It may not fit his old-school personality, but University of Cincinnati head football coach Luke Fickell can’t argue with the results.
Earlier this week, Fickell stressed his desire to build a more balanced offensive attack after the Bearcats leaned on the passing game through the first three weeks of the season under first-year offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli and first-year passing game coordinator Mike Brown.
Fickell didn’t get a perfect blend of running and passing on offense Saturday afternoon, but it wouldn’t matter as quarterback Ben Bryant threw for a career-high four touchdowns and 354 yards to lead the Bearcats to a 45-24 win over previously unbeaten Indiana at Nippert Stadium.
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The senior quarterback finished 24-of-40 and has now thrown for multiple scores in every game this season.
"Never," Bryant chuckled when asked if he'd ever thrown for 300 yards in a half. "Coach Fickell has been preaching to us to start strong and that's what we were really trying to do this game. I'm really happy we won; that's obviously the goal every week. I'm really nit-picky on myself and the offense in general. I'll definitely go back and look at the tape and see what we've got to do better."
Cincinnati was hoping for a fast start after trailing 14-0 to Arkansas at halftime of the season-opener and falling behind 10-0 last week to Miami at Paycor Stadium. Bryant helped supply a burst out of the gates by becoming the first UC quarterback to eclipse the 300-yard mark in the first half in seven years (Gunner Kiel). UC scored on five of its final six possessions of the first half and took a 38-10 lead into the locker room.
Against Miami, UC claimed the Victory Bell behind receivers Tyler Scott and Tre Tucker becoming the first Bearcats duo to each eclipse 100 receiving yards in the same game since 2016.
On Saturday, the dynamic tandem nearly duplicated that feat with Scott turning in 10 catches for 185 yards and Tucker adding five receptions for 92.
Scott became the first player in school history to ever record three receiving scores in a single half. After Indiana tied the game 3-3 late in the first quarter, UC opened the ensuing drive with a 75-yard strike from Bryant to Scott. It was the Bearcats’ longest passing play since Scott hauled in an 81-yard touchdown from Desmond Ridder on the team’s first offensive snap of the 2021 season.
"Halfway through last year I still kept saying that, 'if you (Scott) drop a ball, you're gonna move to corner,'" Fickell laughed. "I think by the end of the year last year it became a little bit of a joke. I think he's pretty safe at his wide receiver spot."
Scott added on his relationship with Bryant: "It gets better every week. We talk after each play; if we have a misconnection we're always talking, always getting feedback from each other. We gotta continue to trust each other to do our jobs and we'll continue to grow, be more explosive and be where we want to be."
UC’s first nine offensive plays netted just 29 yards. Its next 24 plays produced nearly 300. Bryant found Tre Tucker three times on the next drive, including on third-and-goal for a five-yard touchdown.
After Indiana generated a touchdown drive of its own to pull within a score in the second quarter, Bryant went 6-for-6 for 72 yards, capping the drive with a 34-yard touchdown to Scott for a double-digit lead the Bearcats would not relinquish for the rest of the afternoon. Scott would complete the first-half hat trick late in the first half, turning an out-route into a 32-yard score by evading a pair of Hoosier tacklers. Each of Scott’s 10 career touchdown receptions have been from 20-plus yards out.
The Bearcats averaged less than four yards-per-carry against both Arkansas and Miami (67 carries, 250 yards combined) and struggled again on Saturday to produce any momentum in the trenches. Redshirt senior Charles McClelland, coming off a 101-yard, two-touchdown effort against the RedHawks, was the team’s leading rusher with just 25 yards on nine attempts. Sophomore Corey Kiner added 17 yards on 14 totes, but had a one-yard touchdown with 1:20 remaining to put a bow on the program's 29th consecutive win at Nippert Stadium.
"They did a really good job with stuff that makes it a little more difficult to run the football," Fickell said of the run game struggles. "In the second half, they loaded up and they've got some big guys up front. We've got to find ways to create movement, create some seams."
Defensively, UC was tasked with keeping up with an Indiana offense that came in ranked fifth in the country in plays per game (86). The defense kept the momentum with game-changing turnovers. Sophomore safety Bryon Threats recorded his first career interception when he tracked down an overthrown flag route from Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak in the first quarter, setting up a 24-yard field goal by Ryan Coe for the game’s first points.
Just 10 seconds after Scott’s third touchdown of the half made it 31-10, redshirt junior defensive end Eric Phillips swooped around the end to sack Bazelak and cause a fumble that was scooped up by redshirt sophomore Dominique Perry for a 14-yard touchdown.
Senior linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., one of the pleasant surprises to the defense so far this season, continued to impress with a game-high 15 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
"He (Pace) is a fireball. He goes and goes and goes," Fickell said. "I think we're going to continue to use him in different ways and find ways where we can kind of let him go."
As much of a party the first half was, UC came out sluggish in the second half, especially on offense. The Bearcats opened the second half with an interception on a ball Bryant sailed off the hands of Leonard Taylor. Indiana turned the takeaway into points on a two-yard touchdown pass from Bazelak to Shaun Shivers, who would later make it a two-score game with a 47-yard touchdown run with 14:01 left in regulation.
UC managed a mere 82 yards on 36 plays in the second half, but the defense got crucial stops when it mattered most, stopping the Hoosiers on downs twice in the final five minutes.
"That's the one thing that kind of sticks in my head right now coming out in the second half. I don't know if we did a good job of finishing," Fickell said. "The reality is that this is a team that has to play together. There's some really, really great things that give us a chance to win a lot of football games, but there's some things that kind of stand out in my mind that we need to do better."
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This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: UC Bearcats beat Indiana Hoosiers behind Ben Bryant's 4 TD passes