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.