The AAC does not have the luxury of an automatic bid for a New Year’s Six bowl. However, the conference has a de facto gateway into one of the sport’s prestigious postseason games because AAC member programs have qualified in five consecutive seasons. Cincinnati has registered two consecutive New Year’s Six bids, and the Bearcats remained on track for a third-straight one Saturday after a road trip to a windy setting in Dallas.
Cincinnati authoritatively defeated SMU by an aggregate score of 90-27 in 2020 and 2021, and the Bearcats continued their stranglehold on the series, albeit in closer fashion. They won their 17th consecutive regular season AAC contest in a 29-27 finish to secure their sixth consecutive win in 2022. The result also put Luke Fickell atop the leaderboard for winningest head coach in Cincinnati history.
Although the Bearcats escaped in wire-to-wire fashion, clutch playmaking was required on both sides of the ball. SMU nearly erased a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, but the Mustangs’ tying 2-point attempt wound up incomplete in the end zone thanks to pressure from the Cincinnati defensive front. Several minutes later, the offense converted a critical 3rd and 8 on a 9-yard pass to Josh Whyle to set the Bearcats in victory formation to clinch bowl eligibility.
“Gotta-have-it situations, we made them,” Fickell said. “We had plays both defensively and offensively... Those are the things we’ve got to build upon, but there’s a lot of things we have to do a lot better in. It’s not easy winning. It’s not easy winning on the road. That’s a good football team.”
At the beginning of the season, the forte of Cincinnati’s offense was the aerial attack. But the team still remains in search of its first passing performance eclipsing 200 yards since September. Quarterback Ben Bryant returned from a concussion that caused him to exit the Bearcats’ Week 6 contest and the starter connected on 18-of-35 passes for 200 yards — bereft of his leading receiver Tyler Scott, who watched from the sideline in a walking boot. Despite the modest stat-line, Fickell was inspired by his quarterback’s leadership and grit in the victory.
“This win today was not the easiest thing, and I don’t think it’s easy both ways when throwing with or against the wind,” Fickell said. “He was really under control. The thing that’s unique about Ben is we probably had six drops today and I don’t think you could tell if the ball was completed or dropped if you watched them. To me, that’s the sign of a great leader, the sign of a great quarterback. His emotions don’t rise or fall.”
Cincinnati found its offensive rhythm through a potent running attack headlined by Charles McClelland. Fresh off a career-high performance, McClelland eclipsed the century mark in back-to-back outings for the first time since joining the Bearcats in 2018. With a 76-yard breakaway run in the second quarter serving as a spark, the senior finished the afternoon with a game-high 129 yards. The longtime veteran began the season buried on the depth chart but has quickly risen to become one of the offense’s most impactful players in 2022.
“Even when he started the season as maybe the third guy going into Week 1, he’s completely elevated his game and proven to us that type of resiliency and that belief in what you’re doing pays off in the long run,” Fickell said.
Similar to Cincinnati, SMU didn’t experience anything near its optimal output in the passing game. The Mustangs trotted out wide receiver Rashee Rice, and the typical matchup nightmare for corners came into this game fourth in the FBS in receiving yards and eighth in receptions. But Cincinnati cornerback Arquon Bush brought out the clamps. Rice was limited to four catches and 41 yards on 12 targets, and Bush snagged one interception for himself in the captivating matchup between the star receiver and corner.
“Going into the season, the defensive backs may have been the question that everyone wanted to ask,” Cincinnati outside linebacker Wil Huber said. “We graduated some incredible players that have done some incredible things on Sundays so everybody wanted to know what that room would look like. Arquon, as well as (Ja’Quan) Sheppard, has done a great job, an incredible job as far as stepping up and filling those shoes in the way they have to do... Going into this game Rashee Rice was probably the most targeted receiver in the country and we did a really good job at limiting his ability to get the ball.”
The Bearcats operated with a 17-0 lead in the middle of the second quarter, but one pivotal moment shifted the game away from blowout territory. Cincinnati elected to gamble on a 4th and 1 from its own 46-yard line, however, SMU’s defense won the battle in the trenches and stopped Corey Kiner at the line of scrimmage. Working inside Bearcat territory for the first time all afternoon, Rhett Lashlee elected to take a deep shot. Tanner Mordecai found Jordan Kerley for a 43-yard pickup, and seconds later, TJ McDaniel was in the end zone. The Mustangs fed off this momentum to close out the second quarter, rewriting the score to 20-14 on a Kerley touchdown reception seconds before halftime.
“The recipe for winning is we just have to keep getting back up,” SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee said. “After a while, you just keep getting back up, keep getting back up, things are gonna go our way and we’re gonna make some plays.”
But by means of a tenacious defense, Cincinnati regained control in a pivotal third quarter. The Bearcats entered the matchup ranked atop the FBS in tackles for loss per game and they lived up to this status Saturday. Backfield penetration was a frequent occurrence as Luke Fickell’s team registered six sacks in the victory. While inside linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. caused his usual disruption, outside linebacker Jaheim Thomas was noticeably impactful with two sacks and seven tackles in his best showing to date.
“It was awesome for the defense to see him, and for me to see as well,” Huber said of Thomas. “I kind of took him under my wing since he was a freshman. We’ve been playing this linebacker position together because when he came in is when I made my switch to linebacker. It was incredible for him to have that confidence and go out and do what we all know he can do.”
The Bearcats’ defensive excellence didn’t necessarily translate into offense, but they were able to convert many of their stops into points. Kicking struggles had been prevalent in the program over the past few seasons, as Cincinnati entered Saturday connecting on just 50 percent of field goals since the start of 2021. But Ryan Coe delivered a performance for the ages by sinking a school record five field goals on six tries — including ones from 52 and 44 yards out. All nine Bearcat points in the second half were courtesy of his leg.
“(The wind) played a part in my confidence toward those kicks,” Coe said. “I appreciate Coach sending me out and that shows that he has confidence in me, but it’s more I have confidence in myself to begin with to go out there. I show that throughout the week in practice and we take those kicks in practice. I think I’ve shown enough confidence for Fick to send me out and it came to fruition today.”
In the midst of Coe’s third quarter reign, the Mustangs switched quarterbacks when the effects of a sack caused Tanner Mordecai to exit toward the locker room. Preston Stone, the highest-rated recruit in the 21st century, checked in to finish the effort under center.
“I was ready to go,” Stone said. “There wasn’t really a whole lot on my mind. You prepare all year for a moment like this and I felt prepared. I was trying to get as many mental reps on the sideline. I know each play that we’re running, so I’m playing out that play in my mind before the play, seeing what coverages they’re in, and how they’re playing the game and trying to pick up on tendencies.”
Stone assisted SMU in slicing the deficit to one-score with around five minutes remaining when his delivery to Rice was deflected into the end zone and wound up in the waiting hands of tight end RJ Maryland for a touchdown. The Mustangs then scored on the ensuing drive after Stone’s downfield shots and onslaught of Cincinnati penalties guided them downfield. However, the failure to convert the 2-point attempt sealed the triumph for the reigning AAC champions. Falling two points short, SMU has now been within striking distance in three of its four losses in 2022.
“It’s very frustrating,” Stone said. “There’s guys that have worked four or five or six years in this program to build something special. There’s still no doubt in my mind that we have a championship team in that locker room. It’s just a matter of whether or not we can finish.”