Alex Frank | Sports Director Gabby Wilmink | Staff Photographer
When the 2018 Cincinnati Bearcats football schedule was released, the four games in the upcoming month of November stood out to me.
The two games against schools from the Sunshine State, South Florida and Central Florida, were both immediately circled on my calendar, but I also knew the importance of the Bearcats not overlooking this Saturday’s game against the Navy Midshipmen (3:30 p.m. on ESPNU).
Cincinnati’s second year under head coach Luke Fickell has seen them already improve by three wins, from four to seven, and there’s still four games remaining in the regular season.
The Bearcats are also just a game behind the first place Temple Owls in the East Division of the American Athletic Conference, and their three conference wins equal their combined total of the previous two seasons.
What a difference a year makes
Last year, the Bearcats lost a 31-28 overtime heartbreaker to the SMU Mustangs on Homecoming Weekend at Nippert Stadium.
Cincinnati pinned SMU to a 4th-and-26 on its first overtime possession, but a 28-yard completion to wide receiver Trey Quinn kept the drive alive that eventually led to a go-ahead field goal.
Cincinnati’s overtime possession lasted only two plays with the game ending on a fumble.
When this year’s matchup between the two teams also went to overtime, Fickell only thought about last year’s ending when a Bearcats sack forced SMU into a 2nd-and-20, similar to the long fourth down SMU was able to get out of in last year’s overtime game.
“What happened last year has no bearing on the game,” Fickell said. “You don’t have time to think about things like that. Let’s find a way to make sure we can finish this thing.”
This year, the Bearcats elected to play defense in the first overtime period and the move paid off in an emphatic way.
Sophomore safety James Wiggins, who already sealed a win against the Ohio Bobcats earlier this season, undercut a pass over the middle to intercept Mustangs junior quarterback Ben Hicks and return it 86 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“We wanted to knuckle up and win this game,” Wiggins said after the game. “Fortunately, I was the one that was able to win the game, but it’s all a brotherhood. Nobody kept their heads down. It just felt great to come back and win.”
Cincinnati was down 20-17 with less than two minutes to play and without a timeout, but redshirt-freshman quarterback Desmond Ridder shook off his two previous interceptions and led the offense on a 10-play, 56-yard drive that culminated in a game-tying 41-yard field goal from freshman kicker Cole Smith.
Ridder’s poise on the drive was part of a performance that saw him throw for a career-high 352 yards, a highlight in his development in his first season as the Bearcats starting quarterback as defenses are now starting to adjust and make things difficult for him.
Fickell attests Ridder’s growth to not just the Louisville, Kentucky native but also to the coaching staff.
“It’s a part of growing up,” Fickell said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “That’s a part of, even as a staff, not just for Des. The ability for Des to react, the ability for Des to grow, the ability for Des to make some adjustments in a game have a lot to do with the whole entire staff.
“It’s a group of guys that don’t know each other as well. It’s only been a year-and-a-half. We’re a lot better than we were last year whether it’s offense, defense, to have the ability to make adjustments and communicate, and I think that’s where you’re seeing a lot of growth.”
What a difference a year HOPES to make
Another game that didn’t go the Bearcats way last year was a 42-32 loss at Navy last year, a game where Cincinnati gave up a program-record 569 rushing yards.
“You got the same type of offense, you got the same coach (Ken Niumatalolo), a lot of the same things,” Fickell said. “Still, you got to study history in order to not repeat it. What they did last year, it doesn’t have any bearing on this year.”
Navy is amid their first five-game losing streak since 2011 but still ranks third in the nation with 307.3 rushing yards per game.
One thing that has changed, though, is the Bearcats defense, which leads the American Athletic Conference in rushing defense and ranks No. 11 in the nation.
Their improved defense will now look to slow down Navy’s triple-option offense Saturday at Nippert Stadium, having spent time preparing for it since the offseason.
“The main thing for us is to try and to simulate it the best we can, the speed and the tempo,” Fickell said. “Navy can override some of the momentum of things because of the type of kids they have, the maturity they have.
“I don’t care if they won their last four games or lost their last four games, you’re gonna get the best effort they have. I don’t think you can worry about the record, with the kind of kids they have and the kind of program they have.”
Speaking of Nippert Stadium, the Bearcats are returning for their first home game in four weeks.
“We’re excited,” Fickell said. “Not just to get another shot at Navy after what happened last year but also to be back at home. That’s where, you know, try to get the student section, the Ruckus back behind us in the confines of Nippert Stadium. We’re excited to be back in a great atmosphere, especially one that’s been supportive behind us.”
Saturday’s game will be the first of three at Nippert Stadium in the final month of the regular season, a month that also includes games against South Florida, undefeated Central Florida and East Carolina.
“Especially being back at home, [these games] are all important,” Fickell said. “Momentum is the key to football, especially college football with 18-to-22-year-olds. I think there’s probably a few teams in the country that maybe can override the momentum and things and I think Navy is one of them.”
Saturday’s game against Navy will get underway at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU.