GREENVILLE, N.C. — It's turned into a tradition.
The last time the University of Cincinnati football team defeated the East Carolina Pirates at their place in 2019, UC coach Luke Fickell reached up and hung from the ceiling of the visiting locker room as he yelled in celebration.
On Friday night, he did it again.
Desmond Ridder threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns, Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner returned a blocked field goal for a score and the Bearcats defeated East Carolina 35-13 Friday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
After the victory, Fickell jumped back onto the rafters on the ceiling of the visiting locker room and let out a huge scream.
"It was great," Ridder said. "We had a meeting on Monday about what our schedule was going to be. He was talking to us about this and that, and I said, 'Coach, as long as you're in the rafters at the end of the game on Friday. we're all going to be happy, we're all going to be celebrating."
Fickell completed maybe 4.5 pull-ups before he came back down to the ground.
"He decided to bust out a little pull-ups this time to make sure we knew that he was still strong," Ridder said. "And then his postgame speech sounded like he was a little winded, I'm not going to lie. But we'll give him the benefit of the doubt."
With the win, Cincinnati (12-0, 8-0 American Athletic Conference), which is ranked No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, spoiled ECU's senior day and closed out its second straight perfect regular season.
The defending AAC champion Bearcats will host No. 24 Houston in the AAC title game (4 p.m., Dec. 4 on ABC).
"I appreciate the seniors," Gardner said. "We do it for them. This was the last regular-season game for them. Even though it was ECU's senior night, it was our senior night also."
After winning the opening coin toss, East Carolina (7-5, 5-3) elected to receive and promptly opened the game with a three-and-out.
The Bearcats made it worse for the Pirates when senior linebacker Ryan Royer partially blocked ECU's punt to set up Ridder and the Bearcats' offense at the ECU 31-yard line.
Cincinnati got as close as the 13-yard line but stalled at the 27 after allowing back-to-back sacks. Sophomore kicker Alex Bales failed to give the Bearcats the early lead after missing wide right on a 45-yard field-goal attempt at the 10:06 mark.
ECU countered with a 12-play, 56-yard scoring drive caped by a 35-yard field goal by freshman kicker Owen Daffer, the reigning two-time AAC Special Teams Player of the Week.
It was the Pirates' only score of the first half. Junior quarterback Holton Ahlers and the ECU offense managed just 77 yards before the break.
"They did a really good job," Fickell said of the UC defense, which featured a 10-tackle, 1.5-sack performance by graduate linebacker Joel Dublanko and fellow graduate linebacker Darian Beavers collecting his first interception of the season.
"I don't know where to start. No, I do know where to start," Fickell continued. "I'll start with Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown at the nose guard position. We really challenged them all week that this is a team that if they run the football well, they're really tough to stop. Everyone knows they can throw the football and what Holton Ahlers has done, 10,000 yards in his career here, but when they can run the football, it makes them really, really difficult to stop. I thought, from where I stood, that those two guys controlled the line of scrimmage and didn't give them much opportunity to run the football."
The Cincinnati offense finally got on the board after Ridder led the Bearcats on a five-play, 76-yard drive that ended with the senior quarterback linking up with tight end Leonard Taylor on a 44-yard touchdown. The score made it 7-3 with 13:48 to play in the first half.
Ridder also passed former South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers (11,796) for the most career yards in AAC history on the play.
Ridder went over the top to wide receiver Alec Pierce for a 53-yard gain. That set up a two-yard score by running back Jerome Ford to make it 14-3 with 10:32 left before halftime. It was Ford's 18th touchdown of the season (17 rushing and one receiving).
Ridder, stayed hot on the Bearcats' next possession. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior found wide receiver Tre Tucker for a 24-yard completion. With the first down, Ridder moved past UC quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Gino Guidugli (11,930) for the most total yards in program history.
"That's one of the reasons why I did come back, to break records and leave my name in UC history and UC legacy," Ridder said. "But yeah, I'm more of a team-goal, team-oriented guy. With team success, comes individual success. Coach Fick has told me and has told all of us that from Day One. It's literally just falling into place at this point."
The historic completion set up 28-yard touchdown from Ridder to Pierce to put Cincinnati ahead 21-3 with 4:40 remaining in the first half. The Bearcats held that lead at the break.
After Daffer posted another field goal (a 44-yarder) in the final minutes of the third, Arquon Bush blocked a 35-yard Daffer attempt and fellow cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner scooped up the loose ball and returned it 40 yards for a score to put the Bearcats up 28-6 with 11:17 to play.
East Carolina scraped together a five-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 12-yard score between Ahlers and receiver Jsi Hatfield with 9:38 remaining.
After exchanging turnovers with the Pirates, including Ridder's second interception of the night, Cincinnati running back Ryan Montgomery capped the scoring with a two-yard rush at the 1:44 mark.