ORLANDO, Fla. — No. 7 Cincinnati found itself in a four-quarter struggle for the first time all season and Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats showed they can take a punch.
Ridder threw two touchdown passes and ran for two scores as Cincinnati defeated Central Florida 36-33 Saturday to head into the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings unbeaten.
The Bearcats (8-0, 6-0 American) fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter against their toughest opponent yet, but grabbed the lead by halftime.
“What a hard, hard-fought game,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “That is a really good football team, that on senior night gave us everything we could handle.”
Dillon Gabriel threw for 243 yards, three touchdowns and one interception as the Knights (5-3, 4-3) lost at home for the second time this season.
UCF took a 25-22 lead in the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Gabriel to Marlon Williams.
“Burn this one, quick turnaround,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “We’ve got a trophy game (Friday against USF), our guys will be ready to play.”
The interception Gabriel threw was costly for UCF.
Bearcats safety Darrick Forest picked off Gabriel’s pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 20 yards to the Knights’ 16. Four plays later, a 1-yard sneak by Ridder gave UC a 29-25 lead with 13:07 remaining.
Rider passed for 338 yards and ran for 57.
“He’s just a baller, he shows up ready to go every game,” Taylor said of Ridder. “He’s a winner. He’s a competitor and when we go out there we’re behind him.”
Cincinnati used 10 plays to go 71 yards on its next possession to go up two scores. The Bearcats converted a fourth-and-1 at the UCF 26 and three plays later Ridder threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Taylor for a 36-25 lead with 7:15 remaining.
“I thought our kids responded and continued to compete and handled the ups and downs of the football game,” Heupel said. “We’re not far off from being a really good football team.”
The Bearcats ran down all but one second of the clock, trying not score down near the goal line. Cincinnati was cutting it close and then an errant snap on fourth down gave everyone a jolt, but was recovered by Ridder. The Knights got one play from their 8 that went nowhere.
The first CFP rankings come out Tuesday night and the Bearcats are hoping to become the first team from outside the Power Five conferences to crack the top-10 in the selection committee’s first top 25 of the season.
“We want to have an opportunity to win a championship,” Fickell said. “Every win gives us an opportunity to state our case.”
Cincinnati: The Bearcats are 8-0 for the first time since 2009, when they finished the regular season 12-0 and went to the Sugar Bowl.
UCF: The Knights have lost more conference games this season than the past three combined but they have come by a combined 12 points. UCF has led by double-digits in each of its loses.
CALLING HIS SHOT
Before Forrest’s interception, he went around telling teammates that he thought it might happen.
“Right at the switch of the fourth quarter I kept telling everybody ‘I might get an interception’ and then I got the interception,” Forrest said.” Everyone was riled up when it happened. It was a huge moment, we went down and scored right after that so it was a momentum changer.”
NO TIME FOR TV
Fickell isn’t sure if he is going to watch the CFP rankings show on Tuesday and joked that he might schedule a practice at that time to keep the team focused.
“Probably won’t be something I bring up to them,” Fickell said. “I know we’re still in the hunt to win a championship. If they don’t like (the ranking), they can carry that chip and do something about it.”
Cincinnati is 8-0 for the fourth time in school history. … After averaging 417.7 yards passing in his first six games, Gabriel has thrown for under 300 yards in consecutive games. … UCF came into the game leading the country in yards per game at 619 but managed just 359 against the Bearcats, who held the ball for 37 minutes.
Cincinnati is at Temple next Saturday.
UCF will close out its regular season at USF on Friday.