Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Re-living the Dream

I haven’t blogged in a long time.  Life tends to get in the way.  However, my facebook memories keep popping up with pictures from the 2008 UC football season and I couldn’t resist.  The Bearcats won their first Big East Championship and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl.  As someone who grew up attending nearly every UC home football game this was unfathomable.  I was someone who constantly sang the virtues of UC football…who was personally offended by UC basketball fans that chose to support OSU, Notre Dame or Michigan in football.  I was adamant growing up we had a perfectly good, D1 football program right here in town that had potential to grow.  I dreamed of something like what 2008 became but the reality was so much more. 

While 2009 is rightfully viewed as the pinnacle of Bearcat football and is unquestionably the best season in Bearcat football history, 2008 was the place where it all came together.  If you followed UC football close back then you thought something special might happen.  2006 and 2007 had shown that UC could compete at the highest levels and 2008 promised to be their best team yet.  I was so convinced that UC could win the conference and make a BCS Bowl I decided to attend as many games as possible.  I wound up going to 12 of 14 games (missing trips to UConn and Hawaii).  Despite the anticipation for what the season could be, when you look back it’s incredible what UC achieved that season given the adversity they faced.

The Bearcats started the season taking care of business against Eastern Kentucky, then took a trip to Norman, Oklahoma.  Sam Bradford was magnificent and Oklahoma unveiled their new, incredibly up tempo offense.  The Bearcats couldn’t stop them and despite keeping up with them decently for a good stretch ultimately got run off the field.  More importantly, the Bearcats lost their starting quarterback for what most thought would be the entire season.  Suddenly, the expectations for the season took a hit. 

The Bearcats followed that loss up by running Miami off the field (no surprise there), but then struggled at Akron partly due to an injury to Tony Pike.  Down 15 to 14 in the fourth quarter, Zach Collaros helped get the Bearcats in range for the game winning field goal and the Bearcat defense held on late.  The Bearcats won at Marshall the next week with Chazz Anderson giving a serviceable effort.  The following week the Bearcats opened conference play against Rutgers.  What I remember about that game was the punt fest.  Neither offense was particularly effective, but Kevin Huber was great and UC snuck out with a 13-10 win. 

Then it all fell apart.  The Bearcats went to Uconn.  Pike tried to play but was abysmal going 10 for 27.  Chazz Anderson really wasn’t any better.  The Bearcats got run off the field losing 40 to 16.  They fell to 1-1 in the conference with the meat of their conference schedule still to come.  They recovered beating USF at home on a Thursday night.  Tony Pike was back and played well.  The Defense made Grothe look bad all night.  This set up what I consider the most important three game stretch in Bearcat football History. 

There was no way for the Bearcats to win the conference without winning at West Virginia.  West Virginia was the class of the conference.  They’d blown out Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl the year before.  They still had Pat White.  They were a force in the Big East.  We traveled to Mograntown, West Virginia hoping for a great performance and expecting the fans to be all over us. 

Bearcats @ Mountaineers, November 8, 2008

I should say, their fans were great.  A group came up to us in the tailgate lot and had us join their tailgate.  We partied the entire program with WVU fans with zero issues.  We walked to the stadium and found are seats in the Cincinnati section.  The place was electric.  UC chose to receive to open the game and Mardy Gilyard took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown.  The UC section was rocking and the Bearcats seemingly controlled the entire game from that point forward.

The Bearcats had the ball with 2:11 to go up 13 and on their own 2.  WVU stuffed them 3 straight plays and used their last timeouts.  On fourth down the Bearcats took a safety instead of punting hoping to avoid disaster.  After the safety it was 20 to 9, but there was only 1:11 to play.  UC gave the ball back to WVU on their own 39 yard line.  WVU took seven plays to go 61 yards for a touchdown.  There were 18 seconds left and WVU was down 20 to 15.  They had no timeouts. 

I remember turning to my friend unable to believe what had happened.  He tried to say, it’s still over.  WVU converted the two point conversion and suddenly it was 20 to 17.  WVU had to onside kick…they did and recovered.  I’m stunned at that point.  Even after recovering they had to get into field goal range.  They went 3 plays for 21 yards setting up a game tying field goal from 52 yards.  I’m loudly saying I can’t believe this is happening, while my friend tells me he isn’t going to hit a 52 yard field goal.  I remember asking him, “Have you not been watching the last minute?”  Sure enough, McAfee drills a 52 yard field goal as time expires.  It was 20 to 7, UC with the ball with 1:15 to go.  The game was now tied 20 to 20. 

How this team responded in overtime is something I will never forget.  The Bearcats gave up one first down, but stopped Devine twice, leaving WVU with third and 3 from the 7.  WVU was made for third and 3s.  I still remember watching the play and seeing open space ahead for Pat White as he tried to take off toward it.  Somehow Terrill Byrd caught him before he could get moving, sacking him for a 3 yard loss.  The Bearcats held him to 3 setting up what for me is one of the most memorable plays in Bearcat history. 

The Bearcats got a first down on a pass to Goodman to open OT, then after a penalty and a Jacob Ramsey five yard run were sitting 2nd and goal from the 2 yard line.  The Bearcats came out in a rare power set.  They ran play action and you could see Kazeem Alli flash wide open before Pike ever threw the football.  As the ball is in the air I was ready to explode.  He caught the ball and bedlam encompasses the entire Bearcat section.  From being sure we’d win, to being devastated to be in overtime, to unparralled exhilaration all within the span of minutes.  Suddenly, a Big East title and BCS Bowl seemed more real than ever. 

Bearcats @ Cardinals, November 14, 2008

 The Cardinals were struggling as the Bearcats traveled to Louisville, but this was a rivalry and the Bearcats hadn’t beat Louisville since 2002.  Even during a really strong 2007 season, an inferior Cardinals team had managed to beat the Bearcats at Nippert.  The 2008 game took place on a chilly, rainy Friday night.  The first half was back and forth with the Bearcats falling behind 17 to 14 entering the locker room.  The Cardinals expanded the lead to 20 to 14 after a Bearcat fumble. 

The entire game had a sloppy field.  With both teams turning it over and the offenses unable to consistently sustain drives.  The Bearcats took the lead on a 23 yard touchdown pass to Dominick Goodman (an awesome, full out diving catch by Goody) halfway through the third quarter.  After a Tony Pike interception early in the fourth quarter, the Bearcat sent Dustin Grutza onto the field.   It was incredible to see Grutza back after the injury in the Oklahoma game.  Grutza promptly took the Bearcats on a 5 play, 72 yard touchdown drive to put the Bearcats up 8 with 6:29 to go. 

The Bearcat section was rocking hard the rest of the game, making as much noise as possible.  Louisville turned it over on downs twice, on two drives totaling 23 yards.  The defense suffocated them at the end and the Bearcats were suddenly 1 win from a Big East Championship.  Nobody in the Bearcat section wanted to leave that night.  I remember standing in the concourses for maybe half an hour after the game with hundreds of Bearcat fans repeatedly performing down the drive exchanging hugs and high fives.  It was an absolute celebration for so many who had followed this program for years. 

Bearcats vs. Panthers, November 22, 2008

Both Bearcat BCS bids were clinched against the Pitt Panthers.  This would be the first.  Everyone knew the stakes.  One win and the Bearcats would be Big East Champions…one win and they would be heading to a BCS Bowl (everyone assumed the Orange Bowl).  The game took place at 8:00 pm and I believe it is the coldest Bearcat game I’ve attended.  By my memory the game was in single digits at kickoff.

I arrived to set up my tailgate about 9:00 a.m.  Back then we were still tailgating in the lot between Calhoun and McMillan where In The Wood used to be.  Nearly every Bearcat fan I knew at that time braved the cold to party all day and go to the game.  A group next to us had a tent set up with a fire to go inside and warm up.  You could feel the excitement around Clifton all day.

Everything seemed to go perfect for most the game.  After Pitt scored to go up 7-0 the Bearcats rolled off 28 unanswered points between the second quarter and the first minute of the fourth quarter.  Of course, it would not be this season for the Bearcats not to leave some doubt at the end.  Pitt scored a touchdown with 10 minutes to go, then another with 1:22 to go.  They tried an onside kick and the Bearcats recovered.  However, UC couldn’t put the game away Pitt got the ball back at their own 32. 

On third and 8 with one play left, Pitt threw the ball to McCoy who appeared like he was being tackled.  Students poured onto the field ready to celebrate.  However, McCoy lateraled the ball and Pitt kept lateraling until one was finally intercepted by Brandon Underwood and everyone could exhail.  The Bearcats had done it.  They were Big East Champions and Heading to a BCS Bowl.  The celebration on the field was epic.  A season that seemed to have so much go wrong early had culminated to this.  And three huge weeks in a row had lead the Bearcats to the promise land.

There were two more games and the Orange Bowl to follow.  The Bearcats clinched an outright Big East title at home vs. Syracuse, then won a satisfying, though irrelevant game at Hawaii in dramatic fashion.  The trip to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale is one I’ll never forget despite the disappointing result.  Bearcat fans were all over the place.  We went down for a full week, having a buddy hook us up with a free hotel room.  It’s been 10 years now, but I’ll never forget that stretch of football games that culminated in a Big East Championship and Orange Bowl bid.  Still the most important three games in Bearcat football history…forever a thrill for those of us who grew up living and dying with the program. 

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