History and legacy were on the line Monday when Virginia Tech met Cincinnati in the Military Bowl.
Virginia Tech needed a victory in order to avoid its first losing season since 1992. The Hokies had to add an extra game to the schedule to achieve the six wins necessary to earn a bowl bid for the 26th straight year – longest current streak in the country.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati was seeking just the third 11-win season in the 131-year history of its program. The Bearcats have authored a dramatic turnaround under second-year head coach Luke Fickell after finishing 4-8 in 2017.
Following a back-and-forth affair that was played in difficult weather conditions and featured a slew of penalties, it was the Bearcats who wrote another chapter in their football folklore.
Standout tailback Michael Warren II rushed for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns to lift Cincinnati to a thrilling 35-31 victory over Virginia Tech before an announced crowd of 32,832 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
This was Cincinnati’s first postseason victory since beating Duke in the 2012 Belk Bowl.
“It means a lot, especially after being home last year and watching other teams play (bowl) games,” Warren said. “It left a chip on our shoulder and motivated us to be on this stage.”
Quarterback Hayden Moore came off the bench to pass for 120 yards and a touchdown for the Bearcats (11-2), who outlasted the Hokies (6-7) in a contest that featured seven lead changes and was played in a steady rain. Moore, who replaced injured starter Desmond Ridder on the second series of the first quarter, also ran for 64 yards and a score.
Warren, who was named Most Valuable Player, scored the game-winning touchdown on an 8-yard run up the middle with 1:29 remaining. Safety James Wiggins intercepted a long pass thrown deep into Cincinnati territory with less than 30 seconds left to seal the game, which saw the two teams combine for 905 offensive yards and 188 penalty yards.
Fickell, who replaced Tommy Tuberville as head coach, has been reluctant to talk about the fact his rebuilding job is way ahead of schedule.
“People always ask ‘Did you exceed expectations?’ We’re never going to exceed expectations. We don’t ever want to impose expectations that limit us or make us feel like we’re not progressing,” said Fickell, a longtime assistant at Ohio State. “It’s great to see the fruits of your labor. These players are seeing that how they’ve worked and how they’ve sacrificed has led to what they are experience right now.”
Moore started all 12 games in 2017 and a total of 20 over the course of his career, but lost the quarterback job to Ridder following the first game of this season. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior played like a seasoned veteran after Ridder suffered an ankle injury after being dragged down from behind while attempting to throw on the run.
“I knew this opportunity was coming at some time during the season so I had to be ready,” Moore said. “I didn’t blink an eye. I just grabbed my helmet and as I was walking into the huddle, everybody was saying ‘You got this.’ They were behind me the whole way.”
Warren, who was forced out of the game briefly with an injury, was the catalyst of Cincinnati’s frantic five-play, 64-yard drive that ended with him roaring up the middle for a touchdown with 1:29 remaining. The 5-foot-11, 218-pound sophomore, ran for 54 yards on the final march.
“The offensive line did a great job of getting the push, especially at the end,” said Warren, who finished the season with 1,329 rushing yards. “When you keep running the ball and wearing the other team down, they’re not going to want to see any more of that.”
Quarterback Ryan Willis completed 20 of 31 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns while backup tailback Deshawn McClease rushed for 102 yards for Virginia Tech, which was designated as the home team and had a huge contingent of fans in the stands. The Hokies beat Marshall in a hastily arranged game to keep the record bowl streak alive, but could not extend the run of 25 consecutive winning seasons.
“It stings. It’s disappointing,” admitted defensive coordinator, a member of the Virginia Tech coaching staff since 1987. “I’m proud of the consistency and how we have played over the years. We’ve got a young group of men, and some of them need to realize what it takes to perform at this level.”
An entertaining first half ended in a 14-14 tie with each team posting almost identical statistics. Ridder and Willis both threw touchdown passes while Warren and McClease rushed for 50 and 47 yards, respectively.
Willis completed a 20-yard pass to tight end Chris Cunningham on fourth-and-two then tossed a 22-yard fade pass to wide receiver Eric Kumah as Virginia Tech scored on the game’s opening possession.
Cincinnati answered in impressive fashion as Ridder connected with Warren for a 26-yard gain then found backup tailback Charles McClelland open over the middle on third down for a 38-yard catch and run to the end zone.
Following an exchange of punts, Cincinnati moved ahead on a strange play. Warren took a direct snap while in Wildcat formation and fumbled after hitting the line of scrimmage. Wide receiver Khalil Lewis alertly spotted the ball squirting into the end zone and fell on it for a touchdown that made it 14-7 at the 11:22 mark of the second period.
Virginia Tech responded immediately with a 12-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that retied the score. Freshman wide receiver Tre Turner had the big play – going in motion, taking a direct handoff and turning the corner to pick up 23 yards to get the Hokies into the red zone.
A replay review revealed that Willis did not score on a designed keeper and Peoples wound up getting the payoff with a 1-yard plunge, making it 14-14 with 7:04 remaining in the first half.
Kicker Brian Johnson briefly gave Virginia Tech a 17-14 lead with a 28-yard field goal to cap the opening possession of the second half. It didn’t last long as Cincinnati needed just six plays and 1:05 to march 65 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
Warren burst through a huge hole on the right side and did not have a single defender between him and the end zone in scoring on a 40-yard scamper that gave the Bearcats a 21-17 lead with 9:16 left in the third period.
The Hokies retook the lead, 24-21, with a methodical 14-play, 72-yard drive that was divided equally between pass and run. Willis completed third-down throws for gains of 14 and 18 yards to keep the chains moving then connected with Cunningham for a 2-yard touchdown toss off play-action.
Back-and-forth it went with the Bearcats capitalizing on a pass interference penalty that resulted in a third down conversion and led to a 19-yard touchdown trot by Moore, who raced untouched up the middle on a designed draw.
Cincinnati’s third lead, at 28-24 with 12:44 to go, was short-lived. Ryan Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards into enemy territory, giving Virginia Tech great field position.
Three plays later, Willis dropped a perfectly-placed pass into the arms of Turner for a 40-yard pickup. A targeting penalty on Cincinnati set up first-and-goal and Willis scored off a 5-yard keeper to put Virginia Tech back ahead, 31-28 with 10:32 remaining.
Moments later, linebacker Dylan Rivers came up with his first career interception and his 18-yard return into the red zone gave Virginia Tech a golden opportunity to gain some separation. However, head coach Justin Fuente’s gamble to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line backfired when Willis fumbled and the ball was recovered by Cincinnati middle linebacker Bryan Wright.
“It was a power play-action. They submarined the center and I got stumbled up,” Willis explained. “I went to throw and the ball slipped out of my hands.”
Both sides felt that failure to score a touchdown on fourth down and possibly take a 10-point lead was the difference in the game.
“To make that stop down there on fourth down was huge defensively,” Fickell said.
“We had an opportunity to go up by two scores and we didn’t,” Foster said.
Cincinnati made it just across midfield before having to punt with 6:53 left on the clock. Ryan Jones boomed a 46-yard that pinned the Hokies down at their own 2-yard line and the Bearcats wound up getting the ball back with good field position with 3:45 to go.
Warren immediately ripped off a 31-yard run to move the ball into Virginia Tech territory and followed with back-to-back runs of 12 and 8 yards that produced the game’s final touchdown.