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Cincinnati’s chance for a historic upset was thwarted by the Alabama defense.
Cincinnati, the first Group of Five program to reach the College Football Playoff, already defied the odds by reaching this point. But the Bearcats could not overcome the mountain that is Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in a 27-6 CFP semifinal loss at the Cotton Bowl in Texas.
The Cincinnati defense managed to limit Bryce Young, Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, to just 181 passing yards.
But UC had no answer for Brian Robinson, who gashed the Bearcats for 204 yards on 26 rushing attempts — a dominant 7.8-yard average.
On Alabama’s opening drive alone, Robinson rushed for 37 yards on six carries to set up the Tide’s first touchdown — an eight-yard touchdown pass from Young to Slade Bolden. That opening drive set the tone for the evening as Alabama largely dominated both lines of scrimmage.
In response, Cincinnati drove right down the field but stalled inside the 10 and settled for a field goal. That ended up being the best drive of the day for Cincinnati, which finished the day with just 218 yards of offense and averaged only 3.8 yards per play and 4.5 yards per pass attempt from Desmond Ridder. On top of that, the Bearcats went just 2-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down.
Ridder had a tough evening. The senior completed just 17 of his 32 attempts for 144 yards and was sacked six times, including two from Alabama star Will Anderson. Young, his redshirt freshman counterpart, had a season-low in passing yards but threw three touchdown passes in the win.
Young’s 44-yard strike to Ja’Corey Brooks was his best throw of the night and it gave the Crimson Tide a 17-3 lead just before halftime.
A 44-YARD TOUCHDOWN DIME FROM BRYCE YOUNG 🎯 pic.twitter.com/QQAEnF0898
— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2021
And early in the fourth, when Cincinnati was still hanging around at 17-6, Young pretty much put the game on ice when he found Cameron Latu for a nine-yard score.
With the win, No. 1 Alabama advances to the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis where it will play No. 3 Georgia, who battered No. 2 Michigan, 34-11.
Alabama now has the chance to repeat as national champions and win its seventh title during Saban’s remarkable 15-season run in Tuscaloosa.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, will be left to wonder when it will be able to return to this stage. With an impending move to the Big 12 and an expanded CFP field on the horizon, it could be sooner than many think.
Cincinnati had chances, but Alabama's defense stepped up
Every time it looked like Cincinnati would cut into Alabama’s lead, the Tide defense responded with a clutch play.
On UC’s opening drive, Ridder had Alec Pierce open for a touchdown but his pass was swatted down at the line of scrimmage. It was a recurring theme for Ridder, as the Alabama defense had six pass breakups.
And when Cincinnati advanced into the red zone on its opening drive of the second half, the Alabama defense again cut that drive short and forced a field goal.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the day for the Tide defense came after a rare mistake from Young. Midway through the third quarter, Young felt pressure up the middle and lobbed one over his intended receiver, resulting in an interception.
The score was still 17-6 at this point and Cincinnati took over at midfield with the chance to make it a one-score game. Instead, the Bearcats quickly went three-and-out, losing 16 yards in the process. Cincinnati lost five yards with an illegal shift penalty, lost a yard on a first-down run, had a Ridder pass knocked down on second down and then Ridder was sacked by Anderson for a loss of 10 yards on third down.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 31, 2021
The ball went back to Alabama, and the Tide quickly marched down the field and scored to put the game away.
This Alabama defense has had its struggles during the season, but it played arguably its best game of the year on the biggest stage.
Despite the result, Cincinnati belonged
Cincinnati made history this season, and this performance shouldn’t take away from that.
It was a CFP appearance that was two years in the making. After consecutive 11-win seasons in 2018 and 2019, the Bearcats had an undefeated regular season in 2020 — a season played at the height of the pandemic. With no premier non-conference games on the schedule, the 9-0 Bearcats controversially finished No. 8 in the final CFP rankings. They then lost a 24-21 heartbreaker to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.
This year, though, the Bearcats made a statement by beating Notre Dame in South Bend. From there, they went undefeated in American Athletic Conference play and were able to make history by cracking the top four, becoming the first non-Power Five program to do so.
Cincinnati showed its strengths against Alabama. The defense made life tough for Young. He had pressure in his face and very few open passing lanes as Young was limited to a season-low in passing yards by a stellar UC secondary.
UC's weaknesses were evident, too. Alabama countered with a power rushing game with Robinson and continually had the Bearcats front on their heels. Offensively, Jerome Ford had his moments, but Ridder missed too many throws to really give the Bearcats a chance. UC’s lack of top-end speed and explosiveness at the skill positions was noticeable compared to Alabama.
But Alabama makes a lot of teams look this way. Look at the CFP semifinal results of the past: 38-0 over Michigan State, 24-7 over Washington, 24-6 over Clemson, 45-34 over Oklahoma, 31-14 over Notre Dame.
Cincinnati belonged as much as any of those teams.