Thousands donning red and black flocked into Nippert Stadium to usher in the first Saturday of December. Nippert Stadium is one of the oldest venues college football has to offer, as it first broke ground in 1901. But there was a different, unforeseen aura in the century-old setting on this particular Saturday night, as it served as the nucleus of history for the Cincinnati Bearcats.
For the first time in the venue’s existence, a College Football Playoff berth was on the line. No. 4 Cincinnati hadn’t lost in the confines of its stadium since 2017, riding a 26-game home win streak heading into the AAC Championship Game. When a scorching hot No. 21 Houston team rolled into town, the Bearcats ensured their trend of home dominance would sustain.
The result — history. Cincinnati utilized a dominant second half to upend the Cougars, 35-20 and secure its second consecutive American Athletic Conference championship. As the lone team to withstand the grind of the 2021 college football season with an unblemished record, Cincinnati is poised to become the first team from the AAC to qualify for the College Football Playoff in the event’s eight year history.
“If it’s meant to be, it will be,” Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said. “I don’t think these guys can be denied. Just the way they’ve answered the bell and everything they’ve done all year, it would be a shame for them to be denied.”
While Cincinnati’s stakes were well documented, Houston had plenty on the line as it vied for its 12th consecutive victory. A win would have catapulted the Cougars to their first AAC Championship since 2015 and a likely New Year’s Six berth. Recent results at Nippert Stadium suggested odds were stacked against Houston, which had to test its perfect road record in a hostile Cincinnati environment.
“It’s disturbing that an 8-0 American team has to go on the road and play in this kind of atmosphere,” Houston head coach Dana Holgorsen said about the AAC Championship, one of four conference title games to operate outside of a neutral site. “Hopefully we can be 8-0 and we can host this game next year because it’s a huge advantage in a championship game.”
In a contest pitting the sixth and eighth ranked defenses in the FBS against one another, points were expected to be at a premium. That could not have been further from the case coming out of the gate. The opening frame featured 24 combined points, and the first five possessions of the game all resulted in scores for the AAC’s top two teams.
However, the offensive onslaught would soon be replaced by a defensive slugfest. The level of execution on defense skyrocketed for Cincinnati and Houston alike in the second quarter, as four consecutive drives heading into halftime resulted in punts. The Bearcats clung onto a 14-13 advantage at the break — one half away from entering the postseason undefeated for the second year in a row.
“Going into half, it was a battle,” Fickell said. “I don’t know that we had done a great job defensively. We hadn’t had the ball as many times offensively. (Houston) had done a great job of moving it and scoring. Going into halftime, you could look into those guys’ eyes and it kind of went onto the shoulders of the seniors and I felt really good about what they were talking about.”
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune displayed tremendous first half poise by completing 12-of-16 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. By constantly extending plays with his legs, Tune kept Cincinnati’s elite defense in check and guided the Cougars to a 1-point halftime deficit against the No. 4 team in the country.
“It’s hard to run the ball on these guys so especially in the red zone, so we had to use him. He’s done a good job extending plays. He hadn’t been able to do that for about 85 percent of the season,” Holgorsen said. “That’s one of the things that makes him a great quarterback is him being able to extend plays. We had to get him going a bit in the run game too because it’s hard to get yards on these guys.”
One vital sequence which determined the outcome of the game transpired in the early portion of the third quarter. Cincinnati elected to keep the offense on the field on a 4th and 3 from the Houston 19-yard line. Desmond Ridder’s pass to Jadon Thompson was broken up by Cougars’ star cornerback Marcus Jones, but a late pass interference flag decorated the turf and turned the tide in the Bearcats’ favor.
“Is it the reason we lost? No,” Holgorsen said. “Did it change the game and create momentum? Absolutely. Great teams have to overcome that. Championship teams have to overcome that. We did not. All the momentum went to their side and we had a hard time stopping that.”
Cincinnati immediately responded to new life with an 8-yard touchdown strike from Ridder to tight end Leonard Taylor to manufacture a 21-13 advantage. On the first play of Houston’s ensuing possession, middle linebacker Joel Dublanko picked off Tune for the first and only turnover of the evening.
“They’re attacking the middle throughout the game and the coaches on the sideline are telling us we got to be really good in zone integrity,” Dublanko said. “I saw where the QB’s eyes were looking and he happened to throw it in my way. I stuck my hands up, went in my hands, stayed in my hands, and I was like, ‘Crap! I have the football right now!’”
Cincinnati didn’t waste any time capitalizing on the opportune takeaway. Ridder found Alec Pierce for a 21-yard touchdown to hand the Bearcats their first multi-score lead of the night at 28-13.
“The pregame meeting before we left the hotel, Coach Fick said championship games, the biggest thing is about turnovers, about momentum. That’s the biggest thing that’s gonna swing games. That’s gonna change the way people play. For us to go down and be able to score, it obviously changed the entire momentum of the game.”
Running back Jerome Ford played an integral role in lifting Cincinnati to its second straight conference title, accumulating 187 yards at 10.4 per carry to secure the game’s MVP. Ford turned the burners on for a 79-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and followed it up with a 42-yard end zone sprint in the third quarter.
“He walked in here when we were in a situation when we were winning,” Fickell said of Ford. “Sometimes when new guys come into the program, they expect things to happen for them right away. When he first came in, it didn’t just happen. He embraced the culture of how we do things. We don’t worry about the selfishness and we take care of each other... and he was able to do that and battle through that first year, and it’s really paid off.”
The Alabama transfer’s second touchdown of the night bolstered Cincinnati to a 21-0 scoring advantage in the third quarter. In that frame, the Bearcats out-gained the Cougars, 194 yards to -6. Houston managed the only points in the fourth quarter, but Jake Herslow’s late touchdown reception was not enough to undo Cincinnati’s third quarter damage.
Immediately after the Bearcats made their final tackle of the night, the turf at Nippert Stadium was painted red and black. For the first time since October 2019, the atmosphere in Cincinnati was capped off with a field storming. Thousands converged to midfield to celebrate the AAC Championship with vociferous chants of, “C-F-P!”
“I said I think this might be a long one here tonight and I’m perfectly fine with it,” Fickell said about the field storm. “Let’s just hang out here amongst the people who have supported us and made our home a real advantage in all that we’re doing.”
Instead of participating in the celebration, players on Houston could lament at the elation which encapsulated the field. Despite the disappointment, the Cougars enter bowl season with their best record since 2015 at 11-2. Although the lofty goal of an AAC title fell short, Holgorsen hopes he can replicate the caliber of Cincinnati’s program in the Lone Star State.
“We went toe-to-toe with them as long as we could,” Holgorsen said. “What I looked at out there is what I want our team to look like and our stadium to look like next year. I think we can get that done and I think we can accomplish that. They’ve been working at that a couple years longer than we have, so I’m very proud of our team.”
The respect Houston held for Cincinnati’s program was not understated in the postgame press conference. Holgorsen and several Houston players reiterated that Cincinnati belongs among the top four and that the Bearcats would be a fitting representative for the first AAC team in College Football Playoff history.
“You’ve got to respect the team that’s only lost one game in two years. It’s hard to win in general,” Houston corner Marcus Jones said. “It’s just a shame that you have to do that for two years to get into the College Football Playoff. It’s good to see because in this conference, there’s great football.”
The Bearcats will receive official confirmation Sunday regarding their College Football Playoff status. When asked what his message to the playoff committee would be, Fickell said he didn’t have any additional statements besides what occurred on the gridiron.
“The resounding statement is what you just saw on the football field,” Fickell said. “What these guys did in the third quarter is who we are, and if that’s not good enough, we’re gonna take our ball and go someplace else. They can say what they’d like to say. We let our play speak for us.”