ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Desmond Ridder wanted to make sure he was one of the last Cincinnati players to leave the field so the quarterback could savor what was left of a loss to top-ranked Alabama in the CFP semifinal Cotton Bowl.
The breakthrough Bearcats held up pretty well as the first non-Power Five team in the playoff. Ridder's offense just stalled too often Friday trying to match an overpowering Crimson Tide running game in a 27-6 loss that ended the last undefeated season in FBS.
“We weren’t carrying the flag for anyone but ourselves,” Ridder said. “We all still wanted it to end differently and wish it could have ended differently. I’m hoping that there are other so-called Group of Five teams or teams from any conference can make it in the playoffs and show that they can compete with the best of the best.”
Cincinnati (13-1) still had a chance when Bryan Cook intercepted Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young's pass near midfield with Alabama leading by 11 late in the third quarter.
Ridder and the Bearcats went backward from there, and the Crimson Tide (13-1) extended the lead to 24-6 on the next possession after avoiding a three-and-out by converting on third-and-16.
“It was a little disappointing that we couldn’t execute the way that we wanted to, that we couldn’t go out there and really play complementary football,” Ridder said. “Then you know it was joy, it was seeing all those Bearcat fans, seeing all the fans in the stands who stuck around all the way to the end. It was a surreal moment.”
The Bearcats (No. 4 in The Associated Press and CFP rankings) were held without a touchdown for the first time since a 42-0 loss to Ohio State in the second game of 2019. That also was the last time they played a top-five opponent.
The numbers didn't favor the first non-Power Five school in the playoff coming in, and didn't look much better afterward against a powerhouse program headed to the championship game for the sixth time in the eight years of the four-team playoff format.
Cincinnati averaged 2.8 yards per play while falling behind 17-3 at halftime. Alabama had 302 yards at halftime when the Bearcats came in allowing 305 per game.
Fifth-year Alabama senior Brian Robinson Jr. had his first career 200-yard game, finishing with 204 of the Crimson Tide's season-high 301 yards on the ground.
“I think we absolutely belonged in this game,” linebacker Joel Dublanko said. “But at the end of the day, we just didn’t execute like we have all season.”
While the Bearcats were never really a threat to win, they didn't let Alabama embarrass them amid the debate over whether non-Power Five teams belong in the playoff.
“It doesn’t feel great right now,” coach Luke Fickell said. “But I promise you my wife will make me later tonight try to take a couple of deep breaths and recognize where these guys have taken us.”
Cincinnati's best chance to get in the end zone came on its first possession, when Alec Pierce was open at the goal line on a first-down pass from the Alabama 9 but linebacker Henry To'oTo'o knocked it down at the line of scrimmage.
The Bearcats settled for the first of two field goals — their only scoring — before three consecutive three-and-outs. The second drive to a field goal started the second half, and the next good scoring chance stalled on downs inside the Alabama 25 on one of six sacks of Ridder.
With the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter, the Bearcats failed again on fourth down. Ridder's pass was incomplete as he finished 17 of 32 for 144 yards for his first sub-100 rating of the season (90.9).
Cincinnati had more than 30 seniors while progressing from a New Year's Six bowl loss to Georgia on a last-second field goal last season to the groundbreaking run this year.
The Bearcats will take a retooled roster into next season, trying to extend a 20-game regular-season winning streak to go with a pair of victories in American Athletic Conference championship games.
“I don’t think you should ever forget the feeling that it’s like when you do come up short,” Fickell said. “I know for myself, I know for a lot of guys in there that are built the same away. This will be the incredible motivation to take the next step and take the next step with a lot of new guys.”