CINCINNATI – The last time the Victory Bell resided on Miami University’s ivy-covered campus in Oxford, Ohio was in 2005, when Bearcats coach Luke Fickell was in his first season as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State and RedHawks coach Chuck Martin’s Grand Valley State squad was dominating Division II.
Since then, the coveted trophy awarded to the winners of the oldest continuous college football rivalry west of the Allegheny Mountains, has made its permanent home on the University of Cincinnati’s Corryville campus.
The Bearcats have beaten the RedHawks 12 straight times. Many of those games like last year’s at Yager Stadium were decided in the closing moments, while others weren’t close at all.
UC’s recent dominance in a rivalry that dates to 1888 and is the fifth-oldest in all of Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), has some participants questioning whether it’s still a rivalry at all.
"I think it was more so looked upon like that many years ago,” said former Bearcats and current Bengals punter Kevin Huber. “I don't know when the last time UC lost in that. We obviously would like to keep it that way and make it less and less of a rivalry and just keep winning those games."
Funny thing about rivalries: it doesn’t take much to reignite them. Sometimes it’s a pregame war of words – something both head coaches will go to great lengths to avoid -- or often it’s just the circumstances, which is the case this year.
The 123rd all-time meeting is set for 8 p.m. on Saturday in Paul Brown Stadium, and both teams have plenty of fuel for motivation.
The Bearcats are coming off an impressive 26-17 win over UCLA in the Rose Bowl, a victory some believe has officially ushered in the Fickell Era. UC’s win over the Bruins didn’t exactly push the needle nationally, however, as they entered the week as slight underdogs to the RedHawks.
A week after winning as 15-point underdogs in Southern California, the Bearcats have to prove themselves again.
“We’re an underdog,” said Fickell, in his second season as UC head coach. “Make of it what it is. We don’t get the respect of college football and all those people in one week. We’re not worried about that.”
The RedHawks, coming off a mistake-riddled 35-28 loss to Marshall in their season opener, feel like the Victory Bell was ripped from their grasp last season when the Bearcats rallied from a 17-6 deficit in the final five minutes, scoring on an interception return for a touchdown in the final minute.
“Last year, we felt, could have been the year (to beat UC), and the year before that,” said former Miami receiver Jared Murphy, who briefly was on the Bengals’ practice squad this summer. “Miami has been on a bit of a losing streak (in the rivalry), and UC probably feels like it's not much of a rivalry anymore. But there's definitely still something there. That's the one game that always stuck out for us on the schedule, as Miami players.”
The teams have contrasting quarterback situations going into Saturday’s game.
RedHawks senior QB Gus Ragland passed for 357 yards and three TDs in the loss to Marshall while completing more than 54 percent of his passes for a 141.06 rating.
Senior Hayden Moore took the first snaps for UC, but freshman Desmond Ridder played most of the game, passing for 100 yards and rushing for another 63.
Fickell said he’ll decide how the Moore-Ridder rotation will play out against Miami by mid-week.
“We know we need both of them,” Fickell said. “Hayden’s done a lot of good things for us. I like the way he handled everything, that gives us the opportunity to do this.”
The condition of Bearcats running back Michael Warren II, who rushed for 142 yards and three TDs in the win over UCLA, is something to watch this week. He briefly left the game with an injured right knee but did return and is expected to play on Saturday.
Ragland has passed for 4,116 yards and 42 touchdowns in his career at Miami, but it was his ill-advised pass with 1:07 left that was picked off by Bearcats’ cornerback Malik Clements, who returned it 14 yards for the winning score in last year’s loss.
The Moeller High product deflected questions this week about redemption.
“I think it’s a huge game because it’s our next opportunity to get a win,” Ragland said. “When you make it more than that, that’s where you run into trouble as a team.”
Miami leads the all-time series 59-56-7. And despite it being a one-sided rivalry for more than a decade, you got the sense this week that it still means a lot to those involved.
“It’s a crazy, great rivalry,” Martin said. “It means tons to Miami, Miami fans and Miami University. We haven’t won in a while (so) you want to get back on the winning side. They physically whipped UCLA. Not tricked them, they lined up and bloodied UCLA’s nose.”
Miami-UC is a matchup that is steeped in history.
The first game between the two schools was played in Oxford on Dec. 8, 1888. It ended in a scoreless tie and now is best known for being the first college football game played in Ohio.
Miami last beat UC on Sept. 28, 2005, a 44-16 rout in Oxford. The RedHawks won four of five from the Bearcats from 2001 to 2005, with three of those wins coming with some guy named Ben Roethlisberger under center.
The teams have played every season since 1945 after meeting each year from 1909 to 1942. Of the previous 122 meetings, seven were ties and 54 were decided by seven or fewer points, including last year’s heartbreaking or thrilling finish, depending on your rooting interest.
“This is a pivotal game for our season because we feel like we didn’t finish the game last year,” said Miami defensive back De’Andre Montgomery.
When the old Big East Conference disbanded, it left the Bearcats without a true conference rival. Gone were Louisville, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh. And, rivalries have been slower to develop for the Bearcats in the American Athletic Conference, leaving Miami as their only true rival, aside from a once-in-a-blue-moon matchup with Ohio State.
"When I was there it was West Virginia, Rutgers, Pittsburgh,” Huber said. “Those were some of the bigger games we played, and those were always fun games. Going up to Morgantown was always a fun atmosphere, so West Virginia was probably the one I looked forward to most. I think with how the conferences keep changing, it's hard to keep (rivalries) up because we keep constantly playing different teams.”
The schools ensured that the Battle for the Victory Bell would remain a constant on the schedule when they announced last year that the series was being extended through 2029, with five games remaining at Nippert Stadium, four at Yager, and two at Paul Brown Stadium after Saturday.
“Rivalry weeks are what make college football great,” Fickell said. “For us, rivalry week is about respect, respect for your opponent, respecting the rivalry. There are some guys (on the team) who don’t know much about the rivalry. Understanding the history of the rivalry, what it’s all about is important. Understanding what you see on film isn’t what you’re going to get.”