Last Dec. 24 the Cincinnati Bearcats were taking on San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. This year they’ll be watching it from their respective couches. The Bearcats entered that game after a disappointing 7-5 regular season, but filled with hope that 2016 would finally be the year Tommy Tuberville’s system clicked in Cincinnati.
A lot can change in a year.
It’s easy to forget after the year they just suffered through, but Cincinnati has been to a bowl game in nine of the past 11 years. That’s a big deal for a program that hadn’t been to any bowl games from 1950 to 1997. Since it’s going to be at least a year before they return again, let’s take a look at their past bowl victories, so we can properly appreciate what Luke Fickell and company (hopefully) do in the future.
1997 Humanitarian Bowl: The inaugural Humanitarian Bowl featured the Bearcats facing off against Utah State. It was the Bearcats first postseason game in 47 years and they were preparing as if it were a national championship game.
Cincinnati followed through on that plan with a dominating 35-19 victory. The Bearcats rushed for 225 yards and held a 42:17 to 17:43 time of possession advantage. Chad Plummer won the MVP honors by playing both wide receiver and quarterback and throwing for 62 yards and a touchdown, rushing for 53 yards and another touchdown and then catching four passes for 64 yards.
2004 Fort Worth Bowl: The Bearcats were coming off a 70-7 embarrassment to Louisville in their season finale but Mark Dantonio was determined to keep them from going into the offseason on a sour note. His team was looking to get respect from a Marshall team that had beaten them in the 2000 Motor City Bowl.
The Bearcats beat Marshall 32-14 thanks to an impressive defensive performance from a predominantly offensive team. Cincinnati blocked Marshall’s first punt of the game and returned it for a touchdown when Tyjuan Hagler got a hand on the ball and Antwuan Giddens returned it for a nine-yard touchdown.
Still recovering from a broken hand he suffered the month before, Gino Guidugli starred in the final game of his Cincinnati career. He completed 24 of 36 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns. He ultimately left Cincinnati with nearly every passing record in Bearcats history.
The win snapped Marshall’s streak of 20 consecutive seasons with a winning record and gave the Bearcats revenge for that Motor City Bowl loss four years earlier.
2006 International Bowl: Brian Kelly’s first game as head coach almost ended in disaster for the Bearcats. Cincinnati took a 24-0 lead over Western Michigan with 10:30 left to play in the second quarter, but the Broncos responded with a 24-0 run of their own to tie the game in the fourth quarter. However, Kevin Lovell hit a 33-yard field goal with 6:33 remaining and Western Michigan’s Nate Meyer missed a 51-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining to seal the victory.
Dominick Goodman had seven catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Cincinnati ended the season on a three-game winning streak, and winners of five of its last six after opening the season just 1-3. Ultimately it was a year where the Bearcats lost to every team they should have (Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Louisville) and also beat every team they should have (Syracuse, Rutgers, Connecticut) — something that’s much more difficult than it sounds.
2007 Papa Johns Bowl: Cincinnati won bowl games in back to back years for the first time in its school history with a 31-21 triumph over Southern Mississippi. The win gave the Bearcats their first 10-win season since 1951, and ensured they’d be ranked in the top 25 in the final AP poll for the first time in school history.
DeAngelo Smith had three interceptions and Ben Mauk through a career-high 52 times to lead the Bearcats to victory. Connor Barwin caught seven passes for 86 yards and Dominick Goodman had two touchdowns in his second consecutive bowl game. The final was never really in doubt in this one, with UC holding a 31-14 lead after the third quarter.
This win marked the beginning of a golden era of Cincinnati football under Brian Kelly. They’d go 23-4 the next two seasons and play in both the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Cincinnati ended the 2009 regular season an undefeated 12-0 and narrowly missed playing in their first national championship game.
2011 Liberty Bowl: The Bearcats went 4-8 and suffered their worst season in a decade in 2010. That made their 2011 Liberty Bowl victory that much sweeter as they defeated Vanderbilt 31-24.
The score was tied 14-14 after three quarters, setting up a wild fourth quarter that saw both teams combine for 31 points. Freshman Ralph Abernathy’s 90 -ard kickoff return was the deciding play that gave the Bearcats the lead and ultimately the victory. Isaiah Pead rushed for 149 yards and a touchdown and enjoyed the first and only bowl victory of his career.
Cincinnati passed 29 times for just 80 yards — a reversal from the Brian Kelly offense of years past under new head coach Butch Jones. Zach Collaros finished the game with an 11.0 QBR, but it was just enough to give the Bearcats its first bowl victory since 2007.
2012 Belk Bowl: The Bearcats were down 16-0 in the first quarter, before storming back to beat Duke 48-34. Cincinnati scored 14 points in the final 44 seconds thanks to a couple of dramatic and long touchdowns.
Duke had the ball with two minutes to play and seemed poised to win the game until defensive lineman Brandon Mills forced a Duke fumble. Four plays later, Brandon Kay connected with Travis Kelce on an 83-yard touchdown pass to break a 34-34 tie. Nick Temple would return an interception 55 yards just a few players later to seal the victory for Cincinnati.
Kelce ended up with five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown, and the Bearcats recorded their fifth double-digit victory season in six years.
The Bearcats would return to a bowl game in each of the next three seasons, but fell short in each under the direction of Tuberville. Since 1997, UC is 6-8 in bowl games but it obviously won’t have a chance to improve on that record this year. Hopefully the Fickell regime will right that wrong in 2017 and for years beyond.