Cincinnati Bearcats came up short in Saturday’s AAC Championship Game, losing 29-24 to Memphis for the second consecutive week. The loss drops the Bearcats record to 10-3, after starting out 10-1.
With the AAC Championship on the line, Cincinnati made way too many mistakes to win this game. Memphis is a great team and they are more than deserving of representing the Group of Five in the Cotton Bowl, but with all due respect to them, on Saturday they did not beat the Bearcats. The Bearcats beat the Bearcats.
Penalties, miscues, mistakes, drops, more penalties, more drops are what cost Cincinnati the championship. Simple fundamental football issues, which is what makes this loss so infuriating and so hard to comprehend.
Desmond Ridder’s Inconsistent Night
Ridder had quite a few good moments. But those are overlooked by the bad moments. For the most part, his passes were wildly inaccurate. But he made some excellent throws along the way - they were mostly dropped by his receivers.
Ridder isn’t great, so when he does something great, Cincinnati really needs to capitalize and the story of this game was such.
His biggest play came on a 49 yard run in the second quarter that got to within the Memphis 10 yard line. But the run ended with Memphis knocking the ball lose and recovering the fumble. It was simply that kind of day for him.
His best throw also came in the second quarter, on 2nd and 20. Ridder threw a perfect dime right into the hands on WR Jayshon Jackson who could not real it in. Ridder aired it out deep and Jackson had so much separation from the defense, that he would have walked into the endzone for six points.
On their next offensive possession, the drive ended with an Alec Pierce drop on a 3rd and 7.
Don’t misread this take though. Ridder made nice throws that were dropped. But he was also wildly inacurrate for much of the night. There were two beautiful 30 yard passes to Malick Mbodj, but there was also throws on several occasions to Rashad Medaris and Thomas Geddis that were just flat out misses on his part.
Defining this loss
The game ended fittingly because the two biggest issues with this team came to light. First, on the game’s potential final play on 4th and down, Lorenz Metz committed a false start. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. It was the 67th false start by Metz. In the game. No, just kidding, on the season. No, just kidding 67 is an exaggeration but it certainly felt that way throughout the year, didn’t it? I don’t want to pick on the kid, but he was truly a liability for much of the season. On the game, or even season’s, biggest play, Metz’s penalty pushed Cincinnati from a 4th and 10 to 4th and 15. And this is a team that struggles to throw.
And speaking of those struggles, the final pass was overthrown by Ridder as he looked for Josiah Deguara on what looked like a seam route in one-on-one coverage. I might have tried a different route for Deguara or gone back to Malick Mbodj on a fade route down the sideline, which had worked previously.
Penalties defined the 2019 season. Cincinnati had the second most penalties in the country and 11 on Saturday. Drops defined this game. It was a fitting ending.
Dramatic Opening Drive
Last week, Memphis scored before their opening drive, returning the opening kick 97 yards for a touchdown. This week, there was more drama on the opening kick. Cincinnati was set to receive the ball first and Memphis attempted a surprise onside kick.
They recovered the ball, but WR Thomas Geddis showed tremendous awareness and signaled for a fair catch. Because of that, when the Memphis player jumped in front of Geddis to recover the ball, it was considered interference with the returner’s ability to make a play, and not only resulted in Cincinnati ball, but a 15 yard penalty giving the Bearcats the ball to start the game at the Memphis 30 yard line.
Four plays later, on third and five, Cincinnati decided to run Michael Warren II straight into the heart of the defensive line for no gain. It was a bad decision to run as five yards is not a short distance. Cincinnati lined up for the field goal, but Memphis was flagged for “running into the kicker”, giving Cincinnati new life.
Two plays later, they capitalized on that new life with a Michael Warren 6 yard touchdown run.
Punt Block Failure
Memphis kicked a field goal on their first drive and Cincinnati punted back to Memphis, but pinned them at the three yard line.
Tigers were unable to move the ball and were forced to punt it right back to Cincinnati. The Bearcats, who have blocked 5 punts this season, were very aggressive in attacking the punter on this play. Too aggressive, as they were called for running into him, which gave Memphis a first down.
It was a poor decision to go for the punt. Cincinnati would have received the ball around mid-field, already with a lead. Instead, Memphis took advantage of the extra opportunity and Antonio Gibson found a few holes on a 65 yard touchdown run to give Memphis the lead.
“No video proof”
Late in the fourth quarter, on 4th down, Cincinnati went for it on 4th down. Ridder kept the ball himself and tried to QB sneak it. It looked like he got pushed from behind and was able to sneak the ball across the line.
There were two things to unpack here - one was if the ball actually did break the line to go and two was a potential penalty for 12 men on the field.
After the review, the officials claimed there was no video proof that Cincinnati had 12 men on the field and no video proof that Ridder was stopped short. The ruling on the field was a first down, so it was hard to overturn it.
The 4th down conversion allowed the drive to continue and...
Field goal decision
These are the moments where I am glad I simply have an opinion on twitter and not a decision on a sideline.
On the same drive as the no video proof decision, Luke Fickell opted to kick a field goal, down 23-21, instead of going for the first down and extending the drive.
I honestly don’t know what I would have done here. Last week, they went for it and got burned. He probably made the the safe and the right decision. My issue with the decision was that the Memphis kicker had already hit two field goals from 50 (and beyond) yards and the situation would set him up for another. But I also have trust in a defense who time and time again just got the job done all year.
Sam Crosa’s 33 yard kick was good, but unfortunately, the defense was unable to hold on the subsequent drive and Memphis scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:14 to go.
This loss hurts. And it should. It was well within their grasp. But imagine saying two years ago after winning 4 games in back-to-back years, that Cincinnati would go 10-3, lose in the Championship Game and we would all be pissed? That’s where we are as a program and a fanbase and that’s totally fine. As pissed as everyone is and has a right to be, this program is trending up. Changes will likely be made to the coaching staff and it’s possible some players choose to enter the transfer portal in the coming weeks. The Bearcats have brought on some big time recruits under Fickell’s watch and those will be players to watch in 2020 and the years to come.
There is still a bowl game to be played and those extra 15 practices will be very beneficial to laying down the foundation for next season. Where this team will go is still TBD and will be announced around 3:00 on Sunday. Options include Liberty Bowl (in Memphis for a third straight game), Birmingham Bowl against a 6-6 ACC team like Miami, Florida State, or Boston College, or perhaps the Gasparilla or Boca Raton Bowl against fellow Group of Five teams. The options are limited and mostly unexciting. But what is exciting is the opportunity to watch this team, especially these seniors, play one more team for a chance at back-to-back 11 win seasons.