CINCINNATI (AP) — The Cincinnati Bearcats surpassed their win total from the last two years combined and were in the American Athletic Conference race right to the end. By any measure, their young roster surpassed expectations.
Redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder threw a career-high four touchdown passes in the first half, and Cincinnati wrapped up the regular season with 10 victories for the first time since 2012, routing East Carolina 56-6 on Friday.
The Bearcats (10-2, 6-2 American Athletic) put an exclamation point on a resurgent season under second-year coach Luke Fickell, topping it with a display of big plays and dominating defense.
“The thing that’s so gratifying is just to see the growth,” Fickell said.
After winning a combined eight games the last two seasons, the Bearcats opened the season 6-0 and made it back into the Top 25.
“Sometimes it was one of those pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments,” senior offensive lineman Garrett Campbell said.
Ridder had touchdown passes of 10, 30 and 57 yards in the first quarter. Charles McClelland broke a career-long run of 55 yards for another score, and Kahlil Lewis caught a 28-yard touchdown pass for a 42-6 lead at halftime. Ridder got the rest of the game off after going 20 of 29 for 335 yards in the opening half.
Lewis finished with nine catches for 203 yards and a season-high three touchdowns.
The Bearcats were coming off a 38-13 loss to UCF that knocked them out of the Top 25 and ended their aspirations of an AAC title.
The Pirates (3-8, 1-7) couldn’t maintain any momentum from their 55-21 win over UConn that ended a five-game losing streak. Holton Ahlers was 8 of 22 for 184 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two fumbles. He left after twisting his right leg in the third quarter and limping off.
Ahlers practiced only once during the week because of the sore knee.
“He got in there today and he just didn’t move around the way he normally moves around and he didn’t see the field the way he normally does,” coach Scottie Montgomery said. “He just was sore throughout the first part of the game, and then I couldn’t let him get hit anymore because he was struggling to protect himself.”
Last season, the Pirates rolled to a 48-20 win over the Bearcats in Greenville behind Trevon Brown, who set a school and league record with 270 yards receiving. In the rematch, the Pirates managed only 37 total yards while falling behind 35-0 against the league’s top-ranked defense.
“We had some breakdowns — a lot of breakdowns — on offense,” Montgomery said.
The Bearcats were missing running back Michael Warren II, sidelined by an injured shoulder. Warren set a school record with 18 touchdowns this season, including 17 of them on the ground, tying the school record. He’s rushed for 1,163 yards.
Cincinnati also had to shuffle its offensive line because of injury, giving Fickell concerns heading into the game.
“It was kind of nerve-racking seeing how we’d be without Michael Warren II,” Fickell said. “He’s the catalyst for a lot of what we do offensively.”
The Pirates finish their fourth straight losing season next week at NC State. They’re 9-26 in three seasons under Montgomery.
The Bearcats await word of their first bowl appearance since 2015.