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Beginning right as No. 5 Oklahoma State’s College Football Playoff chances were stuffed at the one-yard line by No. 9 Baylor, it was written in the stars for Cincinnati: win and you’re in.
Head coach Luke Fickell heard it all week as the college football world anticipated the first group of five team to make history. They did not disappoint, as No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) defeated Houston (11-2) 35-20 in the AAC Championship Game on Saturday.
With the advantage of playing at home in Nippert Stadium, the Bearcats fed off the 40,000 strong in attendance. It was a tail of two halves for the Cincinnati defense, however.
The Cougars offense had little trouble moving the ball on the No. 8 ranked defense in the nation in the first half, as junior quarterback Clayton Tune showed. Tune finished the first half completing 12-of-16 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown. The highlight was a rope to sophomore receiver Nathaniel Dell for a 16-yard score with 4:23 remaining in the first quarter.
Dell’s 12th touchdown of the season put the Cougars up 10-7 but Houston’s offense sputtered from there. After Houston senior kicker Dalton Witherspoon connected on a 46-yard field goal with 11:40 remaining in the second quarter, Cincinnati scored 21 unanswered points.
Tune finished 17-of-26 for 250 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Tune couldn’t find an answer in the second half, facing pressure often. Cincinnati sacked Tune eight times throughout the game.
Coming out of the half, Cincinnati senior quarterback Desmond Ridder led a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Ridder hit senior receiver Alec Pierce for a 44-yard gain on the drive, the longest pass play of the day for the Bearcats. Although Ridder overthrew a wide-open Pierce, the play set up Cincinnati in plus territory. An eight-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Leonard Taylor capped off the drive and gave Cincinnati a 21-13 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Tune made his first mistake of the day. Tune threw one right into the hands of Cincinnati graduate linebacker Joel Dublanko on the first play of the drive.
“I saw where the QB’s eyes were looking,” Dublanko said after the game. “He happened to throw it my way. I stuck my hands up, it went in my hands, stayed in my hands, and I was like, ‘Crap, I have the football right now.’ I ran, protected it and the rest is history.”
Ridder wasted no time making Tune pay, this time throwing a perfect back shoulder ball to Pierce for a 21-yard score with 11:04 remaining in the third quarter. Ridder finished the game 11-of-17 for 190 yards and three touchdowns.
“The way we came out, in particular in the second half, we weren’t going to be denied,” Fickell said after the game. “The seniors stepped up right before we took off for halftime. Coby Bryant, Desmond Ridder, some of those guys, and just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go out here in the second half and we’re going to take it.’ They came out in the second half with a mission.”
Meanwhile, Junior running back Jerome Ford entered Saturday nursing an ankle injury. Key word, “entered” as it looked just fine on his 79-yard touchdown run with 4:06 remaining in the first quarter.
Ford was the catalyst all the day on offense for the Bearcats, routinely finding holes through the Cougars’ No. 6 ranked defense. In fact, the Houston defense came into the game allowing just 97 rushing yards a game, tops in the AAC and eighth in the nation.
Nothing Ford couldn’t handle, however, as he finished with 187 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. Ford’s second trip to the pay dirt came with 7:38 remaining in the third quarter.
With both safeties cutting towards the box, Ford bounced one outside and was gone. 42 yards later and Cincinnati led 35-13.
Cincinnati will await its fate ahead of the final release of the College Football Playoff rankings on Sunday on ESPN. The Bearcats are almost certainly locked into the top four, having run through the season unscathed. Bring anybody on, says Ridder.
“We just want to play football,” Ridder said after the game. “That’s all we care about. We don’t care who, where or when. Just put the ball down and let us play.”