ATLANTA (AP) — Cincinnati came oh so close to toppling a Power 5 opponent on a big stage.
The sixth-ranked Bearcats blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of the Peach Bowl on Friday, losing their perfect record when Jack Podlesny kicked a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds of Georgia's 24-21 victory.
The Bulldogs rushed onto the field after Podlesny's career-long kick at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Once order was restored and Georgia kicked off, the Bearcats had time for one last play — a sack of Desmond Ridder for a safety as time expired.
That was it for Cincinnati (9-1, No. 8 CFP), which had hoped to use the matchup with Georgia (8-2, No. 9 CFP) to secure some respect and a place in the top five in the final ranking of the year.
“We’re not there yet,” Bearcats coach Luke Fickell said. “That’s what keeps motivating you, and I think that, you know, there’s a lot of things we’re going to take from this that we know we can do. But it also helps us and makes us hungrier to say, ‘Hey, we know what we’ve got to get to, and there’s a few other steps that we’ve still got to be able to take, you know, closing it and sealing it,’ and those kinds of things are one of those steps.”
Cincinnati played without cornerback Ahmad Gardner (back), safety James Wiggins (calf) and running back Gerrid Doaks (ankle) due to injuries, but Fickell wouldn’t use the absences as an excuse.
The Bearcats had a chance to ice the game, up 21-19 and facing a third-and-2 with 1:41 remaining. But Ridder tried to throw a deep ball to Michael Young that was broken up.
Ridder said he was trying to find tight end Josh Whyle, but Georgia jumped the play and cut Young loose.
“The ball hung up in the air what felt like for an eternity,” Ridder said. "But if that ball would have gotten up and down quicker, it would have been a completion.”
Cincinnati was hoping its defense would be able to get one more stop. But Georgia moved the ball through the air, completing passes of 15, 10 and 11 yards to set up the decisive field goal.
Fickell didn’t second-guess himself for not trying to convert a fourth down from the Cincinnati 40 to run out the clock.
“I think that the difficult thing, as big as they are up front, knowing and trying to get some of those (short-yardage) situations, I don’t know that that was the greatest advantage for us," he said. "So we were going to put it in our defense’s hands and give them the opportunity to win the game for us.”
It was a tough ending for the Bearcats after they were in control at the beginning of the fourth.
Near the end of the first half, Ridder scrambled to his right to throw across his body into the left side of the end zone for Whyle, who evaded Tyson Campbell for an 11-yard score. On the first possession of the third quarter, Jerome Ford broke through for a 79-yard run, outracing Latavious Brini to the end zone to give Cincinnati a 21-10 lead.
But Georgia's defense stepped up from there, and Cincinnati struggled to move the ball.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a couple times and you know, they capitalized," Ford said. "I think it was a combination of both.”
The American Athletic Conference champions were trying to complete their first unbeaten season of the modern era and prove they were worthy not just of a New Year’s Day bowl game, but deserving of consideration in the College Football Playoff.
Instead, Cincinnati dropped to 0-3 in New Year’s Day games, following appearances in the 2009 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech and the 2008 Sugar Bowl against Florida. Cincinnati’s only New Year’s Day bowl win came against Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl in 1947.
Safety Darrick Forrest said the Bearcats left everything out on the field, adding there was nothing he would do differently on the last drive.
“We went out there and played that last drive to the best of our ability,” Forrest said. “Made a great kick."