CINCINNATI, Ohio –– A 34-yard Cincinnati field goal with no time remaining gave the Bearcats a 27-24 victory over Tulsa in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game Saturday night at Nippert Stadium.
20th-ranked Tulsa (6-2) was looking for its 5th comeback win of the season after trailing by double-digits in the first quarter but was held off by the nation’s 6th-ranked Bearcats. Cincinnati (9-0) opened up a 10-point lead after one period, and Tulsa tied the game at 10 in the 2nd quarter, 17 in the third, and 24 in the 4th period.
Trailing 24-17, the Hurricane offense took possession at their own 20-yard line and marched 80 yards in 7 plays as Zach Smith threaded the needle for a 13-yard scoring strike to Juan Carlos Santana to tie the score, 24-24 after the PAT, with 3:41 remaining in the contest.
Cincinnati took the ensuing kickoff and marched to the Tulsa 17-yard line, taking all the 3:34 off the clock in its 51-yard, 12-play drive, where Cole Smith knocked through the winning field goal.
For the game, Tulsa had 365 yards of offense to the Bearcats 420 yards. Tulsa out-rushed Cincinnati 199 to 151, as Corey Taylor II had a game-high 130 yards and one touchdown on 22 carries, and Deneric Prince added 78 yards and one TD. Smith completed 13 passes for 166 yards.
On defense, Cristian Williams led the way with 10 tackles, while Akayleb Evans had 9 stops as did Treyvon Reeves, who also totaled 2 TFLs for -12 yards. Tulsa’s offense scored on one of two fumble recoveries by the Hurricane defense.
In the 3rd quarter, Tulsa took its 2nd second-half possession 55 yards in 3 plays as Prince had runs of 38, 9 and the final 8-yard TD run to cap the drive and knot the score at 17 with 10:05 left in the period.
Cincinnati responded quickly in taking just 2:46 off the clock as the Bearcats went 65 yards to retake the lead at 24-17 with 7:14 remaining in the 3rd stanza, capped by a Desmond Ridder 10-yard run.
After a Tulsa turnover, the Bearcats marched down to the Tulsa 5-yard line and looked as though they’d put another score on the board, but the Hurricane defense stepped up again holding Cincinnati on 4th-and-2 from the 5-yard line.
Tulsa couldn’t get past its own 5-yard line on the subsequent possession and was forced to punt out of its end zone. Cincinnati’s 21-yard return put the ball at the Tulsa 33-yard line. The Hurricane defense stopped the Bearcats again, forcing a 37-yard field goal that was blocked by Jaxon Player to keep the score at 24-17 with 6:27 on the game clock.
The blocked kick was Players’ 2nd of the season and 4th of his career.
The Hurricane offense responded with its 80-yard drive to knot the score at 24 before Cincinnati’s game-winning drive.
Cincinnati scored the game’s first points on its’s second possession when Jerome Ford ran 42 yards for the touchdown at the 8:56 mark of the first quarter.
Before the end of the quarter, the Bearcats got back on the board with a 25-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead as the Hurricane defense held on three downs after Cincinnati was 1st and goal from the 3-yard line.
Tulsa put its first points on the board at the 11:08 mark of the 2nd quarter when Zack Long connected on a 43-yard field goal, capping an 11-play, 46-yard drive.
On Cincinnati’s subsequent drive, Cullen Wick caused a fumble that Player recovered at the Bearcat 28-yard line. Tulsa went those 28 yards in 5 plays as Taylor ran in from 10 yards out for the score and a 10-10 tie.
The Bearcats broke the tie on a 64-yard, 5-play drive that saw Ridder connect with Alec Pierce for the final 36 yards to give UC a 17-10 lead with 3:17 remaining in the first half.
Tulsa’s defense forced a second first-half turnover when Williams caused a fumble and Justin Wright recovered it at the Cincinnati 34-yard line. The Hurricane couldn’t capitalize on the takeaway getting to the 9-yard line, but a penalty put Tulsa back to the 19. A 36-yard field goal attempt by Zack Long failed as Long slipped on his approach.
At halftime, Cincinnati had a 238 to 162-yard advantage in total offense. Tulsa had the edge in rushing 104 to 80 yards, but the Bearcats had 158 yards through the air as compared to Tulsa’s 58 yards. Taylor had 85 rushing yards on 16 carries for a 5.3 average to pace the Hurricane run game.
GAME RECAP COURTESY OF TULSA ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS