No. 5 Cincinnati dominates SMU, 48-14, to seal spot in AAC championship game
CLIFTON – The University of Cincinnati Bearcats have struggled in the style points department over the last month of the regular season.
Despite winning competitive conference contests, the eye-test said the Bearcats were playing like a team undeserving at a puncher’s chance to be in the College Football Playoff.
On Saturday, the No. 5 Bearcats silenced the critics at least for the next week after blowing out SMU, 48-14, at Nippert Stadium.
"We've been trying, not waiting, to play a perfect game," Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said. "I don't know what the difference was. Every game is a challenge, but I think there was a little something different coming into this one. I did sense a little more of a sense of urgency."
As part of Senior Day activities, Cincinnati honored its 30-plus seniors with a pregame ceremony before their last appearance at Nippert Stadium, for the time being. The Bearcats clinched a spot in the American Athletic Conference championship game against Houston with Saturday’s win, and they will host the title clash on Dec. 4 with a win next Saturday at East Carolina.
"It was an incredible night for those guys to go out there and have that with their families then 17 minutes later come out and do what they did tonight," Fickell said. "That's a credit to them and those fans and that atmosphere."
Over the last four weeks, Cincinnati struggled to runaway after building early leads. On Saturday, the Bearcats were able to dominate in all three phases of the game.
Facing the No. 6 offense in all of college football, Cincinnati forced six 3-and-outs on SMU’s first seven possessions and gave up just 73 total yards in the first half. SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who came into the game averaging 326.4 passing yards per contest, was under constant duress by the Bearcats defensive line.
Curtis Brooks registered two sacks, both on third down. The Bearcats totaled six hurries.
Mordecai finished with just 15 completions for 66 yards, both season-lows.
When SMU did find momentum in the first half, Cincinnati forced a key turnover in the red zone when defensive back Coby Bryant stripped running back Ulyssess Bently IV.
"They did a great job," Fickell said of his defense. "Their ability to stay locked in, stay focused is something I don't know we've done as good a job of all year. By nature, that happens sometimes. They did a great job in all phases."
Offensively, the fireworks started on the game’s first play. Quarterback Desmond Ridder, a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, entered Nippert Stadium to a standing ovation with his daughter in his hands. He caused another crowd eruption when he found a streaking Tyler Scott for a 53-yard touchdown on Cincinnati’s first offensive snap.
"We had scripted that," Ridder said of the first play. "I didn't even see the corner, all I saw was Tyler running wide open."
It was the first time Cincinnati scored a touchdown on its first offensive snap since a 41-14 loss to Memphis on Oct. 4, 2014 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Ridder would add a 40-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, then hit wide receiver Alec Pierce for a 17-yard score to give the Bearcats a 27-0 lead at the half.
Pierce would record his first two-touchdown performance of his career when he hauled in a perfectly-placed fade from Ridder near the back pylon for a third-quarter touchdown that made it 41-0.
Ridder finished 17-of-23 for 274 yards and three touchdowns through the air. He added 46 yards and a score on the ground. It was Ridder’s 29th game of his career with multiple touchdown tosses.
"I think it was good for us that we were able to come out here and execute the way we did on both sides of the ball," Ridder said. "Our O-line did a phenomenal job in giving up zero sacks and moving the line of scrimmage the way they did."
On special teams, senior linebacker Wilson Huber had a sack and blocked a punt in the first quarter. Ryan Montgomery had four returns for 63 yards, giving Cincinnati favorable field position for the majority of the night. Cincinnati’s average drive start was at its 40-yard line; 16 yards better than SMU’s starting field position.
Cincinnati welcomed back running back Jerome Ford, who missed last week’s 45-28 win over South Florida with a lower leg injury.
The junior found the end zone from four yards out with 5:32 left in the first quarter to give the Bearcats a 14-0 lead. He finished with 82 yards on 20 attempts and now has 17 total touchdowns (16 rushing, one receiving) on the year. He has run for 678 yards in six home games this season.
Ford had his second rushing touchdown of the night nullified from a false start on Cincinnati’s opening drive of the second half. The penalty backed up the Bearcats to the SMU 6-yard line, but allowed Luke Fickell to reach into his back of tricks.
Cincinnati ran its own version of the “Philly Special,” with wide receiver Jordan Jones throwing a touchdown to Ridder to put the Bearcats up 34-0 early in the third quarter.
Ridder is the first Bearcat to have a passing, rushing and receiving score in a game since at least 1990.
"We've had that play for four or five years now," Ridder laughed. "I let coaches know that my hands are certified. We bring that up every year. I'm glad they called it."
Ridder was replaced in the third quarter by backup Evan Prater. The former Ohio Mr. Football found Jones for an 11-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to make it 48-0.
Cincinnati tried its best to cling to a shutout, something no team has done to SMU since Nov. 2015. Corner Arquon Bush blocked SMU's 44-yard field goal attempt late in the third quarter to keep the score at 41-0.
Early in the fourth, however, the Mustangs traveled 63 on just six plays and eliminated the shutout on Tre Siggers' two-yard touchdown run.
With a spot in the AAC title game locked up, Cincinnati can look for help late Saturday night when No. 3 Oregon faces No. 23 Utah in a PAC-12 clash at Rice-Eccles Stadium.