ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Entering Saturday, the University of Cincinnati football team was the only team in the FBS to win all of its games by double digits.
Well, not anymore.
Navy scored 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and recovered an onside kick with less than a minute to play, but the No. 2/3-ranked (Associated Press/Coaches) Bearcats survived the Midshipmen rally and escaped with a 27-20 win to keep all of its championship hopes alive.
Up next: Cincinnati (7-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) will be back on the road Oct. 30 to face Tulane (1-6, 0-3). Kickoff is schedule for noon (11 a.m. Central time) on ESPN2.
What we learned from Saturday’s win:
The Bearcats allowed Navy to dictate everything
Good teams find ways to win. Cincinnati did that. But good and truly dominant teams don’t allow opponents to strip them of their identity.
What makes the Bearcats good is their ability to defend and run the football. What makes them great and a real College Football Playoff contender is everything else.
They have talented wide receivers and pass catchers and depth at every position. They have a quarterback in Desmond Ridder who takes care of the football and can hurt you with either his legs or his vastly improved arm.
But at the core of who Cincinnati wants to be is a great defensive team that imposes its will on that side of the ball and snatches the hearts of opposing defenses with an offensive line full of bullies and a running back in Jerome Ford who will run you over and then run by you.
Cincinnati got away from its core on Saturday, particularly in the first half.
“You have to give them a lot of credit,” UC head coach Luke Fickell said. “We had to come out in the second half and really get back to who we want to be. We gave our guys up front the opportunity to put their cleats in the ground and roll a little bit more. I don’t think we did a good enough job of that in the first half.”
When effective, the triple-option offense can drain clocks and leave opposing offenses on the sideline, pacing with anxiety. After Navy found the end zone first, Cincinnati, knowing its possessions would be limited, panicked and got away from the run and its back-to-back AAC Offensive Player of the Week.
Ford entered the game with 338 yards and six touchdowns in the last two weeks, but you would’ve never known it.
After a sluggish first half that included only eight rushes for 1.3 yards per attempt, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock made the running game a priority in the second half and got Ford the ball.
The junior back came out of the locker room and exploded for a 43-yard score. The touchdown, his 13th of the season, was his fifth rush of 40-plus yards in the last eight games.
Ford finished with 90 yards on 15 carries and the score.
As a team, Cincinnati finished with just 271 total yards of offense, the fewest amount for the Bearcats since Nov. 23, 2019, against Temple (210). That’s a stretch of 20 games.
But just like that game against the Owls, the Bearcats won on Saturday.
Cincinnati’s ‘Blackcats’ again show their weakness
UC’s defense is good. Really good. Like, top-five in all of college football good. But when an opposing offense takes its time, the “Blackcats” almost seem to lose interest. They get frustrated.
Cincinnati’s defense has grown so accustomed to taking the ball away from teams in quick fashion and heading back to the sideline that when it doesn’t happen, it’s almost a shock to UC’s nervous system.
On Sept. 11, Murray State showed – if only for about a half – that if you huddle and go slowly against Cincinnati’s defenders, you might just have a chance at moving the chains.
Navy (1-6, 1-4) did the same thing on Saturday. The Midshipmen just did it better and for a longer period of time
Navy rode its huddling, methodical triple-option rushing attack to 192 yards on the ground, the most surrendered by UC this season despite deploying an eight-man front.
“It’s challenging,” Cincinnati graduate cornerback Coby Bryant said of facing the triple option. “We practiced all week for it. But I just want to give credit to Navy. We knew we were going to get their best show. But at the end of the day, we came out and executed and got the win.”
Navy had 67 rushing attempts. That’s enough to lull anyone to sleep. But the “Blackcats” executed, enough, and ultimately, that’s the point. Do enough to secure the victory.
“They had a really good game plan for us,” Fickell said. “I give our guys and coaches credit for adapting and adjusting.”
A win is a win
Saturday wasn’t pretty. Cincinnati’s offense went three-and-out four times and struggled against a Midshipmen defense that had been allowing 370 yards per game and 6.1 yards per play (UC averaged 5.3). But ultimately, Cincinnati won.
It was easily the Bearcats’ worst and least impressive outing of the season. But ultimately, Cincinnati won.
“The game’s not going to be over until the clock hits zero,” Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “That’s what we learned today. We can’t take anything for granted, can’t take any game for granted.”
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first rankings on Nov. 2. That’s when Cincinnati and its fans will get an idea of how close the Bearcats are to becoming the first Group of Five team to earn an invite to the playoff.
But none of that matters right now.
What matters is the Bearcats’ goal of playing for championships. That’s been Fickell’s overarching mission since he took over the program five seasons ago.
A second-straight AAC championship is still UC’s to lose. An undefeated season is still in sight. And ultimately, a College Football Playoff berth is still a possibility.
A dominant win next Saturday at Tulane will make Saturday afternoon in Annapolis feel like a distant memory, not just for Cincinnati but for the CFP committee too.