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Final Huddle: Statement Made on Senior Night

Cincinnati moved to 11-0 for the second time in program history with their 48-14 victory over SMU.

CINCINNATI — The Bearcats sought after a four-quarter performance over the past month on the gridiron. They tapped into that via a 48-14 demolition of SMU on senior night.

"We've been trying to play that complete game, and I think tonight, in all three phases of the game, we played a complete game," Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said in his postgame press conference. "From the guys up front, they tried to make it a physical game, and on both sides of the ball, they did a hell of a job and just made sure their presence was felt."

The victory pushed them to 11-0 for the second time in program history and secured their spot in the 2021 American Athletic Conference Championship Game in two weeks. The senior class will get one more show in front of the Nippert fans if they beat East Carolina on the road next week.

Desmond Ridder did it all, the defense put up its best performance all season, and there were still some issues on special teams. Let's dive into the Final Huddle from senior night.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, No, It's Desmond Ridder

No one should be surprised that Desmond Ridder may have posted his most complete UC performance in what could be his last home outing. The quarterback did everything an offensive skill player can do on Saturday.

Ridder threw for 274 yards, and three touchdowns on 17 of 23 passing. While adding 46 rushing yards and a score with his legs. He finished with a 99.8 in ESPN's QBR metric, his best career mark against an FBS school. He also caught a touchdown on the "Chili Special" as radio color commentator Jim Kelly aptly named it.

The early-third quarter touchdown catch made Ridder the only UC player to throw, run, and catch a touchdown in one game since at least 2000.

"We've had that play for 4-5 years now, and I let coaches know that my hands are 'certified' every time we bring that up," Ridder said after the game. "I couldn't have asked for it better to be on senior night from another senior in Jordan Jones, and I'm glad they called it. For it to get called and for us to execute it the way we did, it was huge."

Ridder flashed all of the tools that elevated him into one of the better draft prospects in the country. He made sound reads in the running game, missed maybe three throws all day, and kept the offense balanced. The performance made life easier on a defense that played lights out.

Blackcats Ball Out

SMU came into the game ranked sixth nationally in total offense (498.7 YPG) and sixth in scoring (41.6 PPG). They had no answer for any level of the Bearcats defense. Tanner Mordecai looked like he saw ghosts all afternoon, finishing with 66 yards on 15-of-26 passing and no touchdowns.

The interior pass rush got to the junior quickly—then he had nowhere to turn in a pinch. SMU's high-powered attack hadn't been contained like this in 2021. Mordecai had career lows across the board when looking at games where he's attempted 10-plus passes. He had been held below 300 passing yards just twice this season and was sacked the second-most times in a 2021 game.

Mordecai came into the game tearing up man coverage, but he hadn't faced an outside tandem with the experience and ability that Coby Bryant and Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner bring to games.

Cincinnati forced eight three-and-outs in the game, posted three sacks, and notched seven tackles for loss. Senior defensive lineman Curtis Brooks played as if he may never perform at Nippert again. Brooks tallied a career-high two sacks, tying the mark he set against UConn in Nov. 2019.

“I do think so," Fickell said when asked if this was the defense's best performance in 2021. "For a team that was coming in rolling, they had thrown the ball well; they had run the ball well. That was the balance that they had taken the next step as an offense. You know, based on the end of the game last week, they accepted the challenge. I was as proud of anything about how they came out in the second half because we had some pretty good starts but fell off at times. Those guys didn’t. They knew what it was about and knew where they wanted to go.”

The first-string defense held SMU to zero first-half points for the first time this season and probably could've pitched a shutout if all of the top players stayed in the game.

Boot The Kicking Game

Cincinnati is an elite team just about everywhere besides their special teams unit. Field goals were a problem once again for Cincinnati—luckily—it never mattered thanks to Ridder and the defense.

Alex Bales went 0-for-2 on field-goal attempts, with a 38-yard miss and another one blocked from 34-yards. He also hit six of his seven extra-point kicks. The sophomore is the latest player on this year's merry-go-round of kickers. Bales' first UC appearance came a month ago against Navy.

Cincinnati has used four kickers overall this season, and none of them seem to have the magic touch. The kicking game is about as bad as it gets this. They ranked 74th in ESPN's SP+ special teams metric following week 12 (-0.5) and are sure to drop further after this week.

The Bearcats are a putrid 46.7% overall on field-goal tries. That ranks 128th nationally ahead of just Northwestern and Rice. It may be time to scrap the practice altogether and get more aggressive on fourth downs. The kicking game is the only glaring problem for the Bearcats heading into their final regular-season game.

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