Wednesday, December 7, 2022
Eagle Eye Sports Monitor

CFB Preview: American Athletic Conference Championship

GAME 13 • THE AMERICAN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

THE GAME
Saturday’s game will be the 28th meeting between Houston and Cincinnati in a series that dates to 1957 … Houston holds a 15-12 series lead, but Cincinnati has won seven of the last nine, including two in a row … The schools last met Nov. 7, 2020, when the  Bearcats were 38-10 winners at Nippert Stadium behind four total touchdowns (one passing, three rushing) from QB Desmond Ridder … Cincinnati is making its conference-record third consecutive appearance in The American Championship, while Houston is in the championship game for the second time after the Cougars won the inaugural title game in 2015 … Houston and Cincinnati finished with identical 8-0 league records, but Cincinnati is serving as the host institution for Saturday’s game based on a higher showing in the Nov. 30 College Football Playoff rankings … This year’s game marks the seventh time in as many years that The American Championship is carried live on ABC … The American Championship has drawn a combined television audience of 17.2 million viewers in its first six years.

16/16 HOUSTON
11-1, 8-0 American
Head Coach
Dana Holgorsen (Iowa Wesleyan ’93) 18-14, third season at Houston 79-55, 11th season as collegiate head coach

Notes
Houston, which won the inaugural American Championship Game in 2015, played its way back into the title picture by going 8-0 in  league games in 2021 … The Cougars dropped their season-opener against Texas Tech, then reeled off 11 straight wins, scoring at  least 31 points in 10 of those games … Houston is enjoying its fifth 11-win season in program history (1973, 1979, 2011, 2015, 2021) … A win against Cincinnati would extend Houston’s winning streak to a program-record 12 games, which has been done twice in school history, most recently from Jan. 2-Nov. 14, 2015 … Houston has won 11 conference championships spanning four conferences (American, Conference USA, Southwest, Missouri Valley) … Houston became the fourth team in American Athletic Conference history to finish 8-0 in conference play, joining UCF’s 2013, 2017 and 2018 squads (Cincinnati became fifth team to do so a week after Houston) … Houston leads The American in rushing defense and is the only team in the conference to hold opponents below 100 rushing yards per game (97.3 ypg) … Houston’s difference-maker is CB Marcus Jones, who leads The American with five interceptions and is the 2021 American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year. Jones leads all NCAA FBS players with four touchdowns on special teams this season (two kickoff returns, two punt returns) … QB Clayton Tune is a three-year starter who has thrown for 3,013 yards and 26 touchdowns this season, completing 68.9% of his passes to lead the conference … The top target is WR Nathaniel Dell, who has a league-leading 11 touchdown receptions and is one of only two players in The American to break 1,000 yards in the regular season … Dell has 71 catches for 1,027 yards and is averaging 14.5 yards per catch … RB Alton McCaskill established himself as an impact player as a true freshman with 840 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, one off the conference lead … McCaskill became the first Houston player to be named as The American’s Rookie of the Year since DT Ed Oliver in 2016 … While Jones mans the back of the defense, Houston’s front seven is as good as any, with DT Logan Hall (5.5 sacks), DE Derek Parish (5.0 sacks), DE David Anenih (4.0 sacks) and DE D’Anthony Jones (7.0 sacks, four forced fumbles) leading the way. LB Donavan Mutin leads the team with 65 tackles.

 

3/4 CINCINNATI
12-0, 8-0 American
Head Coach
Luke Fickell (Ohio State ’97)
47-14, fifth season at Cincinnati 53-21, sixth season as collegiate head coach

Notes
Cincinnati is making its third consecutive appearance in The American Championship Game as the Bearcats look for a second straight league title … One of only two teams to enter postseason play unbeaten (along with top-ranked Georgia), Cincinnati will take a streak  of 20 consecutive regular-season wins into next year, while the Bearcats have won 26 straight at Nippert Stadium … Cincinnati set an American Athletic Conference record with 12 players selected to the league’s all-conference first team … The Bearcats have been ranked in the Associated Press top 10 all season and in 26 consecutive polls dating to last year … Cincinnati’s calling card in the last four seasons — in which the Bearcats are a combined 43-6 — has been its defense, but the 2021 squad’s true strength has been its balance. Cincinnati averages 39.6 points and allows only 15.8 points per game, leading The American in both categories … On offense, the unquestioned leader is QB Desmond Ridder, the two-time American Ahtletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year who has been behind center for the aforementioned run that has made him one of the winningest signal-callers in college football history … Ridder
enters the postseason with exactly 3,000 passing yards to go with 27 touchdown passes. He became The American’s career leader in total offense (12,071 yards) in the Bearcats’ regular-season-ending win at East Carolina … The leading rusher for Cincinnati is RB Jerome Ford, the Alabama transfer who has 1,056 yards and an American Athletic Conference-leading 17 touchdowns … WR Alec Pierce leads a talented group of receivers with 48 receptions for 802 yards and six touchdowns — all team highs … Cincinnati’s defense is led by a secondary that ranks among the nation’s best. CB Ahmad Gardner, the unanimous American Defensive Player of the Year, earned All-America status last season and holds the distinction of having never allowed a touchdown in his career … Gardner had three interceptions and for pass breakups, while CB Coby Bryant is a Jim Thorpe Award finalist who has three picks and 11 pass breakups … LB Darrian Beavers (82 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss) is a finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, while DT Curtis Brooks is an All-America candidate with six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

 

HOUSTON COUGARS NOTES

THE OPENING KICKOFF

• Houston has won 11-plus games in a season five times in program history (2021, 2015, 2011, 1979, 1973). Houston’s five 10-plus win
seasons since 2006 are tied for the second most among FBS programs in Texas, trailing only TCU (8).

• The Cougars have won 10-plus games following a losing season three times, going from 2-8 in 1975 to 10-2 in 1976; 5-7 in 2010 to 13-1 in 2011 and 3-5 in 2020 to 11-1 in 2021. Houston’s eight-game turnaround in the win column is the second-best nationally from 2020-21, trailing only Michigan (+9).

• Houston’s 11-game win streak is its longest since winning as many from Jan. 2-Nov. 14, 2015 and is one shy of the program record (12 – Sept. 3-Nov. 25, 2011; Nov. 4, 1989-Nov. 3, 1990). The streak is the third longest active nationally (Georgia – W16; Cincinnati – W12).

• The Cougars have won 11 conference championships across four leagues (American Athletic, Conference USA, Southwest and Missouri Valley). Houston’s last conference championship came in 2015 when the Cougars defeated Temple, 24-13, in the inaugural American Championship Game.

• Houston posted an 8-0 record in American Athletic Conference play, marking just the second undefeated conference season in program history (2021, 2011). Houston is the only FBS program in Texas to post multiple undefeated conference seasons since 2011.

• The Cougars are riding a six-game road win streak, their longest since winning as many from Sept. 9-Nov. 25, 2011. They won all six road games this season – the fifth time in program history going undefeated on the road in regular season play (2021, 2011, 1988,  1979, 1952).

• Houston checks in at No. 16 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 16 in the AP Top 25. It marks the fifth consecutive week garnering a national ranking in both polls. The No. 16 ranking is Houston’s highest in the AP Top 25 since Oct. 16, 2016 (No. 11).

• As a program, Houston is no stranger to success against top-ranked opponents. The Cougars are 2-1 in their last three contests against Top-5 teams highlighted by wins against No. 3/3 Oklahoma and No. 3/5 Louisville during the 2016 season. The Cougars defeated then-No. 19/16 SMU, 44-37, in their lone matchup against a ranked opponent this season.

• Last time out at UConn, the Cougars received a tune-up for the elements. The 39-degree temperature at kickoff was the coldest for a
Houston game at kick since Jan. 2, 2015 (Armed Forces Bowl vs. Pittsburgh) while winds gusted out of the north at 20-plus miles per hour.

• Houston and Cincinnati are meeting for the 28th time in the history of the programs. Houston leads the series 15-12. The teams have met six times as members of The American with the Bearcats leading 4-2. The Cougars won 11 of the first 12 matchups in the series (1957-74).

• Houston has not allowed a first quarter point in eight of 12 games, outscoring opponents 130-38 in the opening frame. Houston is 8-1
when leading after the first quarter in 2021 and 12-4 when leading after the opening period under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen.

• Houston leads the nation in blocked kicks (6) and blocked punts (4). Last Saturday at UConn, Logan Hall provided Houston’s first blocked field goal since 2019. The Cougars are second in the country in kickoff return touchdowns (2) and eighth in punt return average (14.64).

• Houston is one of four FBS teams ranked inside the Top 10 nationally for both scoring offense and total defense, joining Alabama,
Cincinnati and Georgia. The Cougars are averaging 38.8 points per game (10th) and holding opponents to 288.6 yards per contest (6th)

• Houston has qualified for its 14th bowl game in the last 17 seasons. The Cougars’ 13 bowl appearances since 2005 rank second
among programs in Texas (Texas A&M – 14). Houston’s 89 victories since 2011 rank second among FBS schools in Texas (Texas A&M –
92).

 

TUNE IN
» Houston quarterback Clayton Tune is a semifinalist for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award which honors the top Division I offensive
player with ties to the state of Texas.

» Last time out at UConn, Tune tossed his eighth career 300-plus yard passing game and tallied four touchdown passes for the third
time in his career and second this season.

» Earlier this season, Tune went 191 passes without throwing an interception before being picked off in the third quarter against
Memphis on Nov. 19. The 191 passes marked a career long for Tune. It is tied for the third longest in school history with Kevin Kolb
(Sept. 9 to Oct. 21, 2006).

» Over his last seven games, Tune is 151-for-225 with 2,029 passing yards, 19 passing touchdowns and two interceptions.

» Tune ranks 13th nationally in pass efficiency (159.7), 14th in completion % (68.7) and 15th in passing touchdowns (26).

FRESHMAN PHENOM
» Houston running back Alton McCaskill is second in program history with 16 rushing touchdowns, trailing only Greg Ward Jr. (21 in
2015). The mark ranks ninth nationally and first among true freshmen.

» McCaskill’s 17 total touchdowns (16 rushing, one receiving) are tied for the most by a true freshman in program history (Bryce Beall,
2008).

THIRD WARD DEFENSE
» Termed the “Third Ward Defense,” the Cougars’ unit ranks third in sacks per game (3.58), fourth in third down conversion % defense
(.268), sixth in total defense (288.6), seventh in first downs defense (190), eighth in rushing defense (97.0), 11th in turnovers gained
(23), 13th in team passing efficiency defense (114.02), 14th in tackles for loss (7.1), 16th in passing yards allowed (191.6), 18th in
interceptions (14), 19th in scoring defense (19.8), 20th in red zone defense (.750), 22nd in defensive touchdowns (2) and 22nd in
fumbles recovered (9).

» If the season ended today, Houston’s 97.0 rushing yards allowed/game would be the fewest since 1967 (94.3) while its 288.6 yards
allowed/game and 191.6 passing yards allowed/game would be the fewest since 1988 (288.0) and 1989 (166.4), respectively.

» Houston has held opponents under 100 rushing yards seven times this season — all coming in the last 10 games (Grambling, Tulsa,
Tulane, ECU, SMU, Temple and UConn). Houston ranks eighth nationally in rushing defense (97.0).

» Last Saturday at UConn, Houston registered 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks. The 14 tackles for loss are the most for the program
since at least 2000 and are the eighth-most by an FBS program this season.

TRENDING
» Houston is 24-20-1 all-time during the month of December.

» This season the Cougars have scored 38 non-offensive points including two punt return touchdowns (12 points), two interception returns for a touchdown (12 points), two kickoff return touchdowns (12 points) and a safety (2 points).

» The Cougars have tallied 21-plus points in each of their first 12 games and posted 31-plus points in 10 of their last 11 contests.

NATIONAL RANKINGS
» Houston is one of four schools in the AP Top 20 in both Football (No. 16) and Men’s Basketball (No. 15), joining Alabama (No. 2 FB/No. 16 MBB, Baylor (No. 9 FB/No. 4 MBB) and BYU (No. 12 FB/No. 12 MBB).

» 2021 marks the 26th season in which Houston Football was ranked for at least one week.

» Sunday marked the 199th week in which Houston Football was ranked in the Associated Press poll.

» Houston is 116-42-2 when competing as a ranked team.

A VICTORY WOULD …
» Clinch Houston’s 12th conference championship and second American Athletic Conference title (first since 2015).

» Mark Houston’s first conference title game victory on the road. In their lone previous opportunity, Houston fell, 38-32 at East Carolina
on Dec. 5, 2009.

» Be Houston’s 12th consecutive win, matching a program record (Sept. 3-Nov. 25, 2011; Nov. 4, 1989-Nov. 3, 1990).

» Mark the third time Houston has won 12-plus games in a season (2011 – 13; 2015 – 13).

» Be Dana Holgorsen’s second conference title as a head coach and first since 2011 when West Virginia was crowned co-Big East
champions.

MORE THAN A GAME
» This season, Houston plays in memory of Vinny Robins, a 17-year-old senior from Barbers Hill High School who was connected with
the program through Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit that pairs chronically ill children with local college teams.

» He signed a national letter of intent to become an “honorary Cougar” less than a month before his passing. Houston rolled out the red
carpet for Robins’ unofficial visit on July 15 and presented him with a red No. 13 jersey his favorite number — with his name on back.

» On July 22, he signed a national letter of intent during a small ceremony inside TDECU Stadium.

» Robins, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at age 15, passed away on Aug. 10.

SACK AVE.
» Cougars’ Head Coach Dana Holgorsen has declared “Sack Ave.” his favorite street in Houston.

» The nickname for Houston’s defensive line has not come without reason. The Cougars rank third nationally in team sacks per game
(3.58). Last Saturday at UConn, Houston registered seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

» On Oct. 7 at Tulane, Houston notched eight sacks, its highest single-game sack total since posting 11 sacks in a 36-10 win over #3/3
Louisville inside TDECU Stadium on Nov. 17, 2016.

» Seventeen different players have registered a sack for Houston including 12 different defensive linemen. D’Anthony Jones and
Derek Parish rank tied for fifth in The American with 5.5 sacks.

IMPACT TRANSFERS
» Cornerback Marcus Jones, who is tied for the NCAA career lead with nine return touchdowns and leads the nation in interceptions
(5), transferred from Troy in 2019.

» Jake Herslow, who has hauled in 26 passes for 358 yards and three scores, alongside an onside kick recovery and a blocked this
season, played three seasons at Old Dominion before heading to Houston.

» KeSean Carter, Ta’Zhawn Henry and Alex Hogan are a trio of key Texas Tech transfers. Carter is third on the team with 26 receptions and fifth with 331 yards. Henry is second on the team with 527 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Hogan led Houston
with eight tackles against No. 19/16 SMU and has six pass breakups and two interceptions (and one touchdown) on the season.

» In his first season with the program, Kody Russey was named a team captain and has started all 12 games at center.

» Latrell Bankston, an Iowa State transfer, has 18 tackles and 4.0 sacks, despite missing time due to injury.

» Damarion Williams (51 tackles – second on team) is in his third season with the team after transferring from Highland Community
College. Deontay Anderson (49 tackles – third on team) is in his fourth year after transferring from Ole Miss.

 

CINCINNATI BEARCATS NOTES

NO. 3/4/4 BEARCATS SEEK SECOND STRAIGHT AAC CHAMPIONSHIP, FIRST 13-0 START
• The Cincinnati football team will look to secure its second-straight American Conference Championship on Saturday at 4 p.m. (ABC) when Houston comes to town.

• Cincinnati will look to improve to 13-0 for the first time in school history and secure its 16th all-time conference title, while locking up a College Football Playoff berth or a New Year’s Six Bowl in the process.

• The Cougars dropped their first game, 38-21, to Texas Tech, but have won 11 straight since, including all eight AAC games. Houston is No. 2 in the conference behind UC in both scoring offense (38.8) and scoring defense (19.8).

• Cincinnati has won three straight in the series against Houston, including a 38-10 win in Cincinnati last November when the Bearcats rushed for 342 yards, including 103 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Desmond Ridder.

• In 2019, UC won 38-23 in Houston as Ridder passed for three TDs and added a rushing score, while safety Ja’Von Hicks had two interceptions and Coby Bryant added a pick, as well.

• Cincinnati completed its second-ever 12-0 regular season on Friday by beating East Carolina 35-13 in Greenville, N.C.

• Ridder (12,072 career total yards) broke the AAC and Cincinnati total yardage records against the Pirates by tossing for 301 yards – his second 300-yard performance in his last three games. He also became the AAC’s all-time leader in total touchdowns in the game with 113 (84 passing, 28 rushing, 1 receiving).

• Cincinnati defeated Tulsa 27-24 on Cole Smith’s 34-yard field goal as time expired to win the 2020 AAC Championship Game at Nippert Stadium. Alec Pierce had a career-high 146 yards receiving on five catches, Ridder, the AAC Championship MVP, passed for 269 yards and a TD and ran for a score, and Jerome Ford added a 42-yard scoring run for the Bearcats.

• Against ranked teams, UC is 1-0 in 2021 and 4-1 since the start of 2020. Luke Fickell is 5-8 against ranked teams with UC.

• Ridder is a finalist for the Unitas Golden Arm Award, a semifinalist for the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Davey O’Brien Awards, and a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Bryant is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back, while senior linebacker Darrian Beavers is a finalist for the Butkus Award (top LB).

• Six Bearcats accepted Senior Bowl invitations: Ridder, Pierce, Beavers, Bryant, S Bryan Cook and DE Myjai Sanders

CINCINNATI PROVES IT’S ELITE
• Cincinnati and current-No. 1 Georgia are the only two teams in the nation that rank in the Top 10 in both scoring offense (UC – 39.6, 8th) and scoring defense (UC – 15.8, 3rd), and the nation’s only two teams without a loss.

• Cincinnati sports a 21-1 record (.955) since the start of 2020, with the Bearcats only loss over the last 23 months coming by three points, 24-21, to Georgia in the 2020 Peach Bowl.

• UC is the only team with a double-digit road victory over a CFP Top 10 team (24-13 at current CFP No. 6 Notre Dame).

• Defensively, the Bearcats rank No. 3 in the nation in scoring defense (15.8), No. 2 in pass efficiency defense (95.88), No. 2 in opponent completion percentage (52.6%), No. 3 in pass yards allowed (161.5), No. 3 in interceptions (17), No. 3 in yards per play allowed (4.3), No. 3 in TD passes allowed (8) and No. 8 in total defense (303.3).

• Cincinnati ranks No. 2 in the country in turnovers gained (28) and tied for 10th in turnover margin (10).

BREAKING RECORDS IN THE CLASSROOM
• UC placed a school-record six players on the CoSIDA Academic All-District First Team last week. No FBS team in the country had more honorees than the Bearcats, which tied for the most with Kentucky. Joining Ridder, who captured the honor for a second straight year, were Pierce, Cook, junior offensive lineman Lorenz Metz, senior linebacker Wilson Huber and junior cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. UC posted a school-record GPA (3.212) in spring 2021.

STREAKS, STORYLINES, SIDEBARS …
• Cincinnati has scored 475 points and 65 touchdowns in 2021. The UC school record for points (502) and touchdowns (66) are well within reach and were both set by the 2009 team – the last UC team to start 12-0.

• Ridder, who has 3,000 passing yards and 27 TDs in 2021, is the sixth Bearcat to pass for 3,000 yards in a season.

• RB Jerome Ford’s 1,055 rushing yards this season marks the 19th 1,000 yard rushing season in UC history.

• Gardner is one of the nation’s top defensive players. Per PFF, he has allowed only 14 receptions on 32 targets in 2021. His 12.0 opponent passer rating is the second-lowest in the country. He has never allowed a TD pass.

• UC is currently ranked No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 4 in the Coaches’ poll, and was ranked No. 2 in both polls earlier this season. The Bearcats became the first non-Power 5 team to rank in the College Football Playoff’s Top 4 last Tuesday.

• UC has won 26-straight at Nippert Stadium, which is the second-longest home win streak in the country behind Clemson (34).

• Cincinnati’s 24-13 win at No. 9 Notre Dame was the program’s first-ever win over a Top-10 team on the road.

• UC has won a league title six times in the last 14 years and has played in 12 bowl games in the past 15 years.

• Cincinnati is 649-594-50 (.521) all-time.

• UC is playing its 134th football season in 2021. The Bearcats program dates to 1885 and is one of the 10 oldest in the FBS.

 

COACH FICKELL
• UC opened a new era with the hiring of Luke Fickell as the Bearcats’ 42nd head coach in December 2016.

• The 23-year veteran of the FBS coaching ranks took the reins of the UC program after spending 16 years at his alma mater, Ohio State. His impressive resume includes being on the staff of two national-championship-winning teams, seeing more than 40 players selected in the NFL Draft, coordinating outstanding defenses over 12 seasons, winning AAC Coach of the Year honors in
2018 and 2020 and leading the Bearcats to an AAC Championship in 2020.

 

TURNOVER TIME
• Cincinnati is second in the nation in turnovers gained (28) and 10th in turnover margin (10).

• The Bearcats are third in the nation with 17 interceptions – a mark that leads the AAC.

NATION’S TOP PASS DEFENSE

• UC ranks second nationally in pass efficiency defense (95.88), second in opponent completion percentage (52.5%), third in  Interceptions (17), third in TD passes allowed (8) and No. 3 in passing yards allowed (161.5).

• Junior Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner is a lockdown boundary cornerback, who at 6-3, 200 pounds, has the production and measurables to be a potential first round pick. He had eight tackles, two PBUs and a 60-yard blocked FG TD return at ECU. Gardner has allowed only 14 receptions on 32 targets in 2021 and his 12.0 opponent passer rating when targeted is No. 2 in the country. He has never allowed a TD pass in his career.

• Senior Coby Bryant is one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top DB. He has 11 PBUs and three interceptions in 2021. He ranks No. 16 in the nation in passes defended (14). He has 35 career PBUs and 10 career interceptions. His 45 career passes defended ranks No. 3 among active players.

• Sophomore linebacker Deshawn Pace leads UC in interceptions with four, which is tied for 11th nationally.

• Junior nickel back Arquon Bush, Gardner and Bryant each have three INTs, which is tied for No. 7 in the AAC.

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