Nippert Stadium and Cincinnati Bearcats victories — name a better combination. Well, there’s only one. The only better combination is Memorial Stadium and Clemson Tigers victories, as Dabo Swinney’s perennial contenders have rattled off 37 consecutive wins in Death Valley.
But Cincinnati’s 29-game home streak was in unlikely jeopardy Saturday afternoon as the Bearcats were heavy favorites over a visiting South Florida squad which registered just one FBS win in the previous 1,079 days. The Bearcats trailed with under 10 minutes remaining, but thanks to the brilliant play of running back Charles McClelland, they notched their 30th consecutive victory at Nippert Stadium in 28-24 fashion. McClelland’s final touchdown also extended Cincinnati’s AAC win streak to 16 — one short of 2017-19 UCF for the regular season conference record.
McClelland has been a member of the roster for 29 of Cincinnati’s 30 straight home wins and the entirety of the team’s AAC streak. But the senior running back never had a day like the one he produced Saturday. McClelland rushed for a career-high 179 yards on 21 carries. He broke a defender’s ankles en route to a 35-yard touchdown run to hand Cincinnati a 28-24 lead with 9:24 remaining — his second touchdown of the contest. The running back also iced the game by converting a 4th and 1 from the South Florida 31-yard line in the waning minutes.
Prior to McClelland’s game-sealing run, Cincinnati’s defense did its part to secure the victory. South Florida produced 363 yards of total offense, and the Bulls were rolling again until a 4th and 1 from the Cincinnati 25-yard line. They ran a swing screen to running back Brian Battie, but free safety Ja’Von Hicks sniffed out the play and Battie was quickly met five yards behind the scrimmage by a horde of red jerseys.
Hicks’ backfield heroics were desperately needed by the Cincinnati defense. While the Bearcats recorded eight stops behind the line of scrimmage, they failed to register a single sack despite entering Saturday as No. 1 in the FBS with 4.6 sacks per game. Still, the second and third levels of the defense proved potent as outside linebacker Ty Van Fossen excelled with a team-high 16 tackles in addition to Hicks’ nine takedowns.
For the second AAC contest in a row, Cincinnati couldn't get its passing attack up to standard. An interception on Ben Bryant’s first pass of the game quickly put the Bearcats into a 10-0 hole but Bryant recovered with touchdown strikes to Jadon Thompson and Nick Mardner and his next two possessions. Bryant finished with 178 yards on 21 attempts, but the quarterback left the game in the early fourth quarter after an apparent head injury. Backup Evan Prater took over in the midst of a deficit, handed the ball to McClelland for the go-ahead score, and assisted the Bearcats in their clock-eating ventures to conclude the afternoon.
Similar to Cincinnati, South Florida’s offense got plenty of mileage out of its rushing attack while the passing game served as a second fiddle. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon diced the Bearcats up for 117 rushing yards while Battie added 82 in the Bulls’ second-most productive ground performance of the season. When attacking through the air, Bohanon often connected with his favorite target Xavier Weaver. The only Bull with multiple receptions, Weaver gave a typically stout Cincinnati secondary fits with 112 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
South Florida (1-5, 0-2 AAC) dropped its fourth consecutive contest, but the Bulls reverted to their competitive ways which were on full display in Gainesville several weeks ago. After nearly knocking off Florida, South Florida proceeded to lose its next six quarters 82-10 to Louisville and East Carolina. But after going toe-to-toe with another quality program, Jeff Scott’s aims for consistency as it returns home to host Tulane next Saturday.
On the flip side, No. 24 Cincinnati enters the bye week after rattling off its fifth consecutive win. The Bearcats remain the team to beat in the AAC and hold status as one of three one-loss teams in the conference along with Tulane and UCF. A trip to SMU looms on the schedule for Oct. 22, when Luke Fickell’s squad vies for its 17th straight regular season AAC triumph.