CINCINNATI — Senior tight end Josh Whyle didn’t walk off the field at Nippert Stadium until 5 p.m. on Friday, almost 90 minutes after No. 21 Cincinnati’s 27-24 loss to No. 19 Tulane.
It was not the exit Whyle envisioned, leaving his home field for the final time after the first home loss in his five seasons at Cincinnati. The team captain and standout player — who was a program-defining recruit in the 2018 class and set the program record for career touchdowns by a tight end — finished Friday’s loss, on senior day, without a catch, in a game wh the Bearcats fell just short. It was a sour note near the end of an incredible, memorable career.
“That’s a tough one to swallow, more so than anything for the seniors. Nothing more me and everyone in that locker room wanted to do than send those guys out the right way,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “Everybody is hurting, but nobody more than those seniors. They meant more than anything to me, to this program.”
The loss means Tulane will host next weekend’s American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Cincinnati is still mathematically alive for the visiting spot, but it will at least require UCF losing to USF on Saturday. Most likely, the Bearcats’ conference run is done, with only a bowl game remaining.
It looked, for a moment, as if a resilient Bearcats bunch would stave off that fate. Trailing 20-10 in the second half, quarterback Evan Prater — making his first career start — led back-to-back touchdown drives of 14 and 13 plays. The latter was a pendulum of emotions. It came on the heels of a fourth-down stop by Cincinnati’s defense and featured a pair of fourth-down conversions and a stunning third-and-9 completion from Prater to Will Pauling that initially was ruled incomplete before getting overturned on review. A 15-yard touchdown run by Ryan Montgomery gave the Bearcats a 24-20 lead with 6:27 left in the game.
It felt as if a team that had pulled out close victory after close victory all season, seemingly by muscle memory at times, was about to do it again in dramatic fashion.
Instead, the Green Wave answered emphatically. An offense that rushed for 221 yards and controlled the clock for much of the game flipped the script with a four-play touchdown drive that featured a pair of 30-yard passes, including quarterback Michael Pratt to receiver Duece Watts for a touchdown over the head of senior cornerback Arquon Bush.
The Bearcats’ offense had two more chances, the final one backed deep into their own territory with no timeouts, but it couldn’t muster one last long, magical drive. When Prater’s fourth-and-15 pass bounced off the hands of receiver Tyler Scott with less than a minute remaining, it effectively ended Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak, as well as its run of two straight home AAC title games and, probably, three straight conference championship appearances. The reload-not-rebuild effort landed just off the mark.
“It stings. There’s no easy way to go through a loss, especially a loss at home, something we haven’t felt in a while,” sixth-year senior linebacker Wilson Huber said. “Ultimately, we weren’t good enough today. It’s something we have to live with and move on.”
Cincinnati faced its share of adversity, most notably the loss of starting quarterback Ben Bryant, who is out for the season with a foot injury suffered at Temple last week. Prater stepped in, something many fans had been calling for, and had both his strengths and limitations put on full display. He finished with 83 rushing yards on 18 attempts, the threat of his running ability a catalyst for Cincinnati’s season-high 235 yards on the ground. But Prater also was just 10-for-26 through the air for 102 yards and one interception, and his throwing struggles hampered UC’s last-ditch comeback efforts.
The Bearcats also were without rising star Dontay Corleone on the defensive line as Tulane running back Tyjae Spears ran for a season-high 181 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries. A defense that has provided the backbone of Cincinnati football’s rise during the past five years got a big fourth-down, fourth-quarter stop, but it couldn’t come up with the turnover or momentum-swinging play it has provided so often in recent memory.
The parallels between Cincinnati’s 2022 and 2019 seasons only grew stronger as the year went on, right down to the change at starting quarterback in the final game of the regular season, with Bryant playing a role in both instances. But more glaring Friday was the difference between a veteran, unflappable roster in 2021 that conquered all obstacles and a 2022 group that couldn’t quite overcome all the departed talent.
“I don’t sit here and evaluate (the season) right now. It’s too hard to do that, everybody is hurting. So we evaluate this game right now,” Fickell said. “It’s disappointing, doesn’t put you in a position where you want to be. But we have to react and respond.”
Cincinnati’s season is not over. Even without a spot in the AAC championship, the Bearcats are headed to a bowl game, albeit not the New Year’s Six bowl they were hoping for. The fan base also will have to endure an added week of Fickell chatter on the annual coaching carousel, something that has been deferred the past three seasons thanks to the conference title appearances. Regardless, attention now turns to the 2023 season for the Bearcats, with the additional bowl practices serving just as much as preparation for the upcoming maiden voyage in the Big 12.
“This is just huge motivation, fuel to keep getting better,” Prater said. “We have a lot of places to improve, and it has to start right now, heading into this bowl game and then heading into next year.”
There is no shortage of interesting, exciting and optimistic storylines for the future of the program, all of which can be analyzed and parsed in the coming weeks and months. This program still has a chance to win 10 games, and in the big picture, it is moving in a positive and encouraging direction. The past five seasons will be cherished and celebrated for many years to come. But the emotion that loomed largest in Friday’s immediate aftermath was a feeling of finality.
The end of a 32-game home winning streak. The end of Cincinnati’s run atop the AAC. The end of Cincinnati’s run in the AAC, period. The end of the road for players like Whyle, Huber, Jabari Taylor and others, except for the bowl game. The last vestiges of last year’s College Football Playoff run.
The Bearcats lost a game in Nippert Stadium for the first time since Nov. 10, 2017. More than five full calendar years — 1,841 days. It was a forgotten feeling for many and a completely unfamiliar one for some. That didn’t make it any less painful.
(Top photo of Cincinnati’s Charles McClelland, front, and Tulane’s Keith Cooper Jr.: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)