Cincinnati clamps down on No. 18 UCF to strike early blow to AAC title defense

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No. 18 UCF suffered their first regular season loss in three years against Pitt a few weeks ago. Now the Knights will have to come to grips with their first conference loss since 2016 as well.

That’s the end result of Cincinnati clamping down and taking advantage of the visitors mistakes at a fired up Nippert Stadium on Friday night, notching a 27-24 win that shakes up the AAC standings in the process.

Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel looked like somebody who was full of youth and inexperience facing off against a good defense, throwing three interceptions and barely completing half of his passes for 297 yards and a score. The Knights’ offense found the end zone just once in six red zone trips and saw their signal-caller sacked three times as well on a rough night for what had been the most prolific Group of Five team in the country.

Much of the credit has to go to the Bearcats defense however, who certainly bowed up near the goal line and held UCF well below their season averages in nearly every category to snap their lengthy streak of scoring at least 30 points at 31 games.

On the offensive end of the equation, UC quarterback Desmond Ridder overcame a slow start to wind up with 149 yards and two touchdowns (one pick). He also rushed for 39 in forming quite the tandem with all-purpose star Michael Warren, who notched 133 yards rushing to go with four catches and 19 yards. He also turned in the highlight of the game when he weaved and spun his way from half a dozen defenders on a 60 yarder that set up a later score.

On top of dealing the Knights a confidence-shaker, the victory certainly gives Luke Fickell‘s squad a leg up in the AAC race. They’ll own the tie-breaker over UCF in the East Division and avoid a ranked SMU squad down the road as well. They may very well find themselves ranked on Sunday as well given that their only loss was at Fickell’s alma mater of Ohio State, which has been playing as well as anybody in the country right now.

The flip side is that Josh Heupel will have to get his guys to regroup once they arrive back in Orlando. The Knights have dominated AAC play (19 straight wins coming in) over this historic run they’ve been in the past few years but suddenly need a little help to even have a shot at another league title. It’s safe to say the New Year’s Six bowl talk is probably done too as Cincinnati fans will celebrate plenty after their blackout at Nippert turned into a huge win for the Bearcats.