CINCINNATI -- Saturday night's game against the Fordham Rams clearly was one No. 21 Cincinnati preferred not to play. Having two Football Championship Subdivision teams on the schedule isn't a desirable situation for any FBS program. But for head coach Butch Jones, the opponent was irrelevant when it came to the Bearcats' effort on the field.
"Our margin of error is very small, it doesn't matter if we're playing Delaware State, Fordham, or Louisville ... it does not matter," Jones said. "We're not good enough to just show up and beat anybody."
The Bearcats (5-0) led by just eight points at halftime, but they flipped the switch in the second half and pulled away for a 49-17 victory at Nippert Stadium led by quarterback Munchie Legaux, who threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns. Cincinnati scored on each of its five possessions in the second half.
Despite being outgained 181 yards to 146 in the first half, Jones refrained from making any fist-pounding halftime diatribes. "I didn't need to yell at them or blow them up, they knew," he said. "They needed to see a calmness in me. There was absolutely no panic. We never take winning for granted."
Deven Drane's 76-yard fumble return for a touchdown started the scoring for Cincinnati, which won its 24th consecutive non-conference home game.
Travis Kelce added three catches for 101 yards, including a 78-yard TD, for the Bearcats.
Fordham (4-3) stayed close in the first half behind senior QB Ryan Higgins, who finished 30 of 41 for 262 and two TDs. Brian Wetzel had nine catches for 121 yards and a score for the Rams.
Fordham controlled the pace early, maintaining possession for more than 22 minutes in the first half. Patrick Murray kicked field goals of 46, 55 and 38 yards for the Rams.
Saturday's game was the first meeting between the two schools.
On its first possession, Fordham drove 45 yards on 12 plays. But on first down at UC's 17-yard line, Higgins fumbled while being sacked by Dan Giordano. Drane picked up the ball and raced for a touchdown, putting the Bearcats ahead 7-0. "I came off the left side, came in a little low and beat him with speed. Deven was there to make a play," Giordano said. "I feel like we came out a little slow, but I think we adjusted at halftime."
Murray's 46-yard field goal made the score 7-3. He connected on a 55-yard attempt just before halftime.
Cincinnati didn't run its first offensive play until 4:42 remained in the first quarter. But on its third play from scrimmage, Legaux threw a short pass to Kelce, who sprinted down the sideline for a 78-yard touchdown, making the score 14-3.
Kelce's TD catch aside, Fordham outgained the Bearcats 94 yards to 28 in the first quarter. The Rams trailed just 14-6 at halftime.
"It was a great learning lesson for our football team, to play a team that values every possession," Jones said. "We had to make every possession count. On defense in the first half we didn't do a good job getting off the field on third down. In the second half we made some critical plays."
Fordham is one of two Football Championship Subdivision teams on Cincinnati's schedule. The Bearcats defeated Delaware State 23-7 on Sept. 15. Fordham filled a void on UC's home schedule left by TCU's decision last year to forgo the Big East Conference and join the Big 12.
"It was an unbelievable experience for the guys," said Rams head coach Joe Moorhead. "I've had some experience here when I was (coaching) at Akron and UConn. I was familiar with the environment. We knew we had to play our best football to have a chance to win."
NOTES: Legaux's 78-yard TD pass to Travis Kelce was a career long for both players. It was the Bearcats' longest TD pass since an 81-yarder from Zach Collaros to Armon Binns in 2009 vs. Syracuse ... Cincinnati was Fordham's first ranked FBS (formerly Division I) opponent since 1954, when it faced 12th-ranked West Virginia. Fordham's last victory over a FBS opponent came in 1954, the second year of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's first term, when the Rams defeated Rutgers 13-7 ... According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Fordham received $375,000 in compensation for Saturday's game, the highest amount ever paid by UC to an opponent.