Cincinnati Bearcats earn first AAC football championship with 27-24 victory over Tulsa

Charlie Goldsmith
Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI -- Head coach Luke Fickell told his players to be there at 7:30 in the morning.

Back in August, when the University of Cincinnati broke a pandemic impacted training camp in Higher Ground, Indiana, the Bearcats head coach gave his players an ultimatum.

Either they could opt out of the season, or they could show up at 7:30 the next day to compete for a championship.

They showed up.

On Saturday, No. 9 UC capped a perfect season, beating No. 23 Tulsa, 27-24, at Nippert Stadium to win the 2020 American Athletic Conference championship game. And a season that initially looked like it might not happen ended with the school’s first AAC championship game win in program history.

Cincinnati Bearcats running back Jerome Ford (24) breaks a tackle by Tulsa Golden Hurricane safety Cristian Williams (3) on a touchdown run in the first quarter during the American Athletic Conference football championship game, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

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UC junior quarterback Desmond Ridder redeemed himself after last season’s conference title game at Memphis. In 2019, Ridder didn’t lead UC to a win.  Against Tulsa, Ridder led a last-minute field goal drive that made UC the AAC champions. 

Sophomore Cole Smith drilled a 35-yard field goal at the buzzer to clinch the title for the Bearcats.

The title game was a culmination of Fickell rebuilding the Bearcats’ football program. 

When UC hired him in 2016, the Bearcats were coming off a four-win season, and UC hadn’t been recruiting at the same level as in previous years.

The first high school player UC defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman called after getting to Cincinnati was La Salle high school linebacker Jarell White. On Saturday, White stopped Tulsa’s first drive by perfectly tracking a ball from Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith and intercepting the pass at UC’s 25-yard line.

Then Ridder –– a lightly recruited player who finished Saturday with 269 passing yards and a team-high 83 rushing yards –– completed a 31-yard pass to junior wide receiver Alec Pierce. Two plays later, sophomore running back Jerome Ford –– who transferred to UC from Alabama because of his close relationship with the Bearcats coaching staff –– ran for a 42-yard touchdown that gave UC a 7-0 lead.

All of the Bearcats’ pieces were fitting together perfectly. But the AAC title and a signature win on UC’s schedule was hard fought.

In the first half, UC fumbled twice and allowed the Golden Hurricane to rush for 104 yards. Even though the Bearcats couldn’t stop the run or establish the run in the first half, three deep passes from Ridder to Pierce gave the Bearcats a 17-10 lead at halftime.

In the second half, Ridder played with a chalk-stained jersey from all the hits he took. It didn’t matter, and in the third quarter he had three first-down runs and another scramble for a touchdown that gave UC a 24-17 lead.

But Tulsa made the Bearcats win the game at the end.

Following a 54-yard pass from Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith to Sam Crawford Jr. that brought the Golden Hurricane to UC’s 15-yard line, Smith threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to JuanCarlos Santana that tied the score at 24 with 3:41 left. 

In the AAC title game last season at Memphis, Ridder had pain in his shoulder as he tried to lead UC down the field in the final minutes. Down the stretch against Tulsa, Fickell trusted Ridder.

Ridder made it look effortless when he delivered a 20-yard pass to Pierce that brought the Bearcats onto Tulsa’s side of the field. 

Then on 4th-and-2 from Tulsa’s 24 yard line, Ridder drew the Golden Hurricane’s defensive line offsides, bringing the Bearcats into field goal range.

Then Smith kicked the game winner, and Cinnnnati won its first conference championship title game.