Shannon Russell: Six takeaways from University of Cincinnati's football win over Austin Peay

CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati’s football program notched the first win of the Luke Fickell era Thursday night with a 26-14 victory over pesky Austin Peay at Nippert Stadium. 

It was the closest outing between the teams in their six-game history – UC wins, all of them – and it lacked the brashness of the Bearcats’ 72-10 beat-down in their last meeting in 2011. In fact, it was the first time since 2011 that the FCS Governors held an FBS program below 30 points.

But it was a milestone victory nonetheless for UC’s new coaching staff.

RELATED: Fickell won, but has a tough season ahead

The most important thing is getting that win, and it’s been a while coming for these guys, for myself. Seven, eight months of kind of grinding real hard at different things and talking to them about the process, and kind of emphasizing the journey that we’ve been on,” Fickell said.

Here are six takeaways from the Bearcats’ season-opening victory:

NO WIN IS EASY: That’s the mantra Fickell told his players, and it held up against a Governors' program searching for its first win since the 2014 season. Coach Will Healy landed the nation’s top FCS recruiting class in the off-season and it showed in feisty Austin Peay. 

UC scored first, in the second quarter, and never trailed. But it never had substantial breathing room.  

Even the Bearcats’ first drive of the game had hiccups. Quarterback Hayden Moore’s first pass, a 16-yarder to Kahlil Lewis, gave the Bearcats a promising start, but three consecutive incompletions forced a punt. Tyrell Gilbert’s false start pinned UC back to its own 16-yard line, and James Smith’s punt from deep set up the Governors on their 40. 

Penalties and missed opportunities played into Austin Peay’s 59-16 advantage in total yards in the first quarter. UC overcame adversity in the quarter and throughout the game to ultimately hand Austin Peay a 28th consecutive loss.

“That’s probably as we look back and we go to evaluate this night, to real have some adversity, to see what we’re really made of, is I think what we’re really going to grow from,” Fickell said.

PENALTIES HAUNT: Chalk it up to first-game emotions or early stumbles in the new-look program. The Bearcats walked away from the game with some successes (three touchdowns, multiple key defensive stops) but could have engineered a different win without the recurrence of penalties. 

In all, the Bearcats had seven penalties for 70 yards.

One example: Austin Peay tied the game with 6:45 left in the second quarter on JaVaughn Craig’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Kentel Williams. Two personal fouls on UC breathed life into the drive. 

Another example: A Perry Young personal foul extended the Governors’ scoring drive in the fourth quarter, one that ended with Josh Alexander’s 11-yard touchdown run. That made it an uncomfortable 20-14 UC lead with around 11 minutes to go.

“That’s probably the thing that I will address more than everything (with players). We talked about it all camp. Defensively, if you have a penalty it leads to points,” said Fickell, who shouldered the blame for multiple delay of game penalties. 

MOORE CONTROL: Fickell named Moore the starting quarterback three days before the season’s start, but it came as no surprise considering how well the junior has played since the spring. 

Moore went 17-of-28 passing for 151 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against the Governors. He said it took a few series for him to find his comfort zone, just like last year against UT Martin.

“I ... missed some throws, but as we settled down (I) started making some throws, some easy throws, and everybody started doing their job,” Moore said.

Without the trappings of last year’s quarterback carousel, Moore has room to grow more comfortable in the role, and with receivers. He targeted six players against Austin Peay. 

BACK ON TRACK: After a difficult 2016 season in which he was shut down due to a foot injury, running back Mike Boone is angling to become UC’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012.

He has 100 rushing yards under his belt thus far. Boone, to be precise, rushed 19 times for 104 yards and a touchdown. 

The senior was relatively quiet early as UC struggled to shore up its ground game. He had just 7 rushing yards before parlaying four straight carries into 37 yards on the second quarter and leading UC to Austin Peay’s 6-yard line. Moore found Lewis for a touchdown on the ensuing play. 

Boone broke through for a 26-yard run with about seven minutes left in the game and gained four and nine yards respectively to inch the Bearcats to the Governors’ 3-yard line. He scampered into the end zone two players later, finally providing enough separation to qualify the win as imminent. 

“I hadn’t played since, what, last November? That was a great feeling to celebrate with my team in the end zone,” Boone said.

KICKING IT UP A NOTCH: Senior kicker Andrew Gantz had a rough third quarter, missing a 26-yard field goal and an extra point. 

The field goal attempt sailed wide left and spoiled the Bearcats’ short field against the Governors. The PAT, in which the football hit the right upright, was his last chance of the night; UC went for a two-point conversion after its final touchdown (which failed).

Fickell talked briefly to Gantz after the missed extra point.

“He did nothing but own up to it. ‘It’s on me, it’s on me.’ He was kind of was the kid that’s mature enough and far enough along to be able to correct and know what the issues are. Now we’ve just got to do a better job of correcting. But he’ll be there. He’ll be back for us. He’ll gain that confidence back and we won’t lose it in him as well,” Fickell said.

LOOKING AHEAD: The Bearcats’ next game is Sept. 7 at Michigan. Fickell said there are areas he’d like to see improvement, like a better handle on time of possession (UC had the ball for 22:19 while Austin Peay maintained possession for 37:41) and a less porous defense against the run (the Governors out-rushed UC 224 to 97). At times, Fickell saw players drop their heads, too, before they found ways to bounce back. He liked their moxie. Fine-tuning the details is high on the to-do list as a much more difficult opponent awaits.

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