Cincinnati Bearcats saw their 9 game winning streak and undefeated AAC record come to an end on Friday as Memphis beat the Bearcats 34-24. The Tigers’ win clinches the AAC West for them for the third straight season and means a rematch next week for the conference championship.
There is a lot of good to takeaway from this game for Cincinnati and a lot of bad too. Throughout the week, we’ll continue to break down the keys to winning the rematch next week.
For now, we look back at the good and the bad from Friday.
I will admit when I am wrong. When it comes to the Bearcats quarterback situation, I was wrong. I believed Desmond Ridder would get healthy and get right and lead the Bearcats to victory. Clearly, he was not healthy and it was announced before the game that he was sitting.
One of the reasons I was against inserting Bryant was a lack of confidence given how little we have seen him play. But after watching him go to work against an excellent Memphis defense, Bryant can play and the QB situation in the future just got a whole lot more interesting.
What happens next week and beyond is a story for another day. But on Friday, Bryant completed 20 of 32 passes for 229 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions and also ran for a touchdown.
It wasn’t until the third drive where “it clicked”. He was a little rough on the first two drives which is totally fair given the situation - first career start, on the road, against the best team in the conference. It’s natural to start slow. But the Bearcats came back from an early 14-3 deficit to stay in this game the whole time.
Bryant made throws that we haven’t seen made in weeks - hitting receivers in stride, leading them for a completion, throwing screens. A lot of little things and Bryant was able to move the offense efficiently throughout the game.
Michael Warren II
Whether the QB was Ridder or Bryant the game plan was and should always be give Michael Warren the ball. They did 21 times and he ran for 122 yards and a touchdown.
He also eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing for the season becoming the first Bearcats running back to achieve this feat in back-to-back seasons (and 4th all-time) since Isaiah Pead did it in 2010 and 2011.
Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is one of the most impressive assistant coaches in the country. The way he makes in-game, live adjustments is really impressive. Memphis jumped out to an early lead and scored 17 points in the first quarter and it looked like this game would either be a shootout or a route. Either way, large amounts of points seemed likely.
But they only scored 17 the rest of the way. The Bearcats defense locked in and held Memphis to only a field goal in the second quarter and no points in the third quarter, before the wheels fell off a bit in the fourth quarter.
There was some poor tackling throughout the game, but the Bearcats were in much better positions to contain the Memphis play makers in the middle of game. Despite giving up chunks of yards at a time, they mostly were able to contain RB Kenneth Gainwell.
Leonard Taylor’s touchdown
The Bearcats’ first touchdown of the game was scored by sophomore backup tight end Leonard Taylor. It was a well-executed play, one we haven’t seen the Bearcats run before and Bryant was able to hit Taylor in a perfect spot for the touchdown.
Coming into the game, Taylor had 5 career catches. His sixth career catch was his first career touchdown.
Opening kickoff return
It’s 3:30. Everyone is hyped. Fans, players, coaches. And just like that, Memphis is up 7-0 without their offense even taking the field. Cincinnati’s special teams have been so special all season long, but giving up a 97 yard kick return for 6 points in the first few seconds had to be deflating.
As good as Ben Bryant was throwing the ball at times, he did commit three costly turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 fumble). That’s the thing about a quarterback making his first start and about the way Bryant played. He made some big time throws and some key plays, but to get those plays you have to live with the mistakes, and Cincinnati could not overcome those mistakes.
Ridder might not have made those mistakes. But he likely wouldn’t have made the big plays either. So you live or die with the aggression and arm strength of a QB like Bryant and unfortunately for the Bearcats, it was the latter.
Let’s just tell it like it is. The offense was improved with the QB change. No question there. But the offense will never take the next step until the guy calling the plays is replaced too. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock needs to go. Now. He has held back this offense all season and it was never more clear than Friday.
At one point, I think the Bearcats ran the ball on first down for 75 straight drives (give or take a few). The third down play calling leaves a lot to be desired as well.
Going for it on 4th down over a field goal
Now, I disagreed with the decision to go for it late in the game by Luke Fickell, bypassing what would have been a game tying field goal. I love the aggression, but I would have played it safe. That’s just me though, we can all agree to disagree there.
But what we can all absolutely agree on is the play call. Running the ball when the QB is in shotgun LITERALLY NEVER WORKS. You need one yard, so you start 3-4 yards back? Why? Either let Bryant move in the pocket, or have him under center and push the pile, or do a quick toss to a tight end, do anything other than the exact same play you have run all game.
The Horribly and Ugly
I will NEVER blame the officials for a loss. Ever. Cincinnati lost that game with poor decision making, bad tackling, and turnovers. The game was there for the taking, but Memphis was able to hang on. It wasn’t because of the officiating. BUT, if the officiating was different, Cincinnati might have been able to have an increased chance at winning.
There was this..
Can someone please tell me how he completed the catch while the ball was moving pic.twitter.com/W0EDZpFsZO— Barstool Cincinnati (@UCBarstool) November 29, 2019
There was the unsportsmanlike penalty on Perry Young in the first quarter, after a Memphis play swung a fist at him. There was the penalty on Myjai Sanders that basically ended the game. There were countless other bad calls as well.
It certainly felt like Memphis got every game favored their way.
You know who else favored their way?
Oh good god, my ears are still bleeding. These announcers were horrible. Rod Gilmore was one of them and I honestly don’t care to remember or look up the other. He was awful.
They kept bringing up the same points over and over and over and over again.
“If Memphis won, they would host the Championship Game next week.” I get it. That’s a big talking point. But you don’t need to say it after EVERY Memphis big play. Plus, it said it on the ESPN scoreboard so it was on the TV screen the whole game.
“Boise State is still in the mix for the Cotton Bowl”. They shouldn’t be. It should be the winner of next week’s game, but ESPN wants to make sure you know Boise State still exists and they still have a chance. I will have more on the AAC vs Boise State in a bowl article coming later this week.
“Memphis has an excellent first down run blitz.” I didn’t know “run blitz” was a thing, but I’m not as mad about this one because Cincinnati needed to not run the ball on every single first down.
Bearcats go back to Memphis next Saturday at 3:30 on ABC to play for the AAC Championship. Let’s get a win and than figure out the bowl situation. It will all sort itself out, but winning the conference championship would be an extremely significant milestone for this program.