ANNAPOLIS – The Cincinnati Bearcats (10-2) and Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6) went head to head Monday in the Military Bowl at Jack Stephens Field at the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Dec. 31.
Both teams were making their second appearances in the Military Bowl; the first appearances came against each other in 2014, and the Hokies had grabbed the victory. This time, though, a late touchdown by sophomore running back Michael Warren II pushed the Bearcats past the Hokies and gave Cincinnati its first win in Annapolis by a score of 35-31.
The light drizzle that started at kickoff morphed into a heavier rain as the game progressed, but neither squad was fazed by the slippery conditions as they traded touchdowns. However, both teams finished the game without key players on the field. Virginia Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker went down with a hamstring injury in the first quarter and watched from the sidelines as the final game in his college career came to a close. Cincinnati starting quarterback Desmond Ridder appeared to roll awkwardly on his leg after taking a sack in the first quarter and did not return to the field.
Backup quarterback Hayden Moore stepped up in Ridder’s absence and went 11-for-25 for 120 yards. Moore even ran for a 25-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“I knew this opportunity was going to be coming sometime this year, and I always had to be ready,” said Moore. “When I saw what happened, in the blink of an eye I just went and grabbed my helmet. As I was walking to the huddle, everybody said ‘hey, you got this.’ So that really encouraged me. I just got in there and started running the plays like nothing’s changed.”
Hokies running back Steven Peoples scored the game-tying touchdown in the second quarter and had to be helped to the sidelines afterward. Sophomore Deshawn McClease entered the fray in Peoples’ place and finished the afternoon with 102 yards on 13 carries.
The score was knotted at 14 apiece when the third quarter began. The rain had started to fall harder at halftime, but that didn’t stop McClease from darting through small holes and spinning away from Bearcats defenders. McClease’s efforts resulted in a successful 28-yard field goal by kicker Brian Johnson, and the Hokies were back in the lead.
Before Virginia Tech could catch its breath, however, Warren was dashing down the field untouched for the first of his pair of touchdowns. Warren, who earned Most Valuable Player honors after the game, registered 166 yards on 20 carries.
“I was just being patient, and the O-line was doing their job and double-teaming.
Everything was just clicking out there in the game and the O-line did a great job, especially at the end,” said Warren. “When you keep running the ball and wearing the other team down, they’re not going to want to see any more of that.”
The Hokies regained the lead a couple of possessions later when a pass interference call against the Bearcats gave Virginia Tech great field position, and junior tight end Chris Cunningham capitalized with a two-yard touchdown. Quarterback Ryan Willis connected with a laser pass to Cunningham, who stood all alone in the end zone waiting for the go-ahead score.
After Moore opened the final quarter with a rushing touchdown, Willis decided he wasn’t going to be outdone and rolled right after a fake handoff before running into the end zone himself for a five-yard score.
Hokies linebacker Dylan Rivers intercepted Moore a few plays later. However, Virginia Tech coughed the ball back up to Cincinnati when Willis fumbled during a sack on the ensuing possession.
The Bearcats trailed by three with just 90 seconds left to play and looked to be in danger of repeating 2014’s Military Bowl loss to the Hokies. Cincinnati drove down the field, and then Warren muscled his way through the pile, broke a pair of tackles and dragged a defender into the paint with him as he earned the game-winning touchdown.
The victory lifted the Bearcats to an 11-2 record and marked just the third time in school history that the Cincinnati football team has won at least 11 games.
“This is something that in the years to come I can tell my kids, that I was one of three teams to get 11 wins,” said Moore. “Even if I didn’t play today, I would still be saying that, because I am so proud of this team. I’ve never won a bowl game here, so this was really huge for me, to experience a bowl win.”
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster discussed the fact that the Hokies were finishing the season with a losing record for the first time in 26 years.
“It stings…it’s disappointing. It’s been a long time, and I’m really proud of the consistency and how we’ve played over the years,” said Foster. “Obviously, we’re not satisfied; even if we were 7-6 we wouldn’t be satisfied. We’ve got a young group of men, and some of them need to realize what it takes to perform and play at this level and to be consistently good at all aspects. That’s what we’re going to roll up our sleeves and work towards.”