If you're a Cincinnati fan and watched until the final whistle, treat yourself to an extra cookie, because this was an ugly one and you deserve it. Fueled by their run game and a couple Cincinnati turnovers (surprise!), the San Diego State Aztecs blew out the hapless Bearcats, 42-7, at the Hawaii Bowl. Not much went right for Cincinnati, who looked dazed and uninspired right from the opening whistle.
Speaking of which, that opening whistle opened the scoring for the Aztecs when Rashaad Penny returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. They might as well have called the game right there because that quick shift of momentum set the tone early and Cincinnati simply couldn't bounce back.
Facing a 7-0 deficit immediately, the 5th-ranked Cincinnati offense (total yardage) took the field against the 5th-ranked defense (total defense) looking to respond. With redshirt freshman Hayden Moore behind center, in place of Gunner Kiel, the Cincinnati offense never found a rhythm in the run game or the pass game as the Bearcats totaled only 279 total yards. Cincinnati would finish with 77 yards on the ground, as a team, and 202 yards through the air. Moore would go 19-of-30 for 202 passing yards and three interceptions.
The early going was particularly tough for Moore, who struggled throughout holding the ball too long as he couldn't find space against the 3-3-5 defensive alignment that the Aztecs run. The Bearcats' first drive ended with a quick three-and-out. Following a nine-play, 85-yard touchdown drive, capped off with a Christian Chapman 14-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Mikah Holder, the Cincinnati offense took the field in search of a response, just to stop the bleeding. Instead, Moore found San Diego State defensive back Malik Smith for an easy interception on a bad throw/decision.
Cincinnati's defense did well over the next couple possessions, limiting the Aztecs offense to 64 yards over their next three possessions. Unfortunately, the Bearcats offense couldn't close the gap or get much of anything going. Just when you thought Cincinnati had perhaps survived the initial onslaught and was ready to get competitive, another Moore interception essentially proved to be the back-breaker. Damontae Kazee took the pick and set the Aztecs offense up around midfield, but Donnel Pumphrey quickly flipped the field position with a 33-yard scamper to the Cincinnati 23. Three plays later, the Aztecs dialed up some trickery with a pass from Pumphrey to fullback Dakota Gordon for a 16-yard score, highlighted by Gordon plowing over a Cincinnati defender. The score pushed San Diego State's lead to 21-0.
Cincinnati's next drive, just before half, looked destined for points when the offense willed their way into field goal range. Andrew Gantz lined up for a 56-yarder, the whistle blew and Gantz nailed the kick. However, the whistle wasn't because of a timeout, even though Cincinnati had two at their disposal, but because Cincinnati had a delay of game. Cincinnati was forced to punt on the next play, effectively ending the half. The Aztecs led 21-0.
The second half was more of the same for both teams. Cincinnati's offense was anemic, outside a couple nice runs from Hosey Williams, and the Aztecs played like a team that wanted to play a football game.
Cincinnati did have another field goal try early in the second half, but this time Tommy Tuberville and company opted for a fake. The holder tossed the ball over his head to Gantz who ran wide. The play may have worked if the one unblocked San Diego State defender had fallen for it. Alas, Gantz was tackled for a loss.
San Diego State would take the subsequent drive 67 yards on eight plays, culminated with another Gordon score, this time a one-yard plunge. The Aztecs would continue their blowout on their next offensive possession with an 11-play, 85-yard drive. Pumphrey would finish off the drive with a two-yard run for the score. The score was 35-0 at that point. If you made it that far, you have my respect.
Moore would throw another interception on the next possession. This one was even harder to watch as Moore threw it directly to defensive lineman Alex Barrett as Moore was facing significant pressure. Barrett would rumble 43 yards for a score and a 42-0 lead. Cincinnati would take their next drive down for a score, with the little-used Mike Boone keying the drive. Boone would finish the drive with a one-yard plunge of this own, avoiding the shutout.
This was an absolutely horrible game to watch for Cincinnati fans, as the Bearcats looked completely uninterested in playing while the Aztecs were playing machine-like in their execution and physicality. This was another game where things devolved as one mistake turned into another and the effort seemed to wane. It is a disappointing finish to a disappointing season, although it shouldn't be totally unexpected. After all, this is the team we have seen for much of the season between the turnovers, the inability to dictate things in the trenches and a seemingly lack of game awareness. Still, this is a terrible showing on a big stage for a team clamoring for some national attention.
- What is Tuberville doing yelling at Gantz after that delay of game penalty on the field goal? I get that you, as the coach, don't want to "freeze" your own kicker, but if you're a "delay of game" away from making a field goal and punting the ball, you would hope the coach takes one of his two timeouts to save that five yards.
- There really wasn't anything to like about this game from the Cincinnati perspective, but I did like the physicality that Boone ran with in the fourth quarter. I can't understand why Boone didn't receive more carries in the first half, as he finished the game with 32 yards and Cincinnati's lone touchdown on eight carries. I know his pass protection is unrefined, but he at least looked like he wanted to be on the field with the Aztecs. It should be noted that Williams did have a couple nice runs, running for 50 yards on nine carries.
- I wrote in the preview that Cincinnati would have to win the turnover margin to have a chance. Instead, they turned the ball over three times, one interception was ran back for six, they allowed the opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown and committed 10 penalties to San Diego State's four. The lack of discipline with this team, all season long even, has been bewildering.
- This season has been disappointing for a number of reasons and not all of them center on Tuberville, but it's hard to argue with those who wouldn't mind a changing of the guard when they point out the points above to support their stance.
- Max Morrison is another player who visibly came to play, racking up 84 receiving yards on seven receptions. The rest of the Cincinnati receivers couldn't get anything going.
Cincinnati finishes out the season 7-6 overall, losing two of their final three games while being outscored 107-34. It's going to be a long offseason for Cincinnati football.