Cincinnatti —The Bearcats laid everything on the line for sixty-minutes but just came up a little short.
Quarterback Michael Pratt hit Duece Watts with a 30-yard touchdown pass with more than 5 minutes left to lead No. 19 Tulane(10-2, 7-1 AAC) to a 27-24 win over No. 24 Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2) on Friday at sold-out Nippert Stadium, which sent the Green Wave to the American Conference Championship game.
Tulane snapped a 32-game home streak for the Bearcats, who now must wait for the outcome of Saturday’s UCF game to know whether they’ll be in the conference championship as well.
Tyjae Spears ran for two touchdowns and had 181 yards to help Tulane dominate in between the tackles, the Green Wave beat Cincinnati for the first time in five tries. He matched his season-high of 24 carries just past the midpoint of the third quarter, and blew past his career-high of 30 in the fourth.
“Just a big win for the Green Wave,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “I imagine one of the biggest ones in program history. I’m proud of the guys and the adversity they fought through.”
The Green Wave held the Bearcats to three punts and three points on their first four drives, allowing Spears to make the score 10-3 when he bounced outside for an 11-yard touchdown out of the wildcat formation with 4:58 left in the first half.
Cincinnati tied the score Charles McClellan’s 35-yard touchdown run, but Tulane went back on top on Valentino Ambrosio’s 47-yard field goal 16 seconds before the break.
Spears did it all for the Wave. Pratt finished 13-of-22 passing for 162 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown pass against the AAC’s stingiest defense.
Regular starter Ben Bryant, who is primarily a pocket passer, sat out with a foot injury he suffered against Temple last Saturday.
Linebacker Dorian Williams picked off a pass that defensive end Devean Deal tipped on Cincinnati’s first series of the second half, giving Tulane the ball at the Bearcats 40-yard line and setting up Spears for a 2-yard touchdown that upped the score to 20-10.
“I thought Evan did a great job,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “I didn’t look at the stats just yet. I know he’s heartbroken. He’s crushed. We talk about taking care of each other but putting him in a situation with a minute-30, a minute-40 and no timeouts is not taking care of him. He played with poise. He played with a lot of confidence.”
The Wave faltered a bit from there, giving up a completion on third-and-9 to ignite a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive the next time Cincy had the ball. Then Tulane was stopped on a fourth-and-2 sneak by Pratt at the Bearcats 38 before yielding a second consecutive 14-play touchdown drive to fall behind 24-20 with 6:27 remaining.
UC had one last chance with 1:36 remaining, but Prater took his first sack and his final pass attempt was dropped on fourth down.
The defense then held the Bearcats without a first down on their final two drives. The second stop, deep in Cincinnati territory in the final minute, allowed the Wave to take two knees and run out the clock.
“We had one mindset and one goal,” Spears said. “I knew what the outcome was going to be.”
A year after going 2-10, the 19th-ranked Green Wave is 10-2 and will play either Central Florida or Cincinnati in a rematch next Saturday at Yulman Stadium (3 p.m., ABC) thanks to setting all kind of program firsts. For starters, it will be the first championship-game appearance in school history, and it is the Wave’s first 10-win season since 1998 (and second since 1934).
Tulane: Hosts the AAC Championship game on Dec. 3.
Cincinnati: Awaits their fate, which depends on the outcome of the UCF-South Florida game on Saturday. If UCF wins, it will be tied with Cincinnati in the conference standings — and holds the tiebreaker because UCF beat the Bearcats on Oct. 29.