First Posted: 12/8/2008 11:00:06 AM | Last Updated: 12/8/2008 11:00:06 AM
By Columnist Jeff Wallner
Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed from a late night flight from Hawaii, the UC Bearcats basked in the glow of the national spotlight Sunday night when their ticket to the Orange Bowl officially was punched.
The No. 12 Bearcats will face No. 21 Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1.
“It is truly a great story,” said head coach Brian Kelly.
Truly, you can’t make this stuff up.
At about 3:19 a.m. EST Sunday, the Bearcats penned yet another chapter in their remarkable tale, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to defeat a feisty Hawaii team at Aloha Stadium.
Cincinnati (11-2) was bruised, battered and seemingly beaten by the energized Warriors, until Brandon Underwood's 20-yard interception return for a touchdown turned the tide.
In sultry Honolulu, before a hostile crowd in one of college football's oddest environments, the Bearcats suddenly came to life.
With the majority of their stateside fandom sawing logs, junior Mardy Gilyard sprinted 69 yards for the winning touchdown.
Just when it appeared the Bearcats were out of firsts they notched another, winning an 11th game for the first time in school history.
It certainly wasn’t easy.
By the time the ’Cats sank their feet in the sand at Waikiki Beach, they were already Big East Champions, earning the school’s first-ever berth in a BCS Bowl. The Orange Bowl already was their likely New Year’s destination.
Sans the pursuit of a school-record 11th win, motivation clearly was lacking.
For three quarters, the Bearcats looked like tourists, with one eye on the grass skirts.
But, as they’ve done consistently under Kelly, they surprised us.
“This football team has shown all year that they play games to win,” said Kelly. “If you stayed up until 3:15 a.m., and I'm not sure why you would, you saw that they love to play.”
Cincinnati 29 Hawaii 24.
“For me, it means a lot,” junior quarterback Tony Pike said. “Growing up in Cincinnati, and seeing the history of this football program, just to see the buzz around this city is definitely great to see.”
The story’s been told ad nauseum in this space. But, here’s a quick review:
Five quarterbacks. Two starters out with injury. Redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson wins two games. Ben Mauk appeals, and appeals again. Connor Barwin, a former tight end, leads the team in sacks. Jake Rogers, from the bench to semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, and so on.
Again, you can’t make this stuff up.
The victory at Hawaii, in some terms, summed up the Bearcats’ season.
Against all odds, and facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances, Kelly’s Little ’Cats That Could, did.
If Kelly is a man of his word, Bearcats fans can enjoy the Orange Bowl without worrying that Notre Dame, Washington, Tennessee or (enter BCS program) is going to whisk him away at a moment’s notice.
Kelly says he’s staying at UC, with the promise of an indoor practice facility and future renovation and expansion of Nippert Stadium. His family likes it here. He doesn’t see a glass ceiling for UC’s football program.
Who can doubt him?
Whether it be trailing 24-10 at Hawaii with less than 12 minutes remaining, or losing its top two quarterbacks to injury, or entrusting its fading Big East title chances to a redshirt freshman, the Bearcats persevered.
Shortly after defeating Hawaii in heart-stopping fashion, the UC football team hopped aboard the red-eye and crossed five time zones toward home.
Just a few hours later, they peered at a TV screen depicting the words: Cincinnati, Orange Bowl, believing anything’s possible.
Jeff Wallner is a frequent contributor to Pulse, the Cincinnati Enquirer, MLB.com, Associated Press and Sports XChange. E-mail him at Wallner@CinciPulse.com.