CINCINNATI (AP) Gunner Kiel left the game unexpectedly. Munchie Legaux replaced him and kept the offense moving. A defense that grew up fast held on at the end.
The Bearcats followed that script so often during the second half of the season - all the way to a title celebration.
Kiel for a pair of touchdowns before leaving with leg cramps, and Mike Boone ran for three touchdowns as Cincinnati held on for a 38-31 victory over Houston on Saturday that that clinched a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.
Cincinnati (9-3, 7-1) finished in a three-way tie for the title. Memphis clinched part of the title last weekend, and Central Florida made it a split by beating East Carolina 32-30 on Thursday night.
The Bearcats won their last seven games to earn a share of the title for the sixth time in the last eight seasons. Their previous ones came in the Big East.
''Seven straight wins to win a conference, and knowing we had to win them all,'' coach Tommy Tuberville said. ''It's hard to win a championship in college football.''
It came down to the final play.
Greg Ward Jr. ran 40 yards for a touchdown and threw for two more in the second half, but Houston (7-5, 5-3) couldn't pull even at the end. The Cougars drove to the Cincinnati 11-yard line in the closing seconds, but Ward threw three incompletions as time ran out.
''We had a lot of close games,'' Ward said. ''My thoughts on the last drive were that I have to get the ball to our playmakers. It just didn't work out.''
It was a bright moment for a young Cincinnati defense that got shredded at the start of the season but played a leading role during the winning streak.
''The year started rough,'' linebacker Nick Temple said. ''As a defense, we didn't know what identity we had. It went up and down. We finally got it together midway through the season.
''The defense started rocking and here it is, a conference championship.''
Kiel was coming off two subpar games. He threw a pair of touchdown passes to put Cincinnati in control 21-10, including a 12-yarder to Shaq Washington with 33 seconds left in the half.
Kiel, who sat out last season after transferring from Notre Dame, has thrown 30 touchdown passes in his first season as the Bearcats starter, one shy of the school record. He missed most of one game and parts of others because of severely bruised ribs, and failed to make it through another game on Saturday.
Kiel completed his first pass on the opening drive of the second half, came to the line of scrimmage for the next play, called timeout and jogged to the locker room to get intravenous fluids for leg cramps. He didn't return to the game.
Legaux got into Cincinnati's final home game, completing a 22-yard pass that kept the drive going. Boone ran the final yard for his second touchdown of the game and a 28-10 lead. Legaux and Tuberville chest bumped as the offense left the field.
Legaux was Cincinnati starter last season until a gruesome injury to his left knee jeopardized his career. He got another season of eligibility from the NCAA and healed enough to become the backup, sharing in a lot of big moments when Kiel was sidelined.
''To go out and help our team win a conference championship, it means a lot,'' said Legaux, who was 10 of 14 for 158 yards. ''The story has been the same for me all year: You're going to get your opportunities and when you do, go out and make the most of it.''
Legaux's 34-yard completion set up Boone's third touchdown run - all out of a wildcat formation - late in the third quarter for a 35-17 lead. Boone is the first Bearcat to run for three touchdowns in a game since George Winn in 2012.
One of Cincinnati's main goals was to avoid the game-turning turnover. The Bearcats ended Houston's streak of getting at least one turnover in 34 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the nation.
Houston stayed in it with Kenneth Farrow's sixth 100-yard game of the season. He had a 58-yard run - the longest of his career - and ran for a career-high 138 overall.
Ward had one costly interception, throwing a pass that was picked off at the Cincinnati 13-yard line during the second quarter. He finished 27 of 45 for 360 yards and scrambled 11 times for 84 yards.
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