CINCINNATI — With a narrow eight-point lead at half against an FCS team, almost everyone expected Cincinnati coach Butch Jones to have steam coming out of his ears in the locker room.
Instead, he patiently addressed some mistakes he wanted to correct and then let his Bearcats do the rest.
Munchie Legaux passed for two scores and ran for another and 21st-ranked Cincinnati scored on every second-half possession to roll over Fordham, 49-17 on Saturday night.
“Coach Jones came in, very well spoken, very calm,” said wide receiver Danny Milligan. “I think he had a lot of faith in us as a team. He kind of let the seniors take over and make our adjustments. We know we’re a good team and we have to be mentally locked in at all times.”
Deven Drane scooted 76 yards for a touchdown after picking up a fumble and Legaux tossed a 78-yard scoring pass to Travis Kelce in the first half before the Bearcats methodically dominated on both sides of the ball with long, impressive drives in the second half.
“Our kids showed some resiliency,” Jones said. “Our players know how to win. There was no panic at halftime. They knew what they had to do. We went out the second half and we did it.”
The Bearcats (5-0) stayed perfect but the Rams (4-3), playing up a level from the Football Championship Subdivision, hung around for a half. The win was Cincinnati’s 24th straight in nonconference games at Nippert Stadium and upped its overall winning streak to eight in a row.
After a sloppy first two quarters, the Bearcats came alive on offense. Legaux, Ralph David Abernathy IV and Jordan Luallen scored on runs to start the third quarter and the rout was on.
“I just wanted to play poised throughout the whole game,” said Legaux, who hit on 15 of 24 passes for 262 yards without an interception. “I don’t want to go to the sidelines, yelling at guys. If I have to do that, I will. But we were beating ourselves and we knew that. In the second half we did a better job of executing our base fundamentals and making plays.”
Fordham was a late fill-in for TCU, which reneged on its commitment to join the Big East this summer and instead joined the Big 12. That left the Bearcats with a hole in their schedule that the Patriot League team filled.
Patrick Murray kicked three field goals, including a school-record 55-yarder for the Rams. Ryan Higgins completed 31 of 42 passes for 262 yards and one touchdown — a 12-yarder to Brian Wetzel — with no interceptions.
Coach Joe Moorhead’s team initially befuddled Cincinnati, which paid Fordham $375,000 to come to town. The Rams played keep-away with the ball but eventually couldn’t stop the Bearcats’ superior strength and quickness.
Staying close to an FBS team — let alone a ranked one — was rarified air for the Rams. The last time they beat a team from college football’s biggest division was a win at Rutgers in 1954. After that season, Fordham dropped football and didn’t reinstate it until coming back in Division III in 1989.
“It was great experience for the kids,” Moorhead said. “The message that we gave them is we went toe-to-toe for the most part with one of the top 20 football teams in the country. It’s going to be to our benefit the rest of the year. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these seniors. I’m very proud. We will never accept defeat but I was very proud of how we approached the game, our effort.”
The Bearcats had reason to be frustrated at halftime with his team hanging on to a 14-6 lead despite two 70-yards-plus plays. Jones elected not to light them up.
“I didn’t have to go in there and yell at them, blow them up,” he said. “They knew what they had to do.”
Legaux raced eight yards for the score on the Bearcats’ first possession to start the second half. After the defense forced a punt, Cincinnati came right back down the field. This time Abernathy took a handoff from Legaux, slashed inside left tackle and sped down the middle of the field on a 36-yard scoring run for a 28-6 lead. Milligan’s 42-yard punt return led to another quick score, with wide receiver Jordan Luallen taking the direct snap and skirting left end from 1 yard out to cap a five-play sprint to the end zone.
Milligan then caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Legaux to swell the lead to 42-14 early in the fourth quarter. Brendon Kay also scored on a 1-yard keeper.
Cincinnati’s defense held Fordham running back Carlton Koonce, averaging 135 yards rushing a game, to 72 on 22 carries.
It was the first meeting ever for two of the oldest programs in college football. Fordham started playing in 1881 and Cincinnati first took the field four years later.
In a weird start, the Rams ran off the first 22 offensive plays of the game — and still trailed 7-3.
Taking the opening kickoff, they moved quickly to a first down at the Cincinnati 17. But Higgins was sacked by defensive end Dan Giordano and the ball popped loose. Drane picked it up almost in stride and raced untouched down the field for the touchdown.
“I just came off the right side and got low, beat him with speed,” Giordano said. “It was the quarterback’s blind side. I hit him up high and the ball came out. Fortunately Deven Drane was right there to run it back.”
Showing they weren’t stunned by that turn of events, Fordham came right back and drove to a first down at the Bearcats 28 before the march ended, settling for a 46-yard field goal by Murray. Murray came in leading all of FCS with 2.0 field goals a game and was third in punting at 48 yards per kick.
Once they finally got their hands on the ball on offense, it took the Bearcats just three plays to score. After two George Winn runs, Legaux hit Kelce on a short crossing route and he raced past a linebacker and thundered down the left sideline for the 78-yard score.
The Bearcats never lost that lead, but needed a big push in the second half to breathe easy.
“Our margin of error is very small,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re not good enough to just show up and beat them. We have to follow the formula, the plan.”
And that’s just what they did after a surprisingly calm halftime break.