ORLANDO — No. 7 Cincinnati found itself in a four-quarter struggle for the first time all season, and Desmond Ridder and the Bearcats showed they can take a punch.
Ridder threw two touchdowns and ran for two scores as Cincinnati defeated UCF 36-33 Saturday to head into Tuesday’s release of the first College Football Playoff rankings unbeaten.
The Bearcats (8-0, 6-0 American) fell behind 14-3 in the first quarter against their toughest opponent yet, but grabbed the lead by halftime.
“What a hard, hard-fought game,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “That is a really good football team, that on senior night gave us everything we could handle.”
Dillon Gabriel threw for 243 yards, three touchdowns and one interception as the Knights (5-3, 4-3) lost at home for the second time this season.
UCF took a 25-22 lead in the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Gabriel to Marlon Williams.
“Burn this one, quick turnaround,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “We’ve got a trophy game (Friday against USF), our guys will be ready to play.”
The interception Gabriel threw was costly for UCF.
Bearcats safety Darrick Forest picked off Gabriel’s pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 20 yards to the Knights’ 16. Four plays later, a 1-yard sneak by Ridder gave UC a 29-25 lead with 13:07 remaining.
Rider passed for 338 yards and ran for 57.
“He’s just a baller, he shows up ready to go every game,” Taylor said of Ridder. “He’s a winner. He’s a competitor and when we go out there we’re behind him.”
Cincinnati used 10 plays to go 71 yards on its next possession to go up two scores. The Bearcats converted a fourth-and-1 at the UCF 26 and three plays later Ridder threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Taylor for a 36-25 lead with 7:15 remaining.
UCF made it 36-33 with 4:27 remaining on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Gabriel to Jaylon Robinson and a 2-point conversion pass to Jacob Harris
“I thought our kids responded and continued to compete and handled the ups and downs of the football game,” Heupel said. “We’re not far off from being a really good football team.”
The Bearcats ran down all but one second of the clock, trying not score down near the goal line. Cincinnati was cutting it close and then an errant snap on fourth down gave everyone a jolt, but was recovered by Ridder. The Knights got one play from their 8 that went nowhere.
The Bearcats are hoping to become the first team from outside the Power Five conferences to crack the top-10 in the selection committee’s first top 25 of the season.
“We want to have an opportunity to win a championship,” Fickell said. “Every win gives us an opportunity to state our case.”