The 2021 Cincinnati Bearcats were a sound football team in every facet — almost. The AAC champion and College Football Playoff participant fielded the nation’s 11th-ranked scoring offense and 5th-ranked scoring defense. Nine 2022 NFL Draft selections stemmed from the historic Bearcat team, which posted a 13-1 record and a final AP ranking of No. 4.
But one element was missing in Cincinnati. When the Bearcats sent out the field goal unit, zero points was a more frequent result than three points. Cincinnati connected on just 9-of-19 field goal attempts in 2021, faring 5-of-10 between 30 and 39 yards and 1-of-5 from 40+. But the Bearcats’ kicking struggles date further back than 2021. Since 2016, the team has only experienced one season converting over 70 percent of field goals.
Cincinnati entered Saturday sinking just 13 of their 26 attempts since Week 1 of the 2021 campaign. Even this year, the Bearcats were off to a 4-of-7 start with zero makes beyond 40 yards. Not only did that trend change Saturday, but history was made in a performance for the ages. Kicker Ryan Coe delivered five key field goals in Cincinnati’s road win over SMU and all five were essential to securing a 29-27 victory to lock up the Bearcats’ 17th consecutive regular season AAC win.
“We had been a little bit sporadic with our field goals,” head coach Luke Fickell said. “Not just last year, but even this year. We had not kicked a whole bunch or put ourselves in a lot of those situations, but at some point in time we knew it was going to come down to that.”
Coe’s five field goals were a school record, and not all of his looks were easy. The kicker drained a season-long 52-yard field goal in the third quarter to extend the gap between the teams to two possessions. Then he followed up his booming shot with a 44-yarder to rewrite Cincinnati’s lead to 26-14. Overall, Coe made 5-of-6 attempts, originating from 30, 25, 52, 44, and 31 yards out. The kicker was responsible for all nine of Cincinnati’s second half points in a tightly-contested finish.
“I’m confident in myself as a whole coming into games, but as you guys know, I didn’t have the greatest start to the season,” Coe said. “The coaches have really been behind me. The players on the team have really been behind me. Those confidence levels have never changed. As I start making them and knocking them down, I get a little more comfortable on the field.”
His sixth attempt in the fourth quarter was his lone kick facing the south end zone, but this 44-yard try was blocked at the line of scrimmage by SMU. As evidenced by the results toward the north end zone at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, the wind certainly played a factor in Coe’s record performance, boosting not only the power of his kicks, but his confidence.
“Wind definitely helped,” Coe said. “Going against the wind hurt me a little bit as far as you can tell on kickoffs. My kickoffs the other way were touchbacks all game. I definitely had a 15 to 20 mile an hour at my back the whole game, so that definitely played a part in my confidence toward those kicks.”
A placekicker’s confidence is important, but it’s also essential for a coaching staff to have faith in a kicker. Cincinnati could have easily kept Coe bottled up on the sidelines and trotted the offense onto the field for some of those fourth down situations, but Fickell and his staff believed in Coe’s ability to take charge of the scoring effort and transform Cincinnati’s long-struggling kicking game.
“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,” Coe said. “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.”
Coe’s initial demonstration of confidence as a Bearcat transpired last December when he took a chance on his future by entering the transfer portal. Prior to signing with Cincinnati shortly after 2021 AAC Championship Game, Coe held all-conference status as the kicker at the University of Delaware. He sunk 14-of-17 field goal attempts through the uprights at the FCS level, but there was a learning curve when transitioning to the special teams unit of a reigning College Football Playoff participant.
“Coming from Delaware and coming to play at Cincinnati has been a bit of a change in terms of football and the level of football, and I think it took me a little bit of time to get used to,” Coe said. “I think it has a lot to do with the consecutive reps that we take in practice with (holder) Bryce (Burton) and (long snapper) Cayson (Pfeiffer) — so it’s just getting more comfortable with that and getting more comfortable with the environment as well.”
Making progress in practice is important, but after setting the single-game school record for field goals, Coe has proven he can step up to the task and deliver in an in-game situation. Going forward, this performance could give Cincinnati more confidence in its kicking game — an essential quality if the Bearcats hope to win close games like the Saturday triumph over SMU.
“He’s been becoming much more consistent throughout the entire last few weeks of practice,” Fickell said. “We maybe haven’t seen it as much in ballgames because we have been good in the red zone, but we really needed him today and (the kicking unit) stepped up and did a phenomenal job.”