Cincinnati football coach Luke Fickell previews UC’s matchup with ECU on Saturday.
Fletcher Page, fpage@enquirer..com
GREENVILLE, North Carolina – Cincinnati football’s march toward the AAC title game took an unexpected detour Saturday.
The No. 17 Bearcats defeated East Carolina 46-43, overcoming a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit and winning with a 32-yard field goal by Sam Crosa as time expired.
“I don’t know where to start,” said Bearcats’ coach Luke Fickell. “This was not the best that we have played.”
The Pirates led 40-28 deep in the second half, fueled by quarterback Holton Ahler’s five total touchdowns and school-record 535 yards passing and receiver CJ Johnson’s AAC-record 283 yards receiving.
But the player nicknamed Sauce stepped in.
Ahmad Gardner’s 62-yard interception return for a touchdown with less than five minutes to play averted disaster to keep the Bearcats (7-1, 4-0) in prime postseason position.
“I knew it was coming,” said Gardner, who added three tackles and two pass breakups.
The freshman cornerback has shown up in major moments this season.
His pick-six against UCF last month helped the Bearcats gain control of the AAC East. His play on Saturday helped them remain in control of their fate.
Earlier this week, CBS Sports ranked the Pirates (3-6, 0-5) — losers of 11 of their past 12 AAC games dating back to last season — 116th out of 130 FBS teams and the Pirates entered Saturday as 20.5 underdogs.
None of that affected Ahlers and Johnson.
The Bearcats’ defense didn’t have answers, stunning considering UC entered having allowed more than 14 points in just three games this season.
The Pirates’ upset took form in the second quarter.
ECU outscored the Bearcats 17-0 in the period, as UC was flagged for 10 first-half penalties and Ahlers scored four total touchdowns and passed for 316 yards before halftime. That was more yards through the air than Cincinnati’s defense had allowed in a game all season.
The Pirates never slowed down and held a 40-35 lead with five minutes to play.
That’s when Gardner made his play. His score and junior running back Michael Warren’s three touchdowns and 139 yards on 17 carries was enough to avoid the upset.
Player of the game: It has to go to Gardner. The first-year player from Detroit has shown supreme confidence since he arrived at Cincinnati. He’s backed that up with two of the best plays of the season, none more critical than his touchdown Saturday night.
Stats to know: The two teams combined for 1,125 total yards and 150 yards. … East Carolina did not have a turnover until Gardner’s late interception. The Bearcats entered having racked up 14 takeaways in the previous three games. … Cincinnati was flagged 12 times for 117 yards, both season highs.
Up next: Cincinnati hosts UConn (2-7, 0-5) at Nippert Stadium on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. East Carolina plays at No. 15 SMU Saturday at noon.