Fake punt irks ECU in blowout loss at Cincinnati

Cincinnati wide receiver Tre Tucker, left, makes a catch for a touchdown in front of East Carolina defensive back Juan Powell, right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

No. 7 Cincinnati delivered a message to the College Football Playoff selection committee with a 55-17 blowout of East Carolina in their final home game of the regular season on Friday night.

The Bearcats, who are now 7-0 on the season, 5-0 in the AAC, scored 28 second-quarter points to put the game out of reach before halftime. Cincinnati reached as high as No. 6 in the AP poll before dropping a spot following a win last week. The Bearcats are looking to be chosen for the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Day bowl games chosen by the committee.

Three thoughts

1. Leading 42-10 midway through the fourth quarter, the Bearcats faced fourth-and-7 from their own 28. Cincinnati ran a fake punt, and linebacker Joel Dublanko ran for 29 yards and a first down. The drive eventually resulted in a touchdown, giving Cincinnati a 39-point lead and likely causing some hard feelings on the East Carolina sideline.

When ECU scored in the final minute, there was some brief pushing and shoving in the end zone as emotions boiled over. ECU’s Mike Houston spoke at length to Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell when the two coaches met at midfield following the game. They then parted without a handshake or fist bump.

“That’s between us,” Houston said of the discussion with Fickell. Of the fake punt, he said, “Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job of defending it. … Obviously, we don’t think anybody was expecting that. We’ve still got to be prepared.”

2. East Carolina’s defense has struggled all season long, but Friday’s game may have been a low point. The Bearcats shredded the ECU D for 224 yards rushing and three scores as well as 354 yards by air and another three scores. They averaged 7.2 yards per carry, 13.1 yards per completion and 8.9 yards per play. Five Cincinnati players had runs of 20 yards or longer in the game. Four different Cincinnati players had catches for 20 yards or longer. Those nine plays accounted for 309 yards, 18 more than ECU’s total for the entire game.

3. Down 7-0 near the end of the first quarter, East Carolina needed a goal-line stand as Cincinnati reached the ECU 3-yard line. The Pirates forced and recovered a fumble and took over at their 5. Mitchell ran the ball five straight times to end the first quarter. Then, on the first play of the second, Ahlers was intercepted by Jarell White, who returned it 28 yards for a score.

“We can’t make that mistake there,” Mike Houston said, “especially that deep in own territory.”

Number to Know

448 — Last year, ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers passed for 535 yards as the Pirates came close to upsetting then-No. 17 Cincinnati before losing, 46-43. This year, he was held for 448 fewer passing yards as he struggled through a 9-for-20 day with three interceptions and 87 yards. He was also sacked four times.

They Said It

“Yeah, they’re facing 22-, 23-year-old guys tonight, but there will be a day when these kids aren’t 18.”

— ECU coach Mike Houston

Player of the Game

Keaton Mitchell, ECU running back — Not much went right on a long evening for East Carolina, but Mitchell was a bright spot, rushing 15 times for 111 yards and the Pirates’ lone touchdown. He also caught a pass for 26 yards.

“Keaton’s a very talented player,” Houston said. “We talked about Rahjai Harris before. I really like those guys as our one-two punch of the future.”

Critical thinking

Cincinnati is an outstanding team with explosive playmakers on offense and a stifling defense. A last-minute touchdown by ECU with reserves in the game on both sides marked the first time this year an FBS opponent has topped 13 points against the Bearcat D, and Cincinnati has outscored foes 291 to 87. They’ve beaten three of the four other top contenders in the league by at least 29 points each, with UCF remaining next week.

And none of it matters.

Cincinnati can run all the fake punts it wants and run the score up as high as possible, and it won’t get the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff. They might get a lucrative bowl berth, but with just four spots available, it’s virtually impossible for a Cincinnati, or a BYU, or a UCF of a few years ago, to get into the party, no matter how good they are. And because of that, we’ll never know just how good they are.