University of Cincinnati (UC) football has won the American Athletic Conference for the first time in the program's history, with a 27-24 win over the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes on Saturday night.
This guarantees the Bearcats a position for a New Year's Six Bowl game. When early January arrives, it will be Cincinnati's first time participating in a major bowl game since 2009, when they went to the Sugar Bowl.
"This team won't be denied," said head coach Luke Fickell post-game. "I don't know how you can look at this team any other way. Every challenge we've had, these guys have stepped up. I know everybody else has a decision on what they deserve, but the reality is we've met every challenge."
Junior wide receiver Alec Pierce enjoyed an elite performance on the big stage, racking up a career game-high of 146 yards on the day (five receptions), 126 of which came in the first half alone.
All 17 of the Bearcats' first-half points can be largely attributed to Pierce's efforts. Among his highlights was a one-handed grab on the sideline early in the game for 31 yards, paving the way for a 42-yard rushing score by redshirt freshman Jerome Ford. Pierce went on to jump up for another long ball, this one for 45 yards, that set up a field goal.
Pierce later caught a touchdown for himself in the second quarter via a 36-yard reception in which he sped past his defender on a go-route – reclaiming a Bearcat lead that was nullified by a quick 10 points from Tulsa following a field goal and fumble by UC quarterback Desmond Ridder.
"He's been a big part of this team ever since he arrived on campus," said Ridder, referring to Pierce. "For him to come back [from injury] and have the end to the season he did, we can always count on big-time players to make big-time plays, and that's what he did."
Pierce was quiet for much of the second half but showed up when it mattered most, catching a 20-yard pass on third down to move the chains in Cincinnati's final drive of the game. Ridder marched the offense the rest of the way, setting up Cole Smith for a game-winning 34-yard field goal as time expired.
The Cincinnati defense, who's come to be known by their alias "Blackcats," made some big plays of their own. An interception early by Jarell White not only led to a touchdown but also marked the 19th consecutive game in which Marcus Freeman's unit has forced a takeaway – the longest active streak in the FBS.
Defensive end Myjai Sanders made his mark on the game, coming up with two sacks. One of which forced a crucial fourth down midway through the fourth quarter.
UC will play at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and face the University of Georgia Bulldogs in their home state at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. They will play at noon on Jan. 1, opening up the new year.