CINCINNATI (AP) – As a reward for his interception, freshman Ahmad Gardner was invited to speak to his teammates in the locker room when the Cincinnati Bearcats celebrated a breakthrough.
Nothing shy about this newbie, on the field or in front of the team.
“We approached him to say a few words and we had to cut him off,” said coach Luke Fickell.
There was a lot to talk about after the Bearcats finally beat the team that dominated them and took control of the American Athletic race with a fairly defensive performance.
Gardner returned an interception for a starting touchdown and Cincinnati beat freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel and UCF’s # 18 high scoring offensive on Friday night to a 27:24 win that featured the Knights streak Finished 19 conference victories.
After losing their last two games to the two-time defending American Athletic Champion (4-1, 1-0), the Bearcats gave themselves an early lead in the race by finding a way to finally do it with UCF (4-1) Keeping pace 2, 1-1). They turned cornerbacks and safeguards to keep them fresh against UCF’s quick offenses.
This approach made all the difference in front of a crowd storming the field. The Bearcats had lost their last 13 straight games against ranked teams since 2009.
“The biggest win for this school in a long time,” said Josiah Deguara.
In addition to Gardner’s 16-yard interception return, the Bearcats picked up Gabriel’s passports at Cincinnati 2 and 6 when they took control and ruled them out to take advantage of his inexperience.
“He’s a newbie,” said Gardner. “We wanted to try to get into his head. That was the adjustment. It worked.”
UCF’s Tre Nixon turned a short pass into a 45-yard touchdown that cut it 3:11 to 27-24, but the Bearcats ran out of time and turned a quarter-finals in midfield in the final seconds.
“I think there is no better way to seal the deal against a team that is the best in the league, that has been the best in the last two years,” said Fickell, who did not hesitate to name the quarterback Sneak . “The only way to take out the best is to keep being aggressive. The only way to beat the best is to take that risk.”
It was a draining feat for the Knights who had snapped up several cherished streaks.
Gabriel led the AAC in passing efficiency but finished 25 of 46 for 297 yards with three crucial interceptions against a pressing defense that dared to throw deep. The true newbie also botched a handover at UCF 19 that set up Desmond Ridders’ first two touchdown passes and got the crowd to say “Overrated!”
“Three turnovers are unacceptable,” said Gabriel. “I didn’t do my part.”
The Knights had scored at least 30 points in each of their last 31 games, the longest such FBS series since 1936. The four turnovers made the difference.
“I thought Dillon responded at times to the pressure but he didn’t care about the football,” said coach Josh Heupel. “No matter how old you are, you have to take care of football.”
Ridder was 17 of 31 for 149 yards. He also threw an interception that set up Greg McCrae’s 1-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds in the half, which put UCF in the lead 16-10.
Gardner changed the game by stepping in front of a side pass and returning an intercept 16 yards untouched in the third quarter, and Gabriel failed to rally the Knights.
“I knew he was going to throw it,” said Gardner, who is also a freshman. “I knew I was going to jump it and it would be there.”
Michael Warren II had a 61-yard run that set up Ridder’s second touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter for a 27-16 lead.
UCF: The Knights’ lack of quarterback experience cost them long streak of conference wins and 30-point games.
Cincinnati: After giving up 51 and 38 points in their last two losses to UCF, the Bearcats prepared for their quick offense during camp. After UCF opened the game with a field goal drive, the Bearcats defense settled and took control.
EFFECT ON REQUEST
UCF’s second loss on the road leaves the Knights in a weak spot. They were voted 15th when they lost 35:34 in Pittsburgh on September 21.
A STREAK SURVIVED
The Knights have had a roaring and passing touchdown in their last 32 games, the longest current streak on the FBS.
UCF will be absent next week before East Carolina takes place on October 19th.
Cincinnati plays in Houston on October 12th.