For the first time in history, the AAC Championship Game is headed to the Big Easy.
Friday afternoon kicked off with a pivotal showdown between Tulane and Cincinnati with the hosting duties of the AAC title game at stake. Typically, games at Nippert Stadium end in Bearcat victories as evidenced by Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak. But for the first time since Nov. 10, 2017, celebration ensued in the visiting locker room.
Tulane (10-2, 7-1 AAC) struck last in a back-and-forth fourth quarter to push past Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2 AAC), 27-24. By upending the Bearcats in a hostile environment at Nippert Stadium — the location of the prior two conference title matchups — Tulane ensured Yulman Stadium will be the environment of the AAC Championship game on Saturday, Dec. 3.
While Tulane locked up homefield advantage and an opportunity to clinch a New Year’s Six bowl, Cincinnati must rely on South Florida to defeat UCF on Saturday night to appear in its third consecutive conference championship.
In typical Willie Fritz fashion, the Green Wave utilized a high-powered rushing attack as the engine of their offense Friday. Running back Tyjae Spears collected 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 35 attempts in the narrow victory. While the run game moved the offense downfield for the majority of the contest, it was the passing attack which elevated Tulane to the game-winning touchdown.
Cincinnati claimed its first lead of the game with 6:27 remaining on a drive which featured two fourth down conversions and a toe-tapping grab on third and long. When Ryan Montgomery ran free into the end zone for this second score of the afternoon, the Bearcats found themselves ahead 24-20. But the advantage was short-lived — 77 seconds of game clock to be exact.
Tulane rapidly navigated down the field via the arm of quarterback Michael Pratt. Pratt completed a 33-yard pass to Shae Wyatt to invade Bearcat territory. One play later, he tested his deep ball once again by flinging it down the sideline to Duece Watts. Watts gained separation on cornerback Arquon Bush to haul in a 33-yard touchdown with 5:10 remaining.
While Cincinnati received ample time to erase a 3-point deficit, the Bearcats’ offense went nowhere on its final two series. Tulane forced a three-and-out, and after Cincinnati’s defense came up with a crucial stop, the Bearcats had one last gasp to seal hosting duties of their third straight AAC title game. Instead, on 4th and 15, quarterback Evan Prater found an open Tyler Scott for an evident first down, but a dropped pass put the dagger in the home team’s hopes.
Prater started his first collegiate game at quarterback in place of Ben Bryant, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in last Saturday’s 23-3 win over Temple. Prater, a more rushing-oriented quarterback, racked up 83 yards on the ground and helped Cincinnati out-rush Tulane, 235-221. But through the air, Prater connected on just 10-of-26 passes, firing for 102 yards and an interception in the crushing defeat. No Bearcat receiver collected more than 41 yards, and the team’s No. 1 target in Scott was held to 11 yards on one reception.
While Cincinnati’s passing attack stalled, the Bearcats remained in the game by means of a potent defense. Outside of one second quarter possession where Tulane converted 4-of-4 third down opportunities, Cincinnati stifled the Green Wave to an 0-of-9 showing on third downs. Likely First Team All-AAC selection Ivan Pace Jr. generated a game-high 13 tackles, including 12 solo tackles, to limit Tulane to 5.5 yards per play. However, Cincinnati was unable to muster up a single takeaway and the Bearcats lost the turnover battle 1-0 thanks to a Dorian Williams interception in the third quarter.
Williams’ pick led to a Tulane touchdown which put the Green Wave ahead by double-digits in the middle of the period. Tulane gambled on a fourth and short by the goal line, and while Pratt threw an incompletion, a pass interference penalty was assessed on Cincinnati — breathing new life in Tulane to finish the drive. Although the Bearcats eventually erased the 10-point deficit, that touchdown stemming from the pass interference proved vital due to the 27-24 result on the final scoreboard.
By escaping Cincinnati in triumphant fashion, Tulane will host either UCF or Cincinnati the first Saturday of December in the AAC Championship Game, depending on the result of the War on I-4 rivalry this weekend. The Bearcats must rely on South Florida to win its first FBS game of the season in order to keep their conference championship streak alive.
Next Saturday, Tulane will receive its first opportunity to win any conference since the Green Wave won the C-USA in 1998 during an undefeated campaign.