Cincinnati Bearcats open final AAC campaign with win at Tulsa

UC Bearcats defeat Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium.
UC Bearcats defeat Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium.(Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: Oct. 1, 2022 at 11:24 PM EDT
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TULSA, Okla. (ENQUIRER) - Ben Bryant threw two touchdowns, Deshawn Pace returned an interception for a score and the University of Cincinnati defense tallied nine sacks in a 31-21 win Saturday at Tulsa in both teams’ American Athletic Conference opener.

Cincinnati (4-1), which is set to join the Big 12 Conference on July 1, 2023, extended its in-conference win streak to 15 games (17 including wins in back-to-back AAC title games). The Bearcats haven’t lost an AAC game since dropping back-to-back games at Memphis in 2019 (regular-season finale and AAC championship).

Tulsa won the toss and deferred to the second half, giving Bryant and the CIncinnati offense the ball first. The Bearcats stalled on their opening drive.

Tulsa senior quarterback Davis Brin, who was a game-time decision after suffering an ankle injury last week at Ole Miss, threw an interception on his second pass of the game. Pace picked off Brin and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown to give the Bearcats the early lead. Brin was pressured by Pace’s older brother, Ivan (the reigning AAC Defensive Player of the Year), on the play.

Deshawn Pace’s score was Cincinnati’s fourth defensive touchdowns of the season, the most in the FBS.

After the turnover, Brin led the Golden Hurricane (2-3) on a 14-play, 79-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 7-7. Brin’s backup, freshman Braylon Braxton, put an exclamation point on the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 4:55 to play in the opening quarter.

After stalling on its first two drives, Bryant and the Cincinnati offense found some momentum in the form of a 61-yard score from Bryant to a wide-open Tyler Scott. The reigning AAC Offensive Player of the Week took advantage of a busted coverage by the Golden Hurricane defense to put the Bearcats back up at the end of the first quarter.

Deshawn Pace added a sack to his earlier interception return touchdown, leading to a Tulsa punt. Former Roger Bacon High School standout Corey Kiner then started Cincinnati’s fourth drive with a 52-yard run to the Tulsa 17-yard line. Bryant found Scott on the very next play for an apparent touchdown, but a replay overturned the score.

Bearcats kicker Ryan Coe missed a 34-yard field goal to keep the score at 14-7 at the 10:37 mark in the second.

Jabari Taylor and Ivan Pace Jr. combined for another sack on Brin, and then senior Ryan Montgomery, making his return after missing three games with a rib injury, returned a punt 31 yards (the longest return of his career) to the Golden Hurricane 28.

Kiner then put Cincinnati ahead 21-7 on a 19-yard touchdown with 6:49 to go before halftime. The LSU transfer has a score in each of his first five games with the Bearcats.

After a pair of long passes (31 yards and 22 yards) through the middle of the Cincinnati defense, Tulsa pulled within a score on an 8-yard run by Deneric Prince with 1:20 before the break.

Bryant and the CIncinnati offense got into their two-minute offense and marched 54 yards to set up a 39-yard field goal by Coe as time expired. The Bearcats took a 24-14 lead into the locker room. A replay review overturned a touchdown from Bryant to wide receiver Nick Mardner.

Tulsa opened the second half with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard scoring run by Prince to make it 24-21 after the extra point. Prince’s play ended with a fight between both teams that resulted in three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (two on the Golden Hurricane and one on Cincinnati safety Bryon Threats).

The Bearcats countered with their own scoring drive. Senior running back Charles McClelland jump-started it with a career-long 60-yard run to the Tulsa 10-yard line. After three running plays that fell short of the end zone, Bryant linked up with tight end Josh Whyle for a 2-yard score on fourth-and-goal to extend Cincinnati’s lead to 31-21 with 8:37 to go in the third.

It marked the third fourth-down conversion (3-for-3) of the day for the Bearcats.

Threats, who already had the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, was ejected for targeting on the following drive. Threats exited with a game-high seven tackles.

Cincinnati’s other safety, Ja’Von Hicks, halted Tulsa’s drive with an interception in the end zone.

With both teams stuttering offensively, the game shifted when Bryant threw an interception deep in his own territory with less than 7:00  to play. The turnover set up Brin and the Golden Hurricane offense at Cincinnati’s 21-yard line.

Tulsa took advantage of a late-hit penalty by Ivan Pace Jr., a pass interference call by Justin Harris, and another late-hit call on Ryan Mullaney to set up even better field position. But Golden Hurricane junior tight end Ethan Hall dropped what appeared to be a touchdown with 2:37 to play. Premature fireworks shot out of the stadium as officials called the pass incomplete.

The Bearcats defense finished with 11 sacks, their most in a single game since 2009.

Cincinnati will host South Florida (1-4) for homecoming Oct. 8 at Nippert Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. on ESPN+. The Bulls lost to East Carolina 48-28 Saturday at home.

This story was written by our media partners at The Cincinnati Enquirer.