GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Sam Crosa kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired to give No. 17 Cincinnati a 46-43 victory over East Carolina on Saturday night.
Desmond Ridder threw for 161 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 146 more and led the winning drive in the final 1:10 for the East Division-leading Bearcats (7-1, 4-0 American Athletic Conference). The 24 1/2-point favorites trailed by 12 points with less than 9 minutes left before escaping with their sixth win in a row.
“We showed a lot of heart,” coach Luke Fickell said. “This team, they’ve got something more than I even thought.”
Ahmad Gardner returned an interception 62 yards for a touchdown with 4:38 remaining to give Cincinnati a short-lived 43-40 lead, and Michael Warren II rushed for 141 yards and matched a career high with three touchdown runs.
Holton Ahlers threw for a school-record 535 yards, matched a career high with four touchdown passes and rushed for a score for the Pirates (3-6, 0-5). They were trying to beat a Top 25 team for the first time since 2014.
Jake Verity tied it at 43 with his third field goal, a 27-yarder with 1:14 remaining — plenty of time for Ridder and the Bearcats to rally.
Ridder started the go-ahead drive with a 30-yard scramble into East Carolina territory and hit Malick Mbodj with three passes to get the Bearcats to the 15 with 4 seconds left. After three timeouts, Crosa’s kick at the buzzer was perfect.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ five-game winning streak appeared over in a wave of 12 penalties and a season-worst 117 penalty yards and an inability to stop Ahlers. They came to life just in time to preserve their highest national ranking since 2009 and keep their league title and Cotton Bowl hopes alive.
East Carolina: This one is going to sting the Pirates, who had their first victory over a ranked opponent since 2014 in their hands and appeared headed for the cornerstone victory of first-year coach Mike Houston’s rebuilding project. But they couldn’t find a way to stop Ridder and the Bearcats in the final 70 seconds.
“You’re playing a team like that and you have the opportunity — we just couldn’t make the plays at the right time,” Houston said. “You’re going to look tomorrow at 20 different plays that, if you make any one of them, you win the game.”
Cincinnati: Plays host to Connecticut on Saturday.
East Carolina: Faces a second straight Top 25 opponent in a visit to No. 15 SMU on Saturday.