No. 3 Cincinnati wins AAC title, states playoff case with 13-0 record

AP photo by Jeff Dean / The University of Cincinnati's Bearcat mascot stands in front of the student section during the first half of the American Athletic Conference football title game against visiting Houston on Saturday.

CINCINNATI - Jerome Ford rushed for 187 yards and two touchdowns, and Desmond Ridder threw three touchdown passes as Cincinnati broke open a close matchup in the third quarter and rolled past Houston 35-20 in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday.

The Bearcats (13-0), No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, are in position to become the first program from a Group of Five conference to qualify for the four-team event, and coach Luke Fickell believes they have done enough.

"The resounding statement is what we did on that football field," said Fickell, whose team won at Notre Dame to hand the Fighting Irish their only loss this season. "Nobody is going to call and ask us what we think. I don't think these guys can be denied that opportunity. It would be a shame."

Cincinnati, which extended the nation's second-longest home winning streak to 27 games, scored three touchdowns in fewer than eight minutes to finish off its second straight AAC crown, having beaten the University of Central Florida last season. The fans rushed the field amid a shower of confetti.

"I don't really remember last year, but this year I wanted to get out there and celebrate with the fans," Ridder said. "It's a blessing to have never lost a game I've played at Nippert. We have such a great atmosphere here."

Houston junior Clayton Tune passed for 250 yards with two touchdowns and an interception as the Cougars (11-2) lost for the first time since dropping their season opener to Texas Tech on Sept. 4.

It was a wild first quarter Saturday, with the teams combining for 24 points and 316 yards, but Cincinnati led 14-13 at halftime despite Houston having possession for more than 22 minutes.

"Going into the half, it was a battle," Fickell said.

Momentum shifted to the Bearcats early in the third quarter, when they used big plays to pull away. In less than eight minutes, Cincinnati turned a one-point lead into a 22-point advantage.

"We went toe to toe with them for as long as we could," Houston coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They are first class and deserving of top four. I don't know how you keep Cincinnati out."

There have been a few occasions this season when things weren't looking great for the Bearcats at halftime. Each time, the seniors managed to rally their teammates resulting in an immediate response in the third quarter.

On Saturday, it was Ridder and senior cornerback Coby Bryant who led the locker room charge.

"When you have an older group, you can kind of see the look in their eyes," Fickell said. "They came out in the second half on a mission."