CINCINNATI – Ever seen a run that makes three men fall down?
Ever seen a player juke a defense so deftly that the opposing secondary crashes into each other like a pair of hapless Stormtroopers?
Ever watched a season that once sizzled with promise freeze up in the mid-50s October chill?
For No. 18 UCF, it all came tumbling down on Friday night, as the Knights fell in every way to Cincinnati, 27-24. The gaudy ranking, precocious freshman quarterback and role as the endearing antagonist to the establishment all got left in the wake. And it all came thanks to a run play by Cincinnati’s Michael Warren II so devastating that it may require an autopsy.
The Knights’ fall began on the final play of the third quarter. Warren, a dazzling junior tailback, took a simple run up the middle of the field and turned it into perhaps the season’s single-best individual play. He burst 60 yards through the UCF defense and simultaneously punctured its hopes of repeating as AAC champions for the third straight year.
“That’s what he is, he’s the energy,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell told Yahoo Sports after the game. “Mike Warren is the energy to that bus, when he does something like that you can’t imagine what it does for our sideline.”
First, Warren completely juked UCF defensive back Richie Grant out of his jock, stopping him cold with a cut back, spinning him like a top and leaving him flailing on the ground like a gored matador. (No small feat, as Grant is considered the AAC’s best defensive back and was a preseason All-American.)
From there, Warren sprinted about 30 yards deep into UCF territory and tapped the brakes just before two Knight defenders collided with him. That led to defensive backs Aaron Robinson and Antwan Collier crashing into each other, as if they were auditioning to become Keystone Cops. Both UCF defensive backs toppled to the ground after the collision, and the autopsy will reveal a play that delivered equal parts dominance and embarrassment.
“He can’t outrun them, that’s why [he had to stop],” Fickell said with a laugh. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Warren’s run put him over 2,000 yards for his decorated career and this will remain one of the defining highlights as a Bearcat. Cincinnati finished that drive on the next play, when Desmond Ridder found Alec Pierce for an 11-yard touchdown that boosted Cincinnati’s lead to two scores.
Cincinnati (4-1) should surge into the national rankings after this win, as the Bearcats have authored dominant wins over UCLA, at Marshall and now UCF at home. They will be singed by their 42-0 loss to Ohio State, but that game makes more sense now that the Buckeyes have shown themselves to be one of the best teams in the country.
Warren finished with 133 yards rushing, but Cincinnati won this game with an opportunistic defense that flustered UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel. UCF turned the ball over four times, which led to Cincinnati’s first two touchdowns. UCF failed to score a touchdown on its first four trips into the red zone, as Gabriel again looked like a jittery freshman when presented with a big stage. Gabriel finished 25-for-46 passing with three interceptions and one late touchdown pass.
Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell comes from a defensive background, and his coordinator, Marcus Freeman, played linebacker for him at Ohio State. They decided in the preseason that UCF’s offense is unique enough that they need to practice against it throughout camp, much like they do with triple-option teams like Navy.
While Cincinnati coaches didn’t specify it was UCF they were prepping for — just a wide-split offense in general — they knew they needed adjustments after giving up an average of more than 44 points a game against the Knights the past two seasons.
Fickell pinpointed a few keys to the victory from Freeman’s gameplan, which included playing up to 27 different guys on defense, a bevy of three-down fronts to cover space and aggressive press coverage, as indicated by two holding calls on the first drive. Highlighting the defensive effort was a 16-yard interception return for a TD by Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.
Fickell credited Freeman with building trust to have star linemen like Michael Pitts and Ethan Tucky limit their snaps to allow the greater defense to thrive. “[Marcus] gets them to believe and buy in and be unselfish,” Fickell said. “That takes a lot of trust and respect.”
That clearly paid off, as the Bearcats held UCF to under 30 points for the first time in 31 games. That snaps the longest streak in the AP poll era, as the Bearcats bent much of the night but kept finding ways to force turnovers.
Cincinnati needed one final act of blunt force to end the game and send the student body rushing onto the field. Fickell made a gusty call on fourth-and-1 near midfield with just over one minute remaining. He could have punted to the Knights, who had no timeouts. But instead they called a quarterback sneak for Desmond Ridder, who had seemingly a battalion in the backfield to shove him – Bush Push style – to the first down.
“There was never a doubt,” Fickell said about the fourth-down decision. He added: “The only way you’re going to knock off the best is by being aggressive.”
After two seasons of being in the thicket of the national conversation, the loss sends UCF (4-2) off into the college football’s conversational wilderness. The loss snaps a 19-game AAC win streak and also hurts double for the Knights, as both Cincinnati and UCF are in the AAC East, which gives Cincinnati the advantage in any tiebreaker situation.
The Knights’ spark came too late, when they executed a four-play, 93-yard drive in 50 seconds to make it a three-point game with 4:01 remaining. But much like Warren embarrassed the Knights earlier in the game, he ground out enough yards to allow Ridder to close the game on that quarterback-sneak convoy.
Serenaded by dismissive chants all night – “Overrated! Overrated! Overrated!” – UCF left the field avoiding the onrushing Cincinnati fans. They rushed back to Orlando, where the autopsy will arrive later this week, as UCF will yield its role as antagonist and descend into the basement of the football consciousness.
The cause of their demise will be identified as a Michael Warren II run.
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