Cincinnati’s 31-19 win over East Carolina on Saturday night started with a 20-9 Bearcats loss at Connecticut two weeks beforehand.
After that setback, a group of UC seniors went to coach Tommy Tuberville and asked if Gunner Kiel could get back in the mix at quarterback during the Bearcats’ bye week.
Despite over 6,000 career passing yards, injuries have limited the career of the transfer from Notre Dame. He missed a 42-7 loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl last year for undisclosed personal reasons and was shelved with shoulder/back issues for much of spring practice in 2016.
Hayden Moore and Ross Trail had played quarterback in an 0-3 start for Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference.
But like the premise of “Timeless,” Kiel was the factor in past meetings of the Pirates and UC that impacted the most recent matchup, changing the course of homecoming for Cincinnati with yet another conquest of ECU. Kiel completed 23 of 40 passes for 348 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Kiel threw for 436 yards and four TDs in a 54-46 win over the Pirates at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in 2014. After ECU had taken a 46-45 lead on a 2-yard run by Shane Carden with 1:02 left, Kiel drove the Bearcats into position for a 47-yard field goal by Andrew Gantz with 15 seconds to go. UC won 54-46 as a gadget play by the Pirates led to a fumble return for a score by the hosts as time expired.
Kiel reprised the performance in Greenville last year, directing a 56-yard move that put Gantz in position for a 42-yarder as time ran out in a 19-16 Bearcats win.
That outcome triggered a coaching transition at ECU.
Named to start on Thursday, Kiel was a game changer in his final appearance against the Pirates.
“Good things happen to good people, and I’ve always believed that,” Kiel said after his personal homecoming for UC.
Frustration for Nelson
Coincidentally perhaps for ECU quarterback Philip Nelson, Minnesota topped Rutgers 34-32 on Saturday. Nelson has history with both programs.
Nelson completed 28 of 43 for 283 yards at Cincinnati with two TDs and two interceptions. The outcome left the Pirates with another regrouping task after a fifth straight loss.
“It sucks, losing,” Nelson said. “It’s very frustrating. We have to keep working at it and keep believing. . . . Missing big plays and turning the ball over — that’s really what it comes down to on offense.”
Trailing 24-19, ECU had moved from its 8-yard line into the red zone on a carry by Anthony Scott in the fourth quarter. But the Bearcats jarred the ball loose from Scott’s grasp and recovered.
The Pirates play before their own homecoming crowd against UConn on Saturday at noon.
Nelson saw the potential of the pending occasion as ECU looks to get off a slide that dates back to a 33-30 home win over N.C. State on Sept. 10.
“Absolutely,” Nelson said. “I just want to get back to work. It’s going to be great to get back home. We have a lot of things to clean up right now. We have every intention of doing that.”
ECU came back from a 14-3 deficit at halftime with the help of scoring passes from Nelson to Jimmy Williams that covered 28 and 37 yards.
“Jimmy just did a great job of coming through in a big-time situation,” Nelson said. “I have all the faith in the world in him so it was an easy decision for me to go to him. He just won.”
Williams didn’t sugar coat ECU’s position.
“When it comes down to it, we’ve just got to play football,” he said. “We’ve got to play sound football. It’s not what we’ve been doing. We have good spurts during the game but in those critical situations that we’re in, we’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity and we’re not doing that right now.”
Williams is a senior but he gave scouts in attendance from the NFL and CFL on Saturday something to chew on with seven catches for 129 yards despite the team’s prolonged stretch of adversity.
“It’s frustrating,” Williams said. “For this to be your last time going through this and happen to drop five straight games, you’re putting yourself in a tough situation now. It’s not good for anyone but especially for the seniors who worked so hard to get where we are.”
Red zone turnovers were again costly for ECU.
“It’s got to be mental,” Williams said. “That’s the only thing that you could possibly say. I mean you do everything right to get down there, then you just have the mishaps. That’s the only thing. It’s all mental. . . . Guys have got to lock in. Some guys have got to grow up and just take care of business. That’s part of being a college football player. We’re eight weeks in, we’ve got to let all that stuff go.”
One disappointing aspect of the Cincinnati game was that the Pirates, coming off a bye week, felt like they could make a fresh start on the second half of the season.
“I feel like the whole team felt great,” Williams said. “We had the most energy that I’ve seen that we had all year, even going back to our very first game. We had more energy out here than we did on our first game. I just feel like everything didn’t work out.”
Sense of urgency for Cam White
As a senior, inside linebacker Cam White, who was in on seven tackles at renovated Nippert Stadium on Saturday night, is looking at his last homecoming as a player. With five regular-season games remaining, ECU (2-5, 0-3 AAC) is four wins away from bowl eligibility.
“I think we have to win,” White said. “I would at least like to go to a bowl game my senior year. I would like to win the remaining five. We have to win four out of five. It’s got to start some time.”
The Pirates will put in the preparation and point for a better result this week.
“It’s sports, like life,” White said. “There’s ups and downs. . . . You don’t get the promotion you want, you’ve still got to come back to work the next day, grind and try to do the little things right, try to one up your competition.”
Bowden: ‘not over’
Outside linebacker Yiannis Bowden was in on eight tackles at Cincinnati and echoed the team’s frustration after another comeback that came up short. The Pirates have closed within a score from double-digit deficits in four of their five losses.
“It was real tough,” Bowden said. “We fought really hard. We came back. … We just couldn’t finish. . . . We’re going to go home, work on the game plan and get ready for UConn. That’s all we can do. . . . We took a tough loss tonight on their homecoming. We knew that coming in here, it was going to be tough. We tried to fight but next week, we’re going to have to go get it. It’s our homecoming so we’re going to have to stay focused. . . . This thing’s not over.”