Final Score: No. 4 Cincinnati 35, No. 21 Houston 20

Brief Recap: Someone, quick, find video of whatever coach Luke Fickell said to his Bearcats in the locker room at halftime of Saturday’s American Championship Game. It must have been something for the ages.

With a trip to the College Football Playoff waiting as the reward at the end of an unbeaten season, Cincinnati was a game away from history. But Houston wasn’t interested in playing along during the first half. The Cougars scored on each of their first 3 possessions, forced 3-and-outs on each of Cincinnati’s last 2 first-half possessions, and went into the break with a 14-13 lead.

Things changed in a hurry once the second half began.

The Bearcats took the opening possession of the third quarter 75 yards in 6 plays and 3 minutes, finding the end zone on an 8-yard pass from quarterback Desmond Ridder to Taylor Leonard.

On Houston’s next play from scrimmage, UC linebacker Joel Dublanko skied for an interception. Cincinnati found the end zone 2 plays later—a 21-yard pass from Ridder to Alex Pierce.

Houston faced a 3rd-and-22 on its next drive and, after punting away, Cincinnati put more points on the board thanks to a 3-play, 62-yard drive. Ridder hit Josh Whyle for 18 yards to move into Houston territory, then tailback Jerome Ford broke off a 42-yard score.

Houston ran 11 plays in the third quarter and lost 6 yards. Cincinnati had 3 sacks, forced 2 fumbles, and picked off the one pass. A 14-13 Houston lead after 2 quarters became a 35-14 Cincinnati lead after 3 quarters.

The Cougars got points in the fourth quarter, but Cincinnati’s third-quarter explosion made most of the game’s final 15 minutes academic.

Key Player: Desmond Ridder will get the headlines as the quarterback with the touchdown tosses, but Jerome Ford was the engine for the Bearcats. On just 18 rushing attempts, he had 187 yards. Ford ripped off runs of 18, 42, and 79 yards in the game. The junior runner and former Alabama back led the AAC in rushing yards per game (94.3) and touchdowns this season (17). It was his 5th game this season over 100 yards.

Key Moment: It’s Dublanko’s interception. The game was still close when it occurred, as the Bearcats had just a 20-14 lead. Being the first offensive play of the half for Houston, though, it couldn’t have been a worse start to the quarter. A response from Houston on the drive and perhaps the game looks different. Instead, it set the tone for what would come: nothing easy for Houston.

Key Stat: There are a handful of numbers to go with here, but one that sort of makes everything else make sense is 12—the number of times the Bearcats defense hit Houston for a loss. The Bearcats had 12 tackles for loss and 8 sacks, the final one coming on a 4th-and-6 play with 2 minutes to go that sealed the deal. Houston had just the 1 turnover, it was a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone, it had the ball nearly twice as long as Cincy, and ran nearly 30 more plays. But the Bearcats averaged an absurd 8.9 yards per play and Houston, thanks to the aggressive, attacking UC front, averaged under 5. A yards-per-play margin around 1 or 2 is healthy. One over 4 yards either way signals a curb-stomping at the line of scrimmage. Cincinnati was in the backfield a ton.

What it means for the Playoff: It remains to be seen what the committee will decide when push comes to shove, but what it should mean is a Group of 5 program is going to the College Football Playoff for the first time in the CFP era. The Bearcats capped an unbeaten 13-0 season with a conference championship. It has a win over Notre Dame on the road, and now a win over a ranked Houston team that entered the game 11-1. They’ll find out Sunday.