The announced attendance was 19,113, but when that batshit crazy final two minutes were taking place there were maybe 6,000 people actually in the stands. When this game becomes memorable, maybe even legendary, many more will claim to have been there. It seems silly to jump straight to legend, but that's where this game is headed, because nothing about this game made any sense.
On a night where simply standing still brought on early stage hypothermia the Bearcats and the Cardinals put on an offensive display that would be difficult to match in perfect whether. 700 yards of offense and 51 points in the first half, for a good long while there the Bearcats were averaging 10 yards per play. The final numbers are crazy; 1,158 yards, 59 (!) first downs, 15 plays of 20+ yards. It seemed that whatever the offenses wanted to do they would do, and neither defense really slowed the offenses down
But after a big third quarter touchdown on the first drive of the second half the UC offense went into hibernation. Which is fitting you know, because they have the word "Bear" in the nickname and its November. But by this point we know what happens in third quarters, the Bearcats forget to play. That is how a game that was firmly in the grasp of the Bearcats slowly but surely began to turn in the favor of ECU. Here are all of the Bearcats third quarter drives
- 8 plays, 66 yards, touchdown
- 3 plays, 3 yards, punt
- 3 plays, 8 yards, punt
- 3 plays, 4 yards, interceptions
That stretch is what allowed the Pirates to get back into the contest and make it a game. When the Bearcats drove 92 yards on 12 plays capped by Gunner Kiel's second touchdown to Mekale McKay. It seemed that the game was decided, the Bearcats were going to win and shoot to the top of conference charts. That we Bearcats were going to have start rooting hard for Memphis to lose an inexplicable game to Tulane or USF or UConn. It was all decided, the world was laid out before our eyes. I should have known better with this team, I should have known that the Bearcats would not go quietly into that good victory. Not this year, not with this team, shit had to get weird first.
When the Pirates blitzed down the field and scored a touchdown in about a minute I was not that surprised. When the Bearcats got the ball back and ran the ball three straight times to chew up clock and get to fourth down I wasn't surprised at all. When the Bearcats came out with the offense on the field and looked like they were going to run an actual play rather than punt the football I was floored. Then UC called a timeout, and Eddie Gran looked angry for some reason, and I know this because they showed him yelling at Gunner for something. Apparently it was for not running the damn play, but as we were all about to find out, Gunner made the right decision, and then he listened to his coach.
When the offense trotted back onto the field I was still in shock, and not because of the lack of heat. As an analytics nerd I understand the percentages. Not that long ago, but long ago enough that Peyton Manning was playing for the Colts in the Colts old building, the New England Patriots were faced with 4th and 2 deep in their own territory, in a game they were leading, but against an offense that is red hot. Bill Belichick, not wanting to give the ball back to Peyton Manning went for it on that night, the Pats did not get it, and the Colts waltzed into the end zone for a win. Flash forward in time five years and travel down I74 to Cincinnati and the Bearcats were faced with a similar dilemma. That they went for it on the fourth down is, statistically speaking, the right decision. Execute the play right and its a first down and the game is in hand, if not exactly over.* I can defend the logic of going for it on fourth down in that situation, the percentages and the context say that converting that fourth and 2 gave the Bearcats a better chance to win than punting the ball to a red hot quarterback with 70 yards to go in a little under two minutes when a touchdown beats you.
*When the fourth down sequence began the Pirates still had three timeouts remaining, enough to give themselves a minute or more of game clock should the Bearcats convert the fourth down but fail to gain a first down in the subsequent series of downs. All of which is to say that the Bearcats would have had a great chance to win the game should they have converted that fateful fourth and 2, but it was not a simple as it was in the New England case.
I can defend the logic, I can not defend the play call. A speed option is a fast, easy way to beat a defense to the edge and get a speedy guy, in this case Rod Moore, in space. The problem with this Bearcats team running it is two fold, as a general rule this season perimeter runs have been no beuno all season long. For whatever reason the Bearcats just have not been able to set an edge and create holes outside of the tackles this season. Defenders constantly appear in the place where the hole is supposed to be and the play dies an instant and quick death. The other reason that the speed option is not the call is that Gunner Kiel has probably not run a speed option in anger since his high school days.
Ideally, with the game on the line, you want to run a play that A) your guys are comfortable and confident with, and B) the defense is not going to expect. On that play the Bearcats accomplished B, because I can guarantee you that ECU didn't send the defense out onto the field with "watch the speed option" ringing in their ears. UC did not accomplish A because Gunner was clearly uncomfortable running that play, because he saw Montese Overton where no one was supposed to be, playing both Gunner and Rod Moore, had a spasm of panic and pitched the ball without knowing anyone was there to catch it. It was madness.
So ECU recovered, went 27 yards aided first by a pass interference penalty on Grant Coleman (totally), then by a pass interference penalty on fourth and 7 which looked very iffy from the vantage point I had standing on the concourse behind section 131. Regardless, you give ECU six plays with goal to go and they are probably scoring a touchdown, and they did on a zone read keeper from Shane Carden. It seemed that all was lost, but there was still 61 seconds left on the clock, plenty of time on the clock for this offense.
UC got their only decent return of the game on the ensuing kickoff. Johnny Holton returned 6 kicks for 114 yards, he got 31 on the last one. From there the Bearcats got three straight Gunner Kiel completions, two to McKay and one to Casey Gladney, totaling 35 yards. That moved the Bearcats to the ECU 30 where UC clocked it. Two straight incomplete passes meant that It would be a 47 yard attempt from Andrew Gantz to win the game. 47 yards is the upper limit of his range, in terribly windy conditions mind you. Gantz absolutely nailed it and it was absolute pandemonium on the Bearcats sideline. Terrell Hartsfield added a fumble return for a touchdown on the final play of the game, but Gantz won that obscene excuse for a football game, and I mean that in the highest regard possible. I traveled 200 miles and stood in the cold for four hours and saw a game, the likes of which will probably never be repeated and that I will never, ever forget. Time and money well spent.