CINCINNATI (AP) — Cole Smith made a 34-yard field goal as time expired to give No. 6 Cincinnati a 27-24 victory over No. 20 Tulsa on Saturday night in the rainy American Conference Championship game.
Alec Pierce had a career-high 146 yards receiving on five catches, Desmond Ridder passed for 269 yards and a touchdown and ran for a score, and Jerome Ford added a 42-yard scoring run for the Bearcats (9-0, No. 9 CFP).
Tulsa (6-2, No. 23 CFP) reached the conference championship game following three straight losing seasons. It was the Golden Hurricane’s first appearance in the AAC title game.
Tulsa tied it with 3:41 remaining on Zach Smith’s 13-yard touchdown pass to JuanCarlos Santana. But the Golden Hurricane defense jumped offside on a hard count on fourth-and-2, giving the Bearcats a first down at the 19 to set up Smith’s kick.
After Jarrell White’s interception ended a promising drive for Tulsa, the Bearcats went ahead 7-0 on Ford’s 42-yard touchdown run. Pierce had a pair of acrobatic catches in the first quarter. He had a one-armed catch to help set up the first touchdown. His 45-yard grab led to a field goal.
Jaxon Player’s recovery of Ridder’s fumble at the Bearcats 28 set up Corey Taylor’s 10-yard TD run that tied it at 10.
Tulsa struggled to cover Pierce. He had 126 yards receiving yards in the first half, including a 36-yard TD catch to help Cincinnati take a 17-10 lead into halftime.
Deneric Prince’s 8-yard TD run capped a 55-yard drive on Tulsa’s opening possession of the third quarter, tying it at 17. Ridder scored on a 10-yard run to put the Bearcats back ahead.
In last year’s AAC championship game, Cincinnati led Memphis by one point with four minutes remaining, but lost 29-24.
The Golden Hurricane have had 16 come-from-behind wins since Philip Montgomery took over as head coach in 2015. They nearly pulled off another.
Cincinnati hadn’t played since Nov. 21 due to COVID-19 issues, and the rust showed with 12 penalties and two lost fumbles.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane relied mostly on their running game with Smith struggling to throw in the wet conditions. He was 13 for 30 with two interceptions.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats were able to overcome the loss of one of its top defensive playmakers when senior safety James Wiggins left in the first quarter with a right leg injury and did not return.
Tulsa and Cincinnati were scheduled to play on four previous occasions during the regular season but the game was postponed three times before being canceled altogether last week. Twice the game was moved due to COVID-19 concerns within the Bearcats program.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane are bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats have seen their hopes of becoming the first non-Power 5 team to reach the College Football Playoff fade in recent weeks. But they are in line for a New Year’s Six Bowl.