On Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, the Cincinnati Bearcats entered the locker rooms at Nippert Stadium after a deflating 35-24 home loss to Temple under first-year head coach Luke Fickell.
Exactly five years and one day later, that remains the last time Cincinnati exited its home base with a sour feeling. A raucous Bearcats’ fanbase decked in black showed out in droves to support their team in a Friday night AAC showdown with East Carolina, and Cincinnati provided spectators with the usual result — a win. After downing the Pirates in a thrilling 27-25 finish, the Bearcats’ home winning streak improves to 32, only trailing Clemson’s 38 for the longest in the country.
Also, Cincinnati (8-2, 5-1 AAC) remains in control of its own destiny for its third straight AAC Championship by downing a fellow contender in East Carolina (6-4, 3-3 AAC).
The game was largely dictated by the two potent defenses, with a hint of explosive plays in between stops. Cincinnati’s offense was victim to the first major defensive play of the night when quarterback Ben Bryant was immediately blindsided upon turning around his back shoulder in the end zone, resulting in a safety. East Carolina capitalized on its free possession with a career-long 47-yard field goal by Andrew Conrad to hand the Pirates a 5-0 lead.
That advantage was rather short lived as Jadon Thompson, on his first career kick return, exploded for a 100-yard touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. Thompson’s momentum-swinging play sparked a series of long-distance touchdowns for the Bearcats. In the early second quarter, Tre Tucker exchanged a bubble screen into a 55-yard touchdown with blazing speed. Four minutes later in the period, Bryant connected with Tyler Scott on a quick slant and Scott reached the end zone unscathed on a 76-yard play. With the run game stalling, Scott was Cincinnati’s most impactful offensive player on the night, securing 140 yards on seven receptions — his fourth 110+ yard performance of the year.
A quick 21-0 run due to three home run plays extended the margin to 16, but that was the end of Cincinnati’s playmaking for the night. East Carolina chipped away at the deficit when quarterback Holton Ahlers found C.J. Johnson downfield on a 3rd and long, and Johnson utilized several stiff-arms to complete a 72-yard touchdown sequence. The Pirates trailed 24-12 at halftime, but by the end of the third quarter, they found themselves in control.
Star running back Keaton Mitchell is possibly the fastest player in the conference, and the AAC’s leading rusher flew past Cincinnati defenders for a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. But Mitchell’s night would be shortened after he was the subject of a scary hit from Cincinnati strong safety Bryon Threats, which warranted a targeting penalty. Mitchell was knocked out on a near-touchdown grab and would not return to the contest. He posted 112 rushing yards on 16 carries in the victory, but his absence forced the Pirates to hand the reigns to Marlon Gunn Jr. at running back. Gunn added 48 yards on 11 carries while serving as the primary backfield option in the final frame.
Operating without Mitchell, the Pirates recaptured the lead with 2:02 remaining in the third quarter. Ahlers found Georgia transfer receiver Jaylen Johnson in the middle of the zone, but East Carolina wasn’t able to follow through on a pivotal two-point conversion — as Isaiah Winstead bobbled the ball before securing it with a foot out of bounds. The failed two-point attempt allowed Cincinnati to retake the lead on a field goal, and that’s exactly what the Bearcats did. With 9:42 remaining, kicker Ryan Coe drained his second field goal of the night on a 21-yard chip shot.
No scoring occurred after Coe’s kick thanks in part to relentless defenses. Cincinnati forced an ECU punt, but the Pirates earned one last reasonable opportunity at the win. While Ahlers demonstrated gutsiness on the 11-play drive by completing a critical fourth down conversion while falling to the ground, the Pirates were not able to claim territory in field goal range. On a critical 4th and 8 with under two minutes to go, Ahlers’ pass to C.J. Johnson was disrupted by Taj Ward. Ward’s late pass breakup continued the Bearcats’ trend of stellar secondary play throughout the night, and the team broke up eight passes in the victory.
While the Pirates regained possession in the final seconds, their attempted lateral ended up being very disastrous for the team. C.J. Johnson laid on the field for quite some time after the final whistle, and the veteran receiver was subsequently wheeled off the field in a stretcher.
East Carolina slips out of the AAC title race with the defeat, and the Pirates hope for quick recoveries from Mitchell and Johnson as they host Houston next Saturday in Greenville. Meanwhile, Cincinnati remains in control of its conference championship, and possibly New Year’s Six, fate. The Bearcats continue their 2022 journey at Temple next Saturday before closing the regular season in a high-stakes clash with Tulane.