LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- Is this the start of something big for UC football and second-year coach Luke Fickell?
After the underdog Bearcats pulled off a shocking 26-17 victory over UCLA in the hallowed Rose Bowl in their season opener Saturday night, Fickell, his players and UC fans might have been too excited to sleep.
“We don’t want to look too far ... (but) we’re going to enjoy this,” said Fickell, whose Bearcats were 4-8 last year in his first season at UC. “Winning college football games is not easy. We went through a lot of (losses) last year. There’s something we’re going to have to handle that’s a little bit different now, and that’s praise.”
"We had to prove it to ourselves first." @CoachFick speaks with the media following tonight's game.
— Cincinnati Football (@GoBearcatsFB) September 2, 2018
“It was a great team win," said junior linebacker Bryan Wright, who made the play of the game on defense late in the fourth quarter. "I feel like it’s going to bring us together.”
UC sophomore running back Michael Warren II scored three touchdowns on 1-yard runs - the last with 1:44 left to clinch the victory. Warren II rushed for 141 yards on 35 carries.
The Bearcats' upset spoiled former NFL and Oregon coach Chip Kelly’s debut with the Bruins and gave Fickell his biggest win.
For national impact, beating the Pac-12 Bruins in the Rose Bowl is perhaps UC's biggest win since Brian Kelly's Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl years (2008-2009), even considering UCLA is coming off a 6-7 season. In any case, it could be an enormous boost to Fickell’s rebuilding efforts.
Key play in the game: The Bearcats forced a UCLA safety in the fourth quarter that broke a 17-17 tie and set up a short field for their final game-clinching touchdown.
The safety followed James Smith's 52-yard punt that buried UCLA on its 12-yard line. Wright stripped UCLA freshman quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and forced Caleb Wilson to fall on the ball in the end zone with 9:45 to play.
After that, the Bearcats stopped the Bruins on downs at the UCLA 36. Kelly went for it on fourth-and-1 but a pass went incomplete.
Key Fickell decision in the game: Shortly after the Bearcats took over, they stalled at the UCLA 12. But instead of kicking a field goal on fourth-and-2 for a five-point lead, Fickell went for it. His call went better than Kelly's. UC made the first down.
UC then got its only offensive points of the second half with 1:44 to play on Warren’s third 1-yard TD run. That made it a two-score lead.
Fickell said it should be no surprise that UC would be aggressive on offense or that Warren and the running game would carry the load. UC returned four senior starters on the offensive line and it showed.
“I don't think we did a good job of it last year, and we said from the get-go we're going to be aggressive,” Fickell said. “These guys have to understand we're going to put it on them, especially if it's the offensive line and Mike Warren.”
HOW’S THAT FOR A SEASON OPENER!
— Cincinnati Bearcats (@GoBEARCATS) September 2, 2018
Warren and freshman QB Desmond Ridder made a nice one-two punch on offense.
Ridder, who replaced starter Hayden Moore in UC's third offensive series, rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries and passed for 100 yards, completing 13 of 24.
Warren also caught three passes for 29 yards.
UC's Cole Smith kicked a 24-yard field goal in the second quarter.
A James Wiggins interception set up UC's second TD.
UCLA ran out to a 10-0 lead, but the Bearcats scored 17 unanswered points.
UCLA tied the game 17-17 in the third quarter on a 74-yard run by Kazmier Allen.
The UC defense limited UCLA to 306 yards in the first game of Kelly’s ballyhooed return to collegiate coaching after a six-year absence.
Kelly twice coached Oregon to the national championship game, losing to Ohio State and Auburn, before taking over the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers in a failed NFL career.
Before Fickell took over the UC program last year, he had one year of head-coaching experience at Ohio State. Fickell, an assistant at OSU since 2002, was named interim head coach in 2011 after Jim Tressel was booted out in a scandal. The Buckeyes went 6-6 under Fickell, then Urban Meyer took over the following season and kept Fickell on his staff.
UC plays archrival Miami at Paul Brown Stadium next Saturday.