The Cincinnati Bearcats lost to two opponents on Saturday night in Orlando. The first was the UCF Knights along with their electrically quick offense and a raucous crowd at Spectrum Stadium. The other was the Bearcats themselves. In a 38-13 setback in what was easily the biggest game of the season for not just the Bearcats but the entire American Athletic Conference, UC did too many things wrong to pull off an upset.
It started when the Bearcats (9-2, 5-2 AAC) lined up on offense to start the first half, as an eardrum-shattering crowd caused them to commit delay of game and false start penalties before they even ran an offensive play. The Bearcats went on to commit nine penalties for 70 yards, including three false starts from the offensive line.
On that first drive, the Bearcats were able to recover and even get into UCF (10-0, 7-0) territory. That proved beneficial as a brilliant punt from James Smith set UCF on the doorstep of its own goal line. The Bearcats jumped on the opportunity, as Malik Clements had a strip sack of UCF’s McKenzie Milton and Kimoni Fitz recovered the fumble in the end zone.
That was the high point in the game.
Cole Smith missed the extra point after the defensive touchdown and would miss two field goals later in the half, including one that was blocked and returned deep into UC territory, setting up UCF’s second touchdown. The Knights scored three touchdowns in the first half, as their offense flipped a switch following a slow start. Milton was able to work the middle of the field and then go vertical through the air, essentially erasing excellent work by the UC defense against the run.
The Bearcats had a chance to enter intermission within striking distance, as they drove deep into the red zone in the waning seconds of the first half. However, UCF’s mounting pressure eventually became too much, as the ball was ripped out of Ridder’s hand when he dropped back to pass on 3rd-and-17 from the UCF 19-yard line.
Ridder was pressured pretty frequently throughout the game, taking four sacks. The pressure kept him from getting comfortable throwing, as he completed just 11-of-26 throws for 127 yards. He didn’t let that stop him from trying to make plays, as he scrambled for some big chunks of yardage, finishing with 70 yards rushing.
Another fumble on UC’s first drive of the second half was mitigated by a big defensive stop from the Bearcats. However, the offense was stopped on 4th-and-1 on the ensuing possession and the Knights turned around and scored a touchdown on a 42-yard touchdown pass from Milton to Adrian Killins on a wheel route out of the backfield. That score came with 5:10 to play in the third quarter but essentially ended any chance of a UC comeback, especially as UCF continued to pour it on.
When the final seconds clicked off the clock, the Bearcats had accumulated 379 total yards and 20 first downs while going 11-for-20 on third down and owning a 37:12 to 22:48 edge in time of possession. They had only one three-and-out and held UCF to 134 rushing yards, most of which came when the Knights were running out the clock. But that didn’t matter because of three lost fumbles and only two red zone trips, one of which was wasted.
Despite playing from behind for a large portion of the game, the Bearcats did not give up on their dedication to the run. They ran the ball 55 times and got Michael Warren (18 carries, 81 yards), Tavion Thomas (12 carries, 79 yards, one touchdown) and Charles McClelland (five carries, 22 yards) involved. The passing game was nowhere as effective, with Kahlil Lewis (five receptions, 75 yards), who was targeted 11 times, the only wide receiver or tight end to have more than one catch. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury to his leg in the fourth quarter as UC continued its unsuccessful attempts to rally.
Defensively, the Bearcats did some things well, even if the final score doesn’t make it seem that way. They really shut down the run (3.7 yards per carry) against a team that ranked fourth in the country in rushing offense entering the game. However, Milton and the Knights were just too much, piling up all those points and 402 total yards.
These two teams will now take divergent paths. UCF secured itself the AAC East Division and is guaranteed a spot in the conference title game. UC, meanwhile, will try to close out the season with a win next week against East Carolina before finding out where it will be playing a bowl game. It could have been so much more, but its tough to win when you have to beat the other team and yourself.