Watch Cincinnati take on Memphis in the AAC Championship streaming on WCPO at 3:30 p.m.
The Cincinnati Bearcats didn’t end the regular season the way they wanted, but the goal they set out to achieve back in camp is still right in front of them.
Cincinnati fell 34-24 to Memphis in the finale last week, but they will get a chance to avenge that last loss as they play for the program’s first championship since 2014.
The No. 21 Bearcats (10-2) travel to play No. 16 Memphis (11-1) in the American Athletic Conference Championship on Saturday at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
“We have one goal in the program,” third-year Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “We don't talk about it a lot (during the season), but when we came here, we said that one goal was to play for championships … Now we’ve got that opportunity, and we’re excited about it.”
UC shared the regular-season AAC title with Memphis and Central Florida in 2014 before there was a championship game. The program went on a downward slide for a bit after that, as the Bearcats finished 7-6 the following season and then endured back-to-back four-win seasons. Fickell turned things around last year in his second season, guiding UC to an 11-1 finish and a Military Bowl win.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have been to the title game each of the last two years, falling to Central Florida both times, 56-41 last year and 62-55 in 2017.
Fickell finds it both helpful and hurtful having to face Memphis in back-to-back weeks, but he's hoping the Bearcats learned enough from the first meeting to produce better results this time.
“It’s intriguing going back to back playing the same team, but it’s also difficult in some ways too,” Fickell said. “Last week didn’t end the way we wanted it to … Week 2 of doing the same thing over and over again is unique for us as coaches. We have to do some things differently, but you also don’t want to do too much. You’re seeing a lot of the same things in the second week. The monotony of going through the same plays is unique.”
Memphis proved to be more physical than UC could anticipate from watching film, so coming better prepared for that should help, Fickell said.
The Bearcats are going back to their two-year starting quarterback as well, as Desmond Ridder is expected to be back after sitting last week while Fickell was trying to help him get to full health. Redshirt freshman Ben Bryant threw for 229 yards and one touchdown in his first collegiate start but had two interceptions and was sacked five times. He had come off the bench in five previous games.
“Desmond Ridder is our quarterback,” Fickell said. “For what he's done here over the last two years, there is no doubt who our quarterback is. We held him out last week ... we were trying to be smart with him. But most importantly is that Des is our guy and we believe in him.”
Ridder has thrown for 1,863 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions and was especially relied on early in the season while the running game struggled to find a rhythm. Offensive line improvement and the unleashing of 1,000-yard rusher Michael Warren, who Fickell said he was trying to preserve for a late-season push, had taken pressure off the quarterback in recent weeks. But the Bearcats will need Ridder to be a difference-maker Saturday. Memphis has never faced Ridder, a sophomore, as the teams did not meet in 2018.
Fickell said UC remains confident, despite the loss last week and regardless of who is on the field, but having played Memphis so recently gives them an added level of comfort going into this one. The Tigers opened the game last week with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and never trailed, though the Bearcats made it a three-point game early in the fourth quarter.
“It’s not a crew that lacks confidence,” Fickell said. “It’s more an understanding of what they need to do and do better more than it is a confidence boost either way.”
For the seniors whose careers began with those two 4-8 seasons, Saturday is especially meaningful. The Bearcats had lost to Central Florida in Week 11 last year to keep them from the title game, but they clinched their spot in the AAC championship with a 15-13 win over Temple on Nov. 23.
Now, they have a chance to finish what they started and perhaps can improve their Bowl assignment. Their only other loss this season, aside from Memphis, came against No. 2 Ohio State.
“That's been the goal obviously since we started out fall camp at Higher Ground, just to get to the conference championship,” senior tight end Josiah Deguara said. “It's not like we haven't talked about it or anything, but we’ve obviously been taking it one game at a time. We're super excited for the opportunity we have.”
Fickell wants this win for everyone in the program, but especially those seniors.
“Those are the gratifying things,” he said. “They’re excited, they love what they’ve done to have this opportunity, but any time you finish, that’s when the memories and the joy really come in. We’ve said for the last four or five weeks, ‘We will go as they go,’ and we will continue to whether it’s this game or the following game in the Bowl. They’ve put a lot of work in, they’ve been through the ups and downs, but to top it off by doing the one thing we said we were going to do, when maybe a lot of people don’t believe it, it means a lot to those guys.”