Ugly. Frustrating. Terrible. Embarrassing. Those are some of the words Bearcats fans might use to describe Cincinnati’s 46-43 victory over East Carolina on Saturday. But the only word that really best describes the game is - win.
How did this happen?
It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, all that matters is that Cincinnati survived. Road games are tough, regardless of the opponent. This opponent, one who lost 45-20 to USF last week, was clearly motivated and ready to play against the Bearcats. The defense was downright terrible and the offense, once again, lacked creativity and the passing game was nonexistent.
My hope? This team learns from their many, many mistakes and builds off this game as a learning experience, one that helps them improve in their final four regular season games. And for fans? Everyone just pretends this never happened and we all move on.
What this win means
It means that everything Cincinnati has worked for the last two years is still intact. This might be a strong statement, but a loss would have completely undone all of Luke Fickell’s work. A loss very well could have ended the Bearcats’ pursuit of winning the American Athletic Conference, they would have lost their ranking, and fans and media would have viewed Cincinnati as frauds who, if they can’t even beat ECU, how can they beat anyone from a power 5 conference?
At least for another week, the season is saved. Cincinnati has won 18 out of 21 games overall dating back to last season. They remain in first place in the AAC East and control their destiny for everything they want.
- If they win 3 of the final 4 games, the East is clinched (due to a tiebreaker over UCF).
- If they win all 4 games, they will host the AAC Championship game at Nippert Stadium on December 7.
- If they win the AAC Championship, they will play a major power team in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on December 28.
I know it’s hard to fathom any of this happening after Saturday’s difficult performance, but they have risen to the occasion before and have proven they can play up or down to their competition.
Remember UCF? That game wasn’t that long ago, although it feels like they emptied everything they had to get that win because the Bearcats have yet to play a complete game since that night. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complete game or not. This team has a tendency to do just enough, and do what it takes to win.
Stars of the Game
1. Michael Warren
Good news - RB Michael Warren II is healthy! Warren left the Bearcats’ last game, against Tulsa, early due to injuries. Clearly, the off week helped because he looked fresh and hungry. Warren ran for a season-high 141 yards (on 18 carries) and 3 touchdowns.
2. Ahmad Gardner
Ahmad Gardner is going to be a star. Actually, my apologies, let me correct myself - Ahmad Gardner IS a star! On a night where the Cincinnati defense was the worst it’s been since 2017 and the secondary was absolutely lit up, allowing ECU QB Holton Mahomes, I mean Ahlers, to throw for over 500 yards, Gardner was the one bright spot. You may remember Gardner’s heroics against UCF, with a clutch pick six? Well Gardner, aka James Wiggins 2.0 (with all of these game-changing interceptions) came up BIG when Cincinnati needed him most.
There is truly no way to put the significance into words. It goes back to everything written above - everything Cincinnati has worked for and built over the last year and a half, would have been lost if they didn’t beat ECU. Gardner saved the game, the season, and quite honestly, I’m going to go as far as saying he saved the program. In addition to the pick six, Gardner also deflected two passes, which both came on crucial third downs for ECU.
Gardner is a reminder that not all heroes wear capes. Which brings me to our last star...
3. Sam Crosa
If you read our “history of the series” article or followed on instagram or twitter this week, you know that we kept bringing up the heroics of former Cincinnati kicker Andrew Gantz, who hit game winning field goals in the final seconds in both 2014 AND 2015.
Y’all need me to come save the day again??— Andrew Gantz (@Agantz16) November 3, 2019
Kicking has been an issue for a few years now for Cincinnati and while I know myself and others appreciated Gantz’s offer to help save the day again, current kicker Sam Crosa, who entered the day 5/9 on the season on field goals, told everyone “I got this”. Oh, he had this...
Against Tulsa, Cole Smith, who kicked last year for Cincinnati, hit a 50 yard field goal. So as Cincinnati inched closer to field goal range, the announcers made it seem unclear who would kick the game winner, if Cincinnati got into position. It was Crosa, and players, coaches, fans could not be happier for the former Western Illinois transfer.
Desmond Ridder’s passing struggles
First, let’s credit Ridder for, as always, making the plays he needs to when the Bearcats need him most. Ridder was horrible throwing the ball on Saturday. No way to sugar coat it. But he showed tremendous ability running the ball, going for 121 yards on the ground.
Entering the 4th quarter, Ridder had completed 5 (FIVE!) passes, but managed to completed 7 on the final two scoring drives (TD, FG). Malick Mbodj caught 5 of his 12 completions, proving to be a reliable chain mover throughout the game. TE Josiah Deguara had the biggest pass play of the game, rumbling for 73 yards, to set up a Gerrid Doaks TD run.
Here’s the thing with Ridder - Yes, the offensive line stinks. Yes, the wide receivers do not excel at separation or making plays for the ball. But when he has time to throw and when his receivers are getting open, he isn’t making great throws. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, because those two ideas are in his head.
A lot of people were calling for a QB change at halftime. I, personally, have been largely against the idea of benching Ridder but asked the question anyways, because the offense clearly needed a jolt, needed some new life. Would Ben Bryant had won that game for Cincinnati in the second half? I don’t know. He would have been saddled with the same WR and OL issues as Ridder and he isn’t the runner Ridder is. Cincinnati’s offense needs to continue to rely on the running game because, especially in the second half, that’s where Ridder excelled.
NO MORE PENALTIES
Please! It’s getting to the point of exhaustion and beyond frustrating. In the second half, ECU had a 6 play TD drive, that included 5 plays with Bearcats penalties. The penalties were all undisciplined types, with several personal fouls called after the play ended. You can live with the occasional holding or pass interference. Those penalties are part of football and they happen. But when you make a tackle and than start pushing and shoving and cost your team yards, and ultimately points, that’s when this escalates into a major concern.
In total, Cincinnati was called for 12 accepted penalties that gave ECU 117 yards. Pirates had 638 yards of offense and easily could have exceeded 700 if they were throwing the ball instead of moving down the field courtesy of penalties.
Shout out to ECU
Pirates played tough. Hats off to them for giving Cincinnati a battle they clearly didn’t expect. ECU was expected to be an improved team in 2019 under new head coach Mike Houston and they have been, hanging tough in a 10 point loss to Temple and a 13 point loss to UCF. But last week’s 25 point home disaster against USF, let doubts creep in that this team is just the same old ECU.
As noted earlier, Ahlers threw for over 500 yards (535 to be exact) and 4 touchdowns. Also, did you know his father is ECU’s PA announcer? I bet you didn’t know that. Anyways, Ahler’s season-high for passing yards coming into this game was 313 yards. He threw for 316 in the FIRST HALF.
Freshman WR CJ Johnson had 283 yards receiving on 12 catches. That included a 75 yard touchdown in the first quarter, for ECU’s first score of the day. That sort of set the tone that ECU was not going to get pushed over. WR Blake Proehl (son of former NFL star Ricky Proehl) caught 8 passes for 105 yards.
ECU’s 43 points were the most allowed by Cincinnati this season and the second time giving up 40+ points (Ohio State being the other team).
Cincinnati plays host to an absolutely terrible UConn team on Saturday November 9th at 3:30 for Homecoming. Hopefully they can learn from these mistakes and get right against UConn in the final football game (ever?) between these two schools.