Alex Frank | Sports Director
After finishing the first half of their 2018 regular-season schedule 6-0 and ranked No. 20 in the AP Poll, the Cincinnati Bearcats now face their first true test of adversity this season; bouncing back from a loss Saturday when they take on the SMU Mustangs, a game that will get underway at 3:30 p.m. on the CBS Sports Network.
The Bearcats fell to the Temple Owls 24-17 in overtime last Saturday in Philadelphia in their first game following their bye week.
“This past week was a tough one to swallow,” said head coach Luke Fickell Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “We didn’t find a way to finish the game. We didn’t find a way to finish it when we needed to. But we got to move on.”
Cincinnati fell behind 10-0 early at Temple courtesy of two turnovers deep in their own territory but managed to hold Temple scoreless for over the next 53 minutes while coming back to take a 17-10 lead.
Despite also intercepting Temple redshirt-sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo three times in the lengthy scoreless period, the Bearcats defense couldn’t make stops when the game was on the line.
Russo’s 20-yard touchdown pass to redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Branden Mack with 49 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 17, and Russo’s 25-yard scoring strike to junior wide receiver Isaiah Wright on the Owls first possession in overtime proved to be the game-winner.
“If you take out the first minute of the game and the last two minutes of the game and overtime, we played really well,” Fickell said. “There were a lot of things that were really positive. I mean both sides of the ball, you know a lot of things that we did. But the reality is you got to come out and got to play well in the first minute of the game and we didn’t play really well.
“We pride ourselves on finishing. That’s something that we kind of do throughout the entire offseason in the way we train and the things that we do; the ability to finish and play really well in the fourth quarter of every game.”
This loss felt different
The Bearcats have made tremendous strides in Fickell’s second season as head coach.
After going 4-8 last year, with seven of those losses coming by double-digits, Cincinnati has already become bowl eligible and appeared in both major poll rankings.
The Bearcats have also battled back from double-digit deficits three times this season, including a 21-point deficit against Ohio back on Sept. 22, showing that no deficit is too big to overcome.
“[We] had the ability to play well and control the football game,” Fickell said about the game at Temple. “You felt like you were in real control of what it is that you were doing. The last two minutes, two-and-a-half minutes and overtime, that’s when all of a sudden you didn’t feel like you were in command, you feel like you had the upper-hand and things like that.
“When that happens, it doesn’t mean it’s a loss, it doesn’t mean it’s over. You just got to find a way. Someone’s got to step up, someone’s got to make that big play.”
It appeared as if the Bearcats were driving to tie the game on their first overtime possession after running back Michael Warren ran for 11 yards and a first down.
An errant snap on the next play followed by a personal foul, though, pushed the Bearcats back to a 3rd-and-36 back at the 40-yard line.
It was on the third down play where quarterback Desmond Ridder, who went 14/33 with just 111 yards passing, was intercepted by linebacker Shaun Bradley that sealed the win for Temple.
“They played really tight coverage,” Fickell said. “They took away the boundary with an aggressive approach sometimes dropping out some guys. I think they did a good job of harassing our quarterback. I don’t know if there was ever an opportunity for him (Ridder) to sit back and have a nice pocket and move a little bit, be comfortable and throw the football.”
Just as a team moves on to the next play in a game if the previous one didn’t succeed; a team also moves on to the next game following a loss.
“I was honest, very upbeat,” Fickell said regarding when the players came in on Sunday. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”
That’s what the Bearcats will do Saturday against the Mustangs, who are coming off a 27-23 win at Tulane for its third victory in its last four games under first-year head coach Chad Morris.
Saturday will be the second straight road game for the Bearcats, but Fickell said sometimes you actually enjoy road games.
“There’s not as many distractions,” Fickell said. “You’re a little bit further away. Maybe you don’t have as many people come to the hotel. You get to spend a little more time as a team with not as many distractions.”
First look at SMU
After starting the season 0-3, including a 45-20 loss at Michigan, the Mustangs have won three of their past four games.
“I think they play very good complimentary football,” Fickell said. “Probably last four- or five-weeks kind of settled into who they are. You kind of see them settle a little bit more into who they are defensively, a little more who they are offensively, settle into a quarterback.
“They do a good job distributing the ball, spreading the field offensively. Defensively, they’re aggressive.”
The Mustangs also have the leading receiver in the conference in both receptions (49) and touchdowns (eight) in junior James Proche.
Junior quarterback Ben Hicks was named to the AAC Honor Roll this week after throwing for 291 yards and three touchdowns at Tulane.
Hicks has nine total touchdowns and is three yards shy of 1,000 yards on the season and was 26/37 with 295 yards and touchdowns in a 31-28 overtime victory against Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in October of last year.
Senior running back Braeden West, one of three running backs on the roster with over 1,000 career rushing yards, leads the Mustangs with 463 and five touchdowns.
After Saturday, the Bearcats will hit a difficult month of November and end to the regular season with back-to-back games against both undefeated South Florida and Central Florida and home games against Navy and ECU sandwiched around the two games against teams from the Sunshine State.
Three of the final four games, though, will be at Nippert Stadium as the Bearcats still have a shot at the American Conference’s East Division title and a subsequent berth in the conference’s championship game.
The task at hand, though, is Saturday’s game at SMU in Dallas, which will get underway at 3:30 p.m. and be televised on the CBS Sports Network.