A win is a win. For the University of Cincinnati football team, that's all that mattered Saturday.
Charles McClelland rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown, kicker Ryan Coe made five field goals and Cincinnati ruined Southern Methodist University's homecoming with a narrow 29-27 win over the Mustangs in Dallas.
The Bearcats defense had six sacks in the victory, including two by linebacker Jaheim Thomas and 1.5 by fellow linebacker Ivan Pace Jr.
But Cincinnati also committed a season-high 14 penalties for a season-high 127 yards.
"We're obviously really excited to get out of here with a win," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "It was not the cleanest for us in a lot of ways, but we've been in this situation too many times before."
The No. 21/19-ranked (Associated Press/coaches polls) Bearcats (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) won their fourth straight game against SMU (3-4, 1-2) and captured their 19th straight win in AAC play. The two-time defending AAC champions will head to Orlando, Florida, next Saturday to face UCF.
Without standout wide receiver Tyler Scott, who is nursing an ankle injury, Cincinnati struggled offensively. The Bearcats went three-and-out on their first drive. But cornerback Arquon Bush collected his second interception of the season and ninth of his career on SMU's second drive, returned it 15 yards and set up quarterback Ben Bryant and the Cincinnati offense at the SMU 10-yard line.
Cincinnati, coming off a bye week, failed to get in the end zone after Bush's pick and settled for a 30-yard field goal by Coe to take the early 3-0 lead.
Bryant, in his first action since suffering a concussion early in the fourth quarter of the Bearcats' 28-24 win against South Florida on Oct. 8, failed to complete his first five throws and was sacked twice in the first three drives.
Cincinnati punter Mason Fletcher did his part early, booting an AAC-record 84-yard punt on his first opportunity. It was the longest punt of season in the FBS and the longest in program history. Fletcher's second punt went 57 yards.
"Mason Fletcher has done a phenomenal job all last year and all this year," Fickell said. "He is really talented. He does nothing but get better each and every week. It's unique. Obviously, when you're punting with the wind, you feel good about yourself. But there's some times when you're punting against the wind, you really gotta be good. He did a phenomenal job all day."
Bearcats running back Corey Kiner, who returned after missing a game with a hand injury, had the first explosive offensive play of the day. The former Roger Bacon High School star ran through the Mustangs defense for a 22-yard gash late in the opening frame. Kiner's run set up a 1-yard touchdown by fellow running back Ryan Montgomery, and the Bearcats surged ahead 10-0 with 33 seconds to play in the first.
McClelland, Cincinnati's starting running back, joined the party with a career-long 76-yard rushing touchdown to give the Bearcats a 17-0 lead with 13:34 to play before the break. The long score was McClelland's sixth of the season.
McClelland finished with 129 yards on 16 carries. It was the senior's second straight 100-yard game, third of the season and fifth of his career.
"It feels good," he said. "Being consistent with it, just having good games. Gotta keep it up."
After not bending for much of the first half, the Cincinnati defense broke late in the second quarter. SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who left with an injury late, tossed a 43-yard pass over the heads of the Bearcats' defenders to Mustangs receiver Jordan Kerley. The completion led to 3-yard score by SMU running back TJ McDaniel, and the Mustangs pulled to within 17-7 with 8:12 remaining before intermission.
Bryant and the Cincinnati offense answered with another trip to the red zone but again settled for a field goal. Coe booted a 25-yarder through the goal posts to make it 20-7 with 4:05 left in the first half.
Mordecai and Kerley linked up again for a 1-yard score just before halftime. Kerley motioned in and then beat Bearcats freshman cornerback JQ Hardaway to the outside edge of the goal line to cap a 13-play, 77-yard drive and make it 20-14 at the half. SMU converted on two seperate fourth-and-1s on the scoring drive.
"It's not easy winning, and it's not easy winning on the road," Fickell said. "That's a good football team that does a really good job of slinging the ball around and making you earn everything you've got."
After Bryant and the offense sputtered in their first drive out of the locker room, Coe blasted a 52-yard field goal, his third of the day. The 52-yarder, a yard shy of his career long, put the Bearcats up 23-14.
Coe added another field goal – a 44-yarder – to make it 26-14 with 6:26 left in the third. He nailed another one – a 31-yarder – at the 1:58 mark in the quarter. Coe, a Delaware transfer, entered the day 4-for-7 on field-goal attempts.
"We did a great job kicking five field goals," Fickell said. "But we also didn't do a very good job at kicking five field goals. That's where we had been very good, in the red zone, and they were much better than we were on both sides of the ball in the red zone. To me, that's what kept this game really, really tight."
SMU blocked Coe's sixth attempt, which came with 8:20 to play. The 44-yard try would've put Cincinnati ahead 31-14. Instead, the Mustangs returned the blocked kick 17 yards and then scored on 16-yard pass play to pull within 29-21 with 5:09 remaining.
A roughing-the-passer penalty by defensive lineman Eric Phillips, a pass-interference call on safety Ja'Von Hicks and a personal-foul penalty on linebacker Ty Van Fossen aided a last-ditch effort by SMU to tie the game. The Mustangs scored on a 1-yard run to make it 29-27 with 1:57 left. But SMU failed on the two-point conversion.
Bearcats wide receiver Chris Scott collected the onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and Cincinnati escaped with the win.
Bryant completed 18 of 35 passes for 200 yards. The Bearcats wide receivers had four drops, including one by Nick Mardner in the end zone.
With the win, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell became the winningest coach in program history. Fickell, who is now 54-16 in five-plus seasons with the Bearcats, passed Rick Minter in the record books. Minter compiled a 53-63-1 record from 1994-2003.
Cincinnati Bearcats injury report
Cincinnati graduate defensive lineman and team captain Jabari Taylor left the game after suffering an apparent lower-body injury on the game's opening drive. He did not return.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Bearcats beat SMU in AAC football action