It didn't look good for Cincinnati early in the game when Virginia Tech drove the length of the field for a touchdown, and it really didn't look good when starting quarterback Desmond Ridder was knocked out of the game with an apparent leg injury, but Luke Fickell's Bearcats team persisted and outlasted the Hokies in a 35-31 win in the Military Bowl.
The conditions definitely played a factor with a steady rain in Annapolis on New Year's Eve afternoon. There were four combined fumbles and two interceptions, and multiple players left the game with injuries, making the final frames of this back and forth a battle of wills between whoever was still healthy at the end of a long season for both teams. Backup quarterback Hayden Moore made some crucial plays in the run game and led the offense well in clutch situations, and running back Michael Warren was the game's star with 166 rushing yards on 20 carries.
It was a sloppy game at times with a few explosive plays providing much of the 905 combined yards of offense. Ordinary inside runs broke loose into 20-plus yard gains and screen passes were run in all the way for touchdowns. Both teams came up with important stops when they needed to, but the most resistance either offense saw came from self-inflicted errors.
The hard-fought victory gives the Bearcats 11 wins on the year, the most since Brian Kelly led the team to a 12-0 regular season in 2009. The seven-win improvement from 4-8 a year ago is one of the best in the nation, and when you consider the overwhelming amount of youth on this roster, it serves as encouragement for the direction of the program moving forward under Fickell.
This is, after all, Fickell's first full-time head coaching job after more than a decade as an assistant and one-time interim head coach at Ohio State, his alma mater. The Cincinnati job has allowed him to tap into the potential of a program that finished ranked in the top 25 in five out of six seasons (2007-12) across the tenures of both Kelly and Butch Jones. Now that Fickell has the program going in the right direction with this 11-2 season, it's hard to imagine things slowing down any time soon.