CINCINNATI – The University of Cincinnati’s senior football players endured a roller coaster of emotions throughout their Bearcats careers. As they stood on the Nippert Stadium turf while being honored prior to Friday’s regular-season finale, those 14 represented a tumultuous and transitional period in program history.
The future is bright in Clifton, and it was this senior class that helped set the stage.
“I owe everything to them,” said second-year coach Luke Fickell. “We wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are without those guys.”
Several of this year’s seniors were on the field for the resounding win over Miami (Fla.) in 2015 which raised expectations, only to see the ugly departure of Tommy Tuberville a year later, and then the hiring of Fickell from Ohio State prior to last season.
Back to back 4-8 seasons put the five 10-plus win seasons and Orange and Sugar Bowl berths in six years under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones in the rear-view mirror. But all that changed this year under Fickell, and with the way the seniors took the younger players under their wing.
“There’s no way that we would be able to bring along the young kids without those guys,” said Fickell. “If there was any bitterness about what our objectives were as a coaching staff, it wouldn’t have looked like this.”
On Friday, the Bearcats capped off the seventh 10-win season in school history and first since 2012 with a 56-6 victory over East Carolina. Next up, is their first bowl game since 2015.
“Right now, you see the 10 wins, but it’s that relationship and the bond we’ve built here,” said senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton. “I get chills just thinking about it.”
The Bearcats (10-2, 6-2 American Conference) began the season among the nation’s youngest teams, with 72 percent of their roster comprised of underclassmen, including 35 true freshmen.
A season-opening win at UCLA sparked a 6-0 start. The only blemishes were an overtime loss at Temple and a loss at 11th-ranked Central Florida in prime-time.
Fickell credits the seniors for the turnaround this season. The senior players say it has more to do with the character of the players Fickell has recruited during his two years at the helm.
“To see the young guys come in and really buy into the program, not only staying for the hours mandated, but doing all the extra work,” said senior offensive lineman Garrett Campbell. “Guys care a lot more.”
Fickell said no senior player exemplifies that more than fifth-year quarterback Hayden Moore.
Moore started all 12 games last season and set career marks with 2,562 yards and 20 touchdowns, but was bypassed by Desmond Ridder after the redshirt freshman came off the bench to lead UC to a season-setting win at UCLA.
“I told (Moore and Ridder) from the get-go when we didn’t know who our quarterback was, I said their ability to put the team above themselves will be the biggest factor in our locker room,” Fickell said. “The strength of where this program is is the selfless commitment of a guy like Hayden Moore.”
An ankle injury cost Moore five games during his sophomore season. As a redshirt freshman, he played in eight games, including completing 22 of 33 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Hurricanes. But Moore could keep his starting role for his final season.
Moore passed for 59 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 20 yards in mop-up duty on Friday. Fickell has lauded Moore all year for the work he’s been putting in on the sidelines, and he did so again.
“Hayden Moore’s ability to help prepare Desmond, not just in this game but for the entire year, has been huge,” Fickell said. “The guys who were out tonight were making sure whoever was filling in for them were going to make a difference in this game. That’s what I’m most proud of, not the 56 points, or the 10 wins.”
The injury-riddled Bearcats made quick work of the Pirates despite being without a few players, including starting running back Michael Warren II.
Ridder’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Jayshon Jackson capped a 75-yard drive to start the game. In the first quarter, Ridder was 11 of 14 passing for 206 yards and three touchdowns as the Bearcats went ahead 21-0.
On the Bearcats’ first offensive play after a fumble recovery, Charles McClelland raced 55 yards for a touchdown to make the score 28-0 and give fans the rest of the afternoon to wrap up their Black Friday shopping.
Ridder was 20 of 29 passing for 335 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in the first half. The Bearcats had 454 total yards and led 42-6 at the half. ECU was fortunate to be even that close.
On Senior Day, senior wide receiver Khalil Lewis shined with nine catches for 203 yards and three TDs. It’s the fifth-most most receiving yards in a game for a UC player since Marcus Barnett had 210 yards against West Virginia in 2007.
RELATED: Bowl projections for Bearcats
The Bearcats will begin preparations next week for the bowl game, hoping to snap a three-game bowl losing streak. UC’s last bowl win was 48-34 against Duke in the 2012 Belk Bowl. The Bearcats’ last bowl appearance wasn’t pretty, a 42-7 loss to San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl.
The Bearcats’ seniors said during preseason practice that they wanted to go out with a bang this season, and they’ve done that.
“It’s the cherry on top,” said Campbell. “I couldn’t be happier to be part of this program after going through all the highs and the lows and everything in between.”