ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell could tolerate his team’s slow start, and he may have expected some issues defending Navy’s unconventional offense.
What was really grating was the fact that No. 2 Cincinnati took a double-digit lead in the second half and then had to hold on late for the win.
“We’ve got to find ways, especially on the road, when you’re up, whatever it is, 13 points or something, to kind of close things out,” Fickell said. “That’s probably the only thing that I’m somewhat disappointed we couldn’t and didn’t do today, but we needed a challenge and we got one.”
The unbeaten Bearcats actually led by 17 at one point, but the outcome wasn’t decided until Arquon Bush intercepted a pass with 25 seconds left to wrap up a 27-20 victory over Navy on Saturday.
The Bearcats (7-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) weren’t at their best, but they never looked like they were in significant danger until the final minute, when Navy scored to make it a one-score game and then recovered an onside kick with 48 seconds left.
The Midshipmen (1-6, 1-4) didn’t do much with that final chance, though. Tai Lavatai’s third-down pass was picked off by Bush near the Cincinnati 45.
The Bearcats were fortunate to lead by three after a mistake-filled first half, but Cincinnati eventually snapped out of its offensive funk. Desmond Ridder threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Navy hosted a top-five team for the first time since 1984, and the Midshipmen didn’t trail until a wild swing at the end of the first half. With the game tied at 10, Navy was driving and looked poised to use up the remaining time in the second quarter. But after losing yards on back-to-back plays, the Midshipmen had to try a 51-yard field goal.
The kick was blocked, and Cincinnati’s Deshawn Pace nearly ran it back for a touchdown, but he stepped out of bounds with 1 second left. That was enough time for Alex Bales to kick a 52-yard field goal for a 13-10 lead.
Jerome Ford’s 43-yard touchdown run made it 20-10, and Ridder added a 3-yard TD pass to Josh Whyle later in the third.
Lavatai scored on a 1-yard run for Navy in the final minute of the game.
“I’m very very proud of our team, proud of our defense, but that’s not good enough,” said Navy cornerback Jamal Glenn, who had an interception and recovered the late onside kick. “Coming into the game … we stressed, moral victories is not a thing. Yeah, they’re the No. 2 team in the country, but we want to win games.”
Cincinnati was coming off back-to-back 50-point performances, but the first half of this one was a slog. Navy drove 79 yards in 7:12 and took a 7-0 lead on Lavatai’s 2-yard run.
The Bearcats quickly tied it on a 31-yard pass from Ridder to Whyle.
With Cincinnati down 10-7, Ridder threw an interception deep in Navy territory, but after that, the Bearcats scored on their next four possessions.
Cincinnati: Navy presents some unique challenges for its opponents, but it wasn’t the option-based offense that was causing the Bearcats that much trouble. Cincinnati just didn’t look smooth offensively for much of the day.
Navy: The Midshipmen kept the Bearcats from making too many big plays early on, and Navy’s rarely used passing game was good enough to mount a comeback at the end.
While Cincinnati was struggling with Navy, No. 3 Oklahoma was also having problems with Kansas. This game will fuel the Bearcats’ detractors, but they remained unbeaten and have plenty of chances to win more impressively later in the season.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats play at Tulane next Saturday.
Navy: The Midshipmen play at Tulsa on Friday night.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister
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