CINCINNATI (Via ESPN2) — Cincinnati kept its foot on the gas throughout a 55-17 American Athletic Conference win over visiting East Carolina on Friday night.
Up 42-10 in the fourth quarter, the Bearcats used a fake punt from their 28 to keep a drive alive that pushed the margin to 49-10.
Rather than take a knee with 17 seconds left, Cincinnati got a 75-yard touchdown run from Cameron Young for the final points.
Maybe that’s standard operating procedure for a program with an outside chance at the College Football Playoff. The Bearcats (7-0) are ranked No. 7 in the country, but the polls don’t factor class.
ECU coach Mike Houston spoke to his Cincinnati counterpart, Luke Fickell, a lot longer than what transpires at the typical postgame handshake, but Houston wouldn’t share the substance of the conversation in his subsequent news conference.
“That’s between him and me,” Houston said.
The second-year Pirate coach took the high road when asked about the fake punt.
“Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job of defending it,” Houston said. “It’s 42-10. We’re able to force a punt in that situation. Ready to get the ball back for our offense. Obviously, I don’t think anybody was expecting that, but we’ve still got to be prepared.”
The wisdom of the move was questionable. The Bearcats have put a play on tape that might have had more value in a more competitive game.
The Pirates managed to score the most points of any of Cincinnati’s five AAC opponents this season, their final touchdown coming on a 1-yard run by true freshman Rahjai Harris with 17 seconds to go that completed a 73-yard drive directed by true freshman quarterback Mason Garcia.
Garcia came in after starter Holton Ahlers had a difficult night. Ahlers completed just 9 of 20 passes for 87 yards with no scores and three interceptions.
A 26-yard interception return by Jarrell White gave Cincinnati a 14-0 lead.
“You can’t make that mistake there, especially that deep in your own territory,” Houston said.
Ahlers threw for 535 yards and four touchdowns with one pick in last year’s 46-43 loss to the Bearcats in Greenville.
But Houston said the Cincinnati defense has gotten faster and better.
“They’re extremely athletic,” Houston said. “They’re very long. They have great speed in the secondary. They did a good job in coverage. Their front four generates a lot of pressure without having to bring too much extra.”
Despite the struggles through the air, ECU had a true freshman running back who turned in an exceptional effort and it wasn’t Harris.
Keaton Mitchell ran 17 times for 124 yards with an 18-yard scoring run that cut the Bearcats’ lead to 14-7 with 10:36 left in the half. ECU (1-6, 1-5 AAC) netted 206 yards rushing after managing just 35 yards in a 38-21 home loss to Tulane last week. Cincinnati was allowing just 96.3 yards rushing per game, best in the AAC.
“We did some good things in the run game,” Houston said. “We really need to generate some more positive things in the passing game though.”
Another freshman, defensive back Juan Powell, led the Pirates in tackles with eight, including six solo stops.
Cincinnati had 653 yards of total offense with junior quarterback Desmond Ridder serving as the primary catalyst. Ridder completed 24 of 31 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran eight times for 75 yards with one score.
“He’s a good player, most likely an NFL quarterback,” Houston said. “He’s had a great year this year. He can beat you with his arm and he can beat you with his feet. When you’ve got a guy like that, that’s pretty special. Obviously, he’s what makes them go.”
Cincinnati had a scant 20-second edge in possession time over 60 minutes.
“We’re a much better team than that score shows,” Houston said. “We made some mistakes and you can not make mistakes against a good football team. Injuries are what they are. We’ve had some that hurt us this year, but you’re going to have years that you have that. That’s where you’ve got to continue to generate depth. You’ve got to continue to bring those guys along.
“The roster has not changed from the bunch that beat South Florida, took Navy to the last seconds in a very close game without our starting quarterback and then for all intents and purposes beat Tulsa at Tulsa. It’s the same roster. They’re two weeks older.
“I like the kids in this program. I like their attitudes. I like the way they work. Are there still some things we’ve got to bring along culture-wise? Yes, but our culture is so much better than it was a year ago and it’s going to continue to improve. Yeah, we’re facing 22- and 23-year old guys tonight. There’ll be a day when these kids aren’t 18. I have very few kids who won’t be on this roster next year. It’s going to continue to improve.
“As I said when I took the job, it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re building a solid foundation. We’re going to grow them up. We’re competing every week to win, but you’re going to have some nights when things don’t go your way.
“I’m sure there are some people who are going to jump off the boat and they’re going to give up on us. Our loyal fans aren’t. I promise you the players aren’t and I promise you the coaches aren’t. We came here with a goal to build a program that’s going to compete for a conference championship in the American Athletic Conference. I think you can do that at East Carolina. It doesn’t feel like it tonight, but I’ve been in this situation before.
“I’ve been in this exact situation as an assistant and saw it turn. We’re not going to compromise what we’re doing as far as competing every day, as far as trying to do things right, as far as building this program to be something that we can all be proud of.
“I don’t enjoy nights like tonight. I’m not going to forget tonight. There’ll be a day when it’s not like tonight.”
The Pirates visit Temple on Saturday, Nov. 21, at noon.
Irish Spectre says
Not that it would have changed things, but I seriously question that ECU field goal in the latter part of the 2nd quarter on 4th and 5 deep in the Cinn. red zone. Yeah, they’re “only” down at the time, 7-21, but there was ample evidence by that point to know that Cinn. was going to be putting up lots of points; you have to throw out the stats sheet in that situation and go for broke. For the same reason, I don’t like the way Houston had them sit on the ball at the end of the half, especially when they were kicking to open the 2nd half.
Kudos to Mitchell for his game, the only bright spot on the night, hopefully a sign of promise for the future ground game in tandem w/ Harris. Still, I question a little why Houston didn’t go to the air more; likely the answer lies in HA’s numbers. The Cinn. d is super quick and aggressive, but HA was really off anyway. Given that, I was a little surprised that Garcia didn’t make an appearance earlier, a better runner than HA. Houston is likely loathe to throw HA under the bus; Coach faced lots of picking between poisons last night, I guess.
…two schools of thought on that late faked punt and off tackle up the middle by Cinn. for a TD w/ 17 seconds to go. One is that if you don’t like being embarrassed, then don’t let the other dude embarrass you, and the Pirates got hugely embarrassed in general and on those two plays specifically. The other, of course, is that when you’re dominating the other guy, what is the gain for willfully adding insult to injury, especially knowing that virtually every program has its ups and downs? Cinn. will not always be a playoff contender, and at some point in the foreseeable future will inevitably be the ECU in a game.
I was very gratified to see Houston calling Fickell out at the end of the game. I read today that Fickell said the faked punt wasn’t a called play; $1 says he’s lying through his teeth. We can be sure that the Cinn. game in 2021 in Greenville is already circled on the Pirates calendar, as well it should be.
There is no way to look at the last two games as other than a setback. The Pirates must collect themselves now, and go into Temple next week with a mind set on taking their frustrations out on the Owls.
Was surprised that so many first and second downs were run plays up the middle for us and then a long 3rd down for a certain pass play were Cinn. could just easily pass rush and sack HA. Too predictive; need to pass on first and second down. Was just concerned play calling was too predictive. No chance for our offence. But Go Pirates.