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Shocking win over UCLA could be turning point for Cincinnati Bearcats, coach Luke Fickell

UC grooming young players to make it happen
Posted: 5:06 AM, Sep 02, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-02 20:20:29Z
Shocking win over UCLA could be turning point for Cincinnati Bearcats, coach Luke Fickell

CINCINNATI – During the media luncheon on Tuesday, University of Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell said the quarterback who takes the first snaps on Saturday against UCLA in the Rose Bowl wouldn’t necessarily be the player with the strongest arm or the most thorough knowledge of the offense.

“It’s the guy who can make everyone around him better with his approach to everything he does,” Fickell said. “How he handles a negative play and how the guys around him react and respond.”

Fickell kept the QB decision close to the vest throughout the summer. And while Hayden Moore was the senior incumbent, having passed for 2,562 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, dynamic freshman Desmond Ridder brought an athletic element to the offense that Moore didn’t.

Moore started Saturday’s game against the Bruins, but after he was ineffective to start, Ridder stepped in after three offensive series and effectively managed the offense to lead the Bearcats to a 26-17 victory, and what was a signature win for Fickell and the Bearcats’ program that was coming off two consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1999.

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Ridder was 13 of 24 passing and rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries. But, the true star on Saturday for the Bearcats was sophomore running back Michael Warren II, who averaged 4.0 yards per carry while rushing for a career-high 141 yards on 35 attempts with three TDs, including the clinching TD on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 1:44 left. The Bearcats went 3-of-4 on fourth down conversions.

While Warren carried the load, Ridder did just what his coach expected of him, playing mostly mistake-free football after Moore completed just one of two passes for 10 yards and lost a fumble while being sacked twice.

Saturday’s game wasn’t a thing of beauty for either side, but the performance pleased Fickell, who was eager to see how his team would respond against the athletic Bruins in a hostile environment more than 2,000 miles from home.

The Bearcats came into the game a 15-point underdog, but never seemed out of their element.

On Friday, Fickell took the players to the Rose Bowl so they could get a feel for the setting. He said earlier in the week that he wasn’t as concerned about how his players would react to the atmosphere in the 80,000-plus seat facility, which was barely two-thirds full for Saturday’s game, but more so how they would handle the cross-country trip and facing an athletic Bruins team that was playing its first game under new head coach Chip Kelly.

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While Kelly lost only seven combined games during his four seasons as head coach of the Oregon Ducks, his rebuilding project with the Bruins got off to a rough start Saturday, especially after starting QB Wilton Speight, a graduate transfer from Michigan, was injured in the first half.

The game’s decisive play came with 9:45 remaining when Bearcats senior defensive tackle Cortez Broughton forced a fumble that was recovered by UCLA in the end zone for a go-ahead safety.

Not taking anything away from UC’s victory on Saturday, but it was clear that UCLA still is a work in progress under Kelly. The Bruins also played Saturday’s game shorthanded with six players suspended due to unspecified violations of athletic department rules, including running back Soso Jamabo, who was the team’s second-leading rusher last season, starting center Boss Tagaloa, and a potential starter along the defensive line in Osa Odighizuwa.

But, after consecutive 4-8 seasons and the fallout resulting from Tommy Tuberville’s unceremonious tenure in Clifton, Saturday could mark a turning point for the Bearcats under Fickell, who was part of nine Big Ten Conference titles and two national titles as a player and coach at Ohio State.

Fickell predicted earlier in the week that Saturday’s game would be won up front, and that was mostly true with the Bearcats relying on four seniors on offensive line including sixth-year player Garrett Campbell, who is on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list.

“The strength of what we want to do this year has to start up front,” Fickell said. “We pride ourselves on being an offensive and defensive line program. That’s where we are going to lay our hat, on both sides of the ball.”

UCLA moved to a 3-4 alignment this season in an effort to improve a run defense that gave up more than 287 yards on the ground last season. The Bearcats amassed 194 yards on the ground on Saturday, averaging just less than 4 yards per carry.

It was only UC’s sixth trip to California, going 1-0 against San Diego State and 1-3 against Pacific in Stockton. The Bearcats had never faced UCLA before Saturday, but at the conclusion of the game, they celebrated a significant win with a sizable contingent of fans in the corner of the iconic bowl.

“I really have high expectations on how we’ll play,” Fickell said earlier this week. “I won’t make any predictions, but I’m excited to see how we’ve grown through the offseason.”

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