No. 4 Cincinnati survives challenge from ECU

The Pirates took a lead into the second quarter but fell to the CFP-minded Bearcats

East Carolina's Jsi Hatfield (88) gets taken down by Cincinnati's Ahmad Gardner (1) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Greenville, N.C., Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

For one quarter, East Carolina appeared to be ready to render all the debate over Cincinnati moot.

The Bearcats entered the game at 11-0 on the season and occupied spot No. 4 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, spurring debate over whether the AAC power would — and should — earn a playoff bid with an unbeaten season.

Fifteen minutes into the Bearcats’ Black Friday trip to Greenville, however, Cincinnati found itself struggling to move the ball and trailing ECU.

Cincinnati’s explosive offense had produced just 52 yards in the first quarter on two empty drives, one ending in a missed field goal attempt and the other a turnover on downs. ECU had sacked Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder twice and produced a field goal on its opening drive to take a 3-0 lead and allow the Power Five bubble teams to breathe a sigh of relief.

The Bearcats recovered, however, and scored three straight touchdowns in the second quarter en route to a 35-13 win over the Pirates.

“You can see why Cincinnati is in contention for a national championship,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “I thought our kids played really, really hard. We just made too many critical mistakes against a team like that.”

While the score should allow Cincinnati to keep its CFP Selection Committee support, the game was no cakewalk for the Bearcats. ECU intercepted Ridder twice, the first time in 19 games he’s thrown multiple picks. The Pirates again shut down the Bearcats for the third quarter, holding Cincinnati to 32 yards of offense on a turnover and two punts.

The Bearcats got a bit more breathing room early in the fourth quarter when an ECU field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown.

Houston blamed miscommunication on the field goal unit, saying, “We snapped it too early. Nobody was set. We can’t do that.”

The win completed a perfect 12-0 regular season for Cincinnati and tied the Bearcats for the AAC regular season title at 8-0. Cincinnati will host co-leader Houston in the conference title game next week.

East Carolina completes its regular season at 7-5, 5-3 in the conference and awaits its bowl assignment. It will be the first bowl and first winning record for the Pirates since 2014.