CINCINNATI — Jerome Ford rushed for 187 yards and two touchdowns and Desmond Ridder threw three touchdown passes as No. 3 Cincinnati broke open a close game in the third quarter and rolled past No. 16 Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday.
The Bearcats who are ranked No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, are in position to become the first non-Power 5 team to qualify. The final rankings will be announced Sunday.
Cincinnati (12-0) which extended the nation’s second-longest home winning streak to 27, scored three touchdowns in fewer than eight minutes to finish off its second straight AAC crown.
Cougars junior QB Clayton Tune passed for 250 yards with two touchdowns and an interception as Houston (11-2) lost for the first time since dropping its season-opener to Texas Tech on Sept. 4.
It was a wild first quarter on Saturday with the teams combining for 24 points and 316 yards.
After the Cougars settled for a field goal on its opening possession, the Bearcats responded by going 82 yards in five plays capped by Ridder’s 25-yard TD pass to Tyler Scott.
Nathaniel Dell’s diving 16-yard TD catch put the Cougars back in front, 10-7. But on the first play of Cincinnati’s next possession, Ford broke free for a 79-yard TD run to give the Bearcats a four-point lead.
Cincinnati led 14-13 at halftime despite Houston having possession for more than 22 minutes.
But momentum shifted to the Bearcats early in the third quarter.
After a pass interference penalty on Marcus Jones negated a fourth-down stop by the Cougars, Ridder tossed an 8-yard TD pass to Leonard Taylor.
On Houston’s next play, Bearcats linebacker Joel Dublanko intercepted Tune and Ridder hit Alec Pierce for a 21-yard TD. Just like that, it was 28-13 Bearcats.
Ford had another long touchdown run of 42 yards, and within fewer than eight minutes, Cincinnati turned a one-point lead into a 22-point advantage.
Houston: Momentum was on Houston’s side at halftime when they trailed 14-13. But two crucial plays in the third quarter, leading to 21 straight points for the Bearcats. The first one was the pass interference penalty on Jones. The second was an interception thrown by Tune on the first play after the Bearcats scored.
Cincinnati: Despite being 12-0, the Bearcats have mostly relied on help from other teams to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. They got more assistance earlier on Saturday when Baylor held on to beat Oklahoma State in the BIG 12 championship game. The Bearcats also needed a quality win to put alongside winning at Notre Dame and beating Houston helps with that.
Houston: A bowl game yet to be determined.
Cincinnati: A possible berth in the College Football Playoff.