CINCINNATI — Two late touchdown passes made it a game. Southern Methodist wanted one more chance to complete the comeback.
Instead, Garrett Gilbert and the offense spent the final seconds watching Cincinnati’s quarterback take the snap and go to his knee.
Brendon Kay threw for a pair of touchdowns on Saturday and kept the ball on a clinching quarterback keeper in the closing minutes, allowing Cincinnati to hold on for a 28-25 victory over Southern Methodist.
SMU (3-5, 2-2) is known for comebacks behind Gilbert, who leads the nation in total yards. He had a pair of short touchdown passes to Darius Joseph, the last with 3:27 to go as the Mustangs got within 28-25.
Anthony McClung recovered the onside kick despite a hit to the head that drew a 15-yard penalty. Cincinnati ran out the clock by going for it on fourth down and less than a yard at the 11-yard line rather than kick a field goal and give SMU one more chance.
Kay kept it and surged for the first down, and SMU got a delay-of-game penalty on the play for simulating the Bearcats’ snap cadence.
“I thought our offense did a lot of good things but on the road you have to score when you have the chance,” SMU coach June Jones said.
They didn’t do that, missing a pair of field goals in the first half. Then, they couldn’t stop them at the end.
The Bearcats (7-2, 4-1) got the lead behind Kay’s accurate passing and a 17-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that took up most of the third quarter and made it 28-10.
Kay has been bothered by a sore passing shoulder since summer camp. He had a few extra days off following the Bearcats’ last game and had a lot of zip on his sideline passes. He finished 27 of 32 for 299 yards with two touchdown and two interceptions.
Gilbert was 38 of 47 for 403 yards without an interception. Joseph had 12 catches for 103 yards, but SMU’s offense could only stand on the sideline and watch as the final seconds ran out.
“We have to start faster and keep the foot on the pedal,” Gilbert said. “We have to be more consistent.”
Cincinnati came into the game ranked fourth nationally on defense, allowing only 280 yards per game while holding down the conference’s worst offenses. The Bearcats hadn’t faced anything like SMU’s fast-pace, spread offense and Gilbert, who was coming off his best game.
The senior rallied the Mustangs from a 21-point deficit to a 59-49 win over Temple, setting school records for total yards (635) and yards passing (538).
“You’ve just got to keep them off the field,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We couldn’t stop them. Hasn’t nobody stopped them all year long.”
They got a good idea of what it was going to be like to stop Gilbert on the opening drive. He completed all seven of his passes for 51 yards and ran three yards for a touchdown on the 13th play. On one play, Cincinnati got called for 12 players on the field while trying to substitute.
Gilbert completed his first 12 passes for 70 yards, but Cincinnati toughened when the Mustangs got in scoring range. Chase Hover missed a 48-yard field goal try and was good from 24 yards for a 10-0 lead. He also missed from 34 yards in the closing seconds of the half.
Those missed chances were costly.
Kay had a tough time at the outset, getting sacked twice and throwing an interception. He got into a rhythm on Cincinnati’s first drive of the second quarter, completing all five of his passes for 55 yards in a touchdown drive. His 17-yard throw to Chris Moore cut it to 10-7.
Kay completed his next pass as well, a 62-yard touchdown to Mekale McKay for a 14-10 lead. The Bearcats then took control in the third quarter and held on.
Kay completed all seven of his passes for 81 yards in a touchdown drive that opened the second half, culminating in Jordan Luallen’s 2-yard run. The Bearcats then went on a 96-yard touchdown drive that lasted 8 minutes, 12 seconds, running the ball on 15 of the 17 plays in the drive, with Tion Green carrying the final seven yards.
It turned out to be too much for Gilbert to overcome.
Freshman JaBryce Harper, the Mustangs’ top kick returner, was hit in the head on a kickoff return in the second quarter and taken off the field on a stretcher, moving his arms and legs. A CT scan at a hospital was negative, and he rejoined the team for the trip home.