huge game when Cincinnati needed it.
The dominant theme of the season, from my point of view, is how many things are panning out as I’d hoped. Going into the season, we all chart out the rosiest guesses of where things are headed. “This team can win seven games if the defense is as good as advertised, if Ridder can make plays with his arm and his feet, if areas of question like safety and wide receiver answer the call, if the defensive front can be the best in the conference, and if the running backs carry the offense.” A month ago those were all hopes. Today, they’re facts. It’s the reason the Bearcats are one of just 21 undefeated teams today. Everything is going according to plan. If things keep breaking in UC’s favor, this season could get mighty interesting.
The Bearcats are off to their best start since the final year of the Butch Jones Era in 2012. Not to count my chickens before they hatch, but ... if they can win the next two games (in which they’ll likely be favored), it’ll mark the first 6-0 start in Clifton since the best team in program history did it in 2009. Count me among those who never would’ve predicted Fickell’s second team being compared to 2009 in any fashion.
The Bearcats are back in the AP Poll this week, notching 10 points. That’s good for #38 overall, matching their highest ranking since Week 3 of 2016. They haven’t appeared in consecutive AP Polls since Weeks 15 & 16 of the 2014 season when they won a share of the AAC title.
Give me 5-0, please. Beat UConn.