CINCINNATI — The University of Cincinnati Bearcats triumphed over Tulsa Saturday night in a tight game that saw both teams exchanging touchdowns until the Bearcats clinched a final-minute field goal for the win.
The game was the first time fans have been able to enter Nippert Stadium since the pandemic began. Roughly 5,831 fans were able to enter the stadium to watch the Bearcats host and win the AAC Championship game.
"All I've wanted to do this whole year is come to Nippert Stadium and watch the Bearcats, and I finally get to do it and it's the championship game," said Mike Brown, a UC alumnus and parent of a UC student.
Fans had to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, and the stadium was capped at 18% capacity, but fans were still as excited as ever entering the stadium for the first time all year.
"It's exciting," said Caleb Fledderjohann. "Especially with everything that's going on right now, I think this is something that's fresh and exciting and brings people together. It's fun. It's great for the university, great for the city, great for the football program."
The Bearcats were able to snag an early lead with a 42-yard carry from RB Jerome Ford in the first 10 minutes of the game. Back-to-back scoring shortly later from Tulsa saw first a successful field goal from 43 yards, followed by a touchdown not too long after to tie the game quickly.
By halftime, the Bearcats scored again, bringing the overall halftime score to 17-10.
It didn't take long into the third quarter for Tulsa to make an eight-yard rush to re-tie things up, but Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder took the lead back moments later and headed into the fourth quarter with the lead.
In the fourth quarter, Tulsa tied it with 3:41 remaining on Zach Smith’s 13-yard touchdown pass to JuanCarlos Santana. But the Golden Hurricane defense jumped offside on a hard count on fourth-and-2, giving the Bearcats a first down at the 19 to set up Smith’s kick.
After Jarrell White’s interception ended a promising drive for Tulsa, the Bearcats went ahead 7-0 on Ford’s 42-yard touchdown run. Pierce had a pair of acrobatic catches in the first quarter. He had a one-armed catch to help set up the first touchdown. His 45-yard grab led to a field goal.
Jaxon Player’s recovery of Ridder’s fumble at the Bearcats 28 set up Corey Taylor’s 10-yard TD run that tied it at 10.
Tulsa struggled to cover Pierce. He had 126 receiving yards in the first half, including a 36-yard TD catch to help Cincinnati take a 17-10 lead into halftime.
Deneric Prince’s 8-yard TD run capped a 55-yard drive on Tulsa’s opening possession of the third quarter, tying it at 17. Ridder scored on a 10-yard run to put the Bearcats back ahead.
In last year’s AAC championship game, Cincinnati led Memphis by one point with four minutes remaining, but lost 29-24.
The Golden Hurricane have had 16 come-from-behind wins since Philip Montgomery took over as head coach in 2015. They nearly pulled off another.
Cincinnati hadn’t played since Nov. 21 due to COVID-19 issues, and the rust showed with 12 penalties and two lost fumbles.
In a nail-biting ending, the Bearcats managed to shake off the rust and push their way back, snagging a game-ending field goal in the final minute and winning the AAC Championship 27-24.
Tulsa (6-2, No. 23 CFP) reached the conference championship game following three straight losing seasons. It was the Golden Hurricane’s first appearance in the AAC title game.
Tulsa and Cincinnati were scheduled to play on four previous occasions during the regular season, but the game was postponed three times before being canceled altogether last week. Twice the game was moved due to COVID-19 concerns within the Bearcats program.