In front of a sold-out Nippert Stadium, the University of Cincinnati football team forced four turnovers and upset No. 18 University of Central Florida (UCF) 27-24 Friday evening at Nippert Stadium.
The win gives the Bearcats its first victory at Nippert against a ranked team since November 2009, when they upset No. 23 West Virginia University. UC's last win over a ranked team was December 2009 against No. 15 University of Pittsburgh.
UC’s defense played a huge part, as it held the Knights to three field goals and came up with two key interceptions from senior Cam Jefferies and junior Jarell White in the red zone. UCF made six appearances in the red zone, scoring just one touchdown on a 1-yard Greg McCrae rush. McCrae finished with 71 yards.
Jefferies’s interception got the 40,121 fans buzzing after UCF drove 76 yards down field to the UC nine-yard line late in the first quarter and intercepted UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s pass at the two-yard line. Jefferies returned it 57 yards, but the Bearcats punted a minute later.
“[The defense] did a phenomenal job,” UC head coach Luke Fickell said. “[The coaching staff] had a little different plan for these guys … The way [defensive coordinator] Marcus Freeman kept the pressure coming all night and there was times I was biting my tongue. He believed in those guys, he believed in what we were doing and kept them aggressive … There’s no greater way to seal the deal at the end against a team that is the best in the [American Athletic Conference]."
Arguably the play of the game and maybe the season so far, freshman Ahmad Gardner made the third and final interception a memorable one, taking it 16-yards to the end zone that gave UC a 20-16 lead midway through the third quarter.
“I just trusted my technique and my ball skills,” Gardner said of the interception. “I knew me jumping the pass was going to be there and not to jump another one because there were probably going to do a double move later in the game … They’re a tempo team, so basically if they’re throwing a deep ball we need to be looking to substitute and that’s exactly what we did, and we all stepped up.”
Offensively, junior running back Michael Warren II gave the offense the boost it needed in the second half after trailing 16-10 at halftime, rushing for 60 of his 133 total rushing yards on one play that set up sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder finding fellow sophomore wide receiver Alec Pierce on an 11-yard touchdown pass.
Ridder struggled with just 69 passing yards on 8-of-16 passing at the half, but finished with 149 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Ridder’s second touchdown was to sophomore Trent Cloud on a 5-yard connection – Cloud’s first touchdown of the season and first of his collegiate career.
Speaking of struggling, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel was a part of all four turnovers for the Knights. The freshman’s three interceptions are the most in a game in his young career and a fumbled hand-off led to Cloud’s touchdown. The Knights didn’t score a touchdown until 58 seconds remained until half time.
“I thought at times he handled the pressure well and other times didn’t take care of the football,” said UCF head coach Josh Heupel. “At the end of the day that’s the biggest part, not just him too. I’m proud of the way he continued to compete.”
Gabriel would find Tre Nixon on a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to put the Knights within three points after a completed two-point conversion. Gabriel finished with 297 passing yards and one touchdown.
The loss snapped UCF’s record of scoring at least 30 points in 31 straight games and Fickell alluded to the crowd playing a key role in it.
“The respect I got for [the players] and the way they continued to fight and battle, but also for our university, for our campus,” Fickell said. “[The fans] did a good job and we did a good job to make this event a memorable one. I got to give a great shout out to that crowd, to the student section for the energy they brought to us because it was an up-and-down battle.”
The Bearcats (4-1) will travel to the University of Houston next Saturday, Oct. 12. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.