It was a fitting end to an unbelievable season.
The Bearcats weren’t supposed to win 11 games this year. They weren’t supposed to beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl. They weren’t supposed to thrive behind sophomore phenom Mike Warren, who wasn't supposed to rush for 18 touchdowns—the best in 131 seasons of Cincinnati football. They weren’t supposed to be led this far by a freshman QB. They weren’t supposed to win after he was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury.
None of this was supposed to happen, but when safety James Wiggins came down with an errant Ryan Willis pass in the game’s final minute, none of it mattered.
The Bearcats had cinched up win number 11, tied with the 2008 team for second most in school history. For Wiggins, it was his third game-sealing interception of the year.
Wiggins finished the year with four pick-offs. One of them won the Ohio game when he jumped a route at the goal line. One of them won the SMU game when his 86-yard pick six in overtime served as the walk-off homer. One of them clinched Monday’s Military Bowl. (The fourth, for what it’s worth, came in the second quarter of the UCLA game, setting up a short UC drive that gave Cincinnati its first lead.) There are no words for the kind of clutch player Wiggins has been for this team.
There are no words either, frankly, for what Hayden Moore has been. The incumbent senior—embattled by injuries, coaching turmoil, and a pair of 4-8 seasons—lost his position as starter to an unproven freshman. He never stopped leading though, and I can tell you that Desmond Ridder would not have helped steer this ship to 11-2 if it weren’t for what Moore was doing behind the scenes. Being a college quarterback can be brutal and unforgiving, especially under the circumstances in which Moore played.
I stood in the student section in 2016, during one of those hellish losses at the end of the Tuberville era, as the crowd chanted for Gunner Kiel. Hayden’s girlfriend stood in front of me (evidenced by her custom Bearcat jersey) and I could tell the chants were getting to her. We all were frustrated, but none of us could see the other side—the hours upon hours of work put in to a team that just couldn’t find its way. Moore admitted to The Athletic’s Justin Williams that he heard the fans’ chatter for three years as well. All that, just to take a backseat during the program’s miraculous resurgence.
On Monday, a twisted ankle gave Moore a chance to write his own ending, and it was well-earned and beautiful.
He completed just 11 of 25 passes and threw an interception that threatened to cost the Bearcats the game, but it was his steady hand (and unbelievable legs) that ultimately kept the train moving to a comeback victory following an incredible fourth-down stop and late Warren touchdown.
UC was a six-point favorite at kickoff and won 35-31.
The Cincinnati Bearcats may not have beaten the spread, but they beat the odds. Just like they’ve done all season.
That Temple game continues to eat at me. It’s the lone outlier this season, and while the Bearcats didn’t play their best game, it’s hard to forget about the bizarre circumstances under which they lost. Play that game 10 more times, and I bet UC wins nine… especially if the game is officiated properly.
I spent 90% of the Military Bowl wondering what on earth was happening with the defense. It was Cincinnati’s saving grace all season, and the Hokies spent most of the afternoon absolutely gashing them. But when it counted—on a foolish fourth down attempt by Justin Fuente late in the game—the Bearcats made their biggest play. It was one final momentum swing in Bearcat favor during a season full of them.
It’s funny to see which receivers have chemistry with each quarterback. For Hayden Moore on Monday, it was Trent Cloud. He recorded just five catches this season, and three of them came in the Military Bowl. It was a nice glimpse at the future for a position group that will be a question mark next season as they lose their biggest contributor.
Cincinnati has running backs for days. Warren was the game’s MVP, scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Tavion Thomas carried three times in relief. Charles McClelland scampered for six on a tunnel screen early in the game. All this while projected starter Gerrid Doaks sat out his 13th and final game of the season in the midst of a prolonged battled with a groin injury. The running back room is going to be comically deep next season.
It feels like this team deserves more from me. I’ll likely have some type of season-encapsulating post in the coming week. I can’t get over how fun this group has been to cheer for and write about. I’ve missed this so much.