GREENVILLE, N.C. – Desmond Ridder threw two touchdown passes and No. 4 Cincinnati, aiming to maintain its position among the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings, completed a perfect regular season by beating East Carolina 35-13 on Friday.
The Bearcats (12-0, 8-0 American Athletic Conference, CFP No. 4) are trying to become the first team outside of a Power Five conference to compete in the four-team CFP. They’ll face Houston at home next week in the AAC title game.
“Put yourselves in position to play for championships, a lot of other things can happen,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.
Defense and special teams helped put the game away for Cincinnati. Arquon Bush blocked a field goal and Ahmad Gardner returned the ball 60 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown to make it 28-6.
“We always get the job done,” Bush said.
Less than four minutes later, Darrian Beavers intercepted a pass at the 7:27 mark, but the ensuing possession resulted in Cincinnati’s second turnover inside the East Carolina 5.
East Carolina (7-5, 5-3) had a four-game winning streak snapped.
“You see why they’re in contention for a national championship,” East Carolina coach Mike Houston said. “I thought our kids played really, really hard. I thought they did many things well. . For our young players, it’s a great learning experience.”
Ridder finished 17-for-28 for 301 yards with two interceptions. Alec Pierce caught eight passes for 136 yards. Jerome Ford rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown.
In a matter of four Cincinnati snaps early in the second quarter, the Bearcats went from down 3-0 to up 14-3.
Ridder connected with Leonard Taylor on a 44-yard touchdown play. Cincinnati got the ball back and went 58-yards in three plays, with Ridder’s 53-yard throw to Pierce setting up Ford for a 2-yard scoring run.
Then Cincinnati drove 88 yards on seven plays with Pierce snagging a 28-yard touchdown catch.
The Bearcats failed to convert on the first scoring chance set up by special teams.
Ryan Royer partially blocked an East Carolina punt to give the Bearcats their first possession at the Pirates’ 31. That chance fizzled with back-to-back sacks and Alex Bales’ wide-right kick on a 45-yard field goal attempt.
After Owen Daffer’s 35-yard field goal for the Pirates, the Bearcats reached the East Carolina 29 on their next possession before Ridder’s incomplete pass on fourth-and-9.
After building a 21-3 lead, Cincinnati botched another chance on Ford’s fumble at the East Carolina 3 on its final drive of the first half.
East Carolina closed within 21-6 and then drove to the Cincinnati 5 early in the fourth quarter. But after a penalty, the Pirates were ready to settle for Daffer’s third field goal before Bush disrupted those plans in what seemed like a game-clinching sequence with 11:07 remaining.
The All-America cornerback Gardner grabbed the bouncing ball and was way out in front of the pack for a score.
East Carolina’s winning streak marked its longest string of success in AAC play in its eight seasons as a league member.
Cincinnati also went 12-0 in the 2009 regular season.
The Pirates, facing their highest-ranked team since a 27-10 home loss in 2006 to then-No. 4 West Virginia, were held to 282 yards of total offense.
Holton Ahlers was 19-for-38 for 228 yards, an interception and a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jsi Hatfield.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats wasted numerous scoring chances and that could have haunted them if not for a stellar defensive performance. They gave up only one touchdown and held East Carolina to 54 rushing yards – almost 120 below the Pirates’ season average.
East Carolina: The Pirates, who’ll finish in a third-place tie in the AAC with Central Florida and Saturday’s Tulsa-Southern Methodist winner, were aiming for a rare victory against a Top 25 team. With this result, the Pirates are 13-63-1 vs. Top 25 foes. East Carolina outscored its four AAC visitors in the first quarter by a combined 27-0 this year, but its 77 yards of total offense in the first half Saturday put it in a bind.
TAKE THAT, COACH
In the second quarter, Ridder passed Bearcats quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli (11,930 yards) as the all-time leader in program history in total yards. Ridder is also the AAC career leader in total yards.
Meanwhile, Ford eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season. He’s at 1,056 yards.
Cincinnati wasn’t threatened much in this game, but the bar might be high for the Bearcats. It’s hard to see them climbing at after this result, though the performance should be enough to hold steady.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats did not play Houston in the regular season.
East Carolina: Awaits a bowl invitation for its first postseason game since 2014.