During the summer, as the Cincinnati Bearcats were gearing up for the 2018 season, the question was whether or not running back Gerrid Doaks was going to be healthy enough to build on his promising freshman season. While people on the outside fretted, the Bearcats themselves were never worried and that’s because of Michael Warren, who had his own solid freshman year in 2017.
They were so confident that even when Doaks was still expected to make an impact this season, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock told the Cincinnati Enquirer that both Warren and Doaks could be the lead back. It wasn’t a particularly outrageous notion. After all, Warren actually rushed for more yards per carry than Doaks in 2017. Despite Denbrock’s endorsement and the cold hard numbers, more proof was required.
But it wasn’t just proof that Warren could be the lead back the Bearcats would need. Following a 4-8 2017 campaign, the Bearcats were tasked with showing improvement in their second year under Luke Fickell. Competing for or coming close to a bowl appearance appeared like the ceiling.
Then the season opener against UCLA happened. The Bearcats used that 26-17 win to earn some repsect and to build a launching pad for their most successful season since 2009, capping it all with a thrilling 35-31 win over Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl. None of that happens without Warren. Yes, the defense was great and yes, redshirt freshmand Desmond Ridder’s emergence was important, but Warren was the steady hearbeat this season.
In UC’s Military Bowl victory, Warren helped the Bearcats weather the storm of an injury to Ridder and a struggling passing game by rushing for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. It wasn’t all easy, as Warren was bottled up for much of the second quarter, during which he fumbled near the goal line only to be saved by a recovery from Kahlil Lewis. But after intermission, Warren took over, rushing for 116 yards and two scores on 10 carries.
He was especially effective during the Bearcats’ game winning drive. When they began that possession with 3:45 to play in the fourth quarter, they had been trailing 31-28 since just before the 10-minute mark in the period while failing to score on their previous two possessions. On those two drives, Moore either threw or ran the ball eight times, while Warren got all of two touches. After such struggles, the Bearcats turned to the best and most consistent offensive player on the roster and Warren delivered. He started the drive with a 31-yard run that put the Bearcats into Virginia Tech territory. He then ran the ball three more times after that, with a short break for a 10-yard gain from Moore, and scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown from eight yards out with a little more than two minutes to play.
Warren’s clutch and game-clinching production was eerily similar to what he did in seeling another statement victory all those months ago against UCLA. Warren rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries in that one, with his final score serving as the knockout blow. In contrast to the Military Bowl, the Bearcats were leading 19-17 when they embarked on their last scoring drive against the Bruins. Thanks to great field position at the UCLA 36-yard-line, the Bearcats were already likely going to score some points. However, with more than five minutes to play, they needed to eat up the clock and, if all went according to plan, shut the door with a touchdown. Warren allowed them to do both, running the ball eight times during a four minute-drive and scoring on a one-yard touchdown plunge on 4th-and-goal.
That was just the beginning of a legendary campaign for the sophomore running back from Toledo, Ohio. Warren wound up rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries this season, earning himself second-team All-American Athletic Conference honors in the process. He also surpassed the century mark in seven of 13 games and became the first UC back since George Winn in 2012 to have more than 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
In the Military Bowl, Warren put the finishing touches on his masterpiece of a 2018, both for himself and the Bearcats as a whole. It’s a season very few outside of the Cincinnati locker room were expecting. For Warren, it’s one he started strong and finished decisively.