CINCINNATI -- Coach Tommy Tuberville got a round of applause from Cincinnati fans as he emerged from the raucous locker room.
"Y'all weren't clapping 45 minutes ago when we went for it on fourth down," Tuberville said, breaking into a grin.
Tuberville's fourth-down gamble totally backfired. His freshman kicker got the cheers going again.
Gunner Kiel threw four touchdown passes and led a desperation drive, and freshman Andrew Gantz kicked a career-best 47-yard field goal with 15 seconds left on Thursday night, rallying Cincinnati to a 54-46 victory over East Carolina.
East Carolina's Shane Carden threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and ran 2 yards for a go-ahead score with 62 seconds left. Kiel and the Bearcats (6-3, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) provided a wild finish to a matchup of the AAC's top offenses.
"With a minute left, your mind's racing," Kiel said. "It's just going back to playing pitch and catch."
Kiel completed three passes to get Cincinnati in range for Gantz's kick, and the Bearcats returned a desperation lateral for a touchdown on the final play. The redshirt freshman kicker had never made a game-winner at any level.
"I really can't describe it," Gantz said. "It's something everybody dreams of. An unreal feeling."
The comeback overcame a gamble that backfired. Cincinnati went for it on fourth-and-2 from its 33-yard line, and Kiel's errant pitch-out was fumbled with 2:03 left.
"It was a stupid call," Tuberville acknowledged.
Carden's touchdown run gave East Carolina (6-3, 3-2) its second lead of the game. It didn't last long.
"They aren't always going to go your way," coach Ruffin McNeill said. "They made a few more plays than we did. I'm proud of them. They're a tough bunch."
Kiel was 29 of 44 for 436 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. It was Kiel's best showing since the third game of the season, when he hurt his ribs.
East Carolina's Justin Hardy had 15 catches for 181 yards with one touchdown, leaving him three catches shy of the FBS career receiving record. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles holds the mark with 349 receptions. Hardy also had a 7-yard touchdown run on a reverse.
Carden was 35 of 61 for 418 yards and the two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't play real well in the first half," Carden said. "They played more man coverage than we saw on film. You put your heart and soul into something like that. You don't want to lose."
East Carolina was coming off a 20-10 loss at Temple that was set up by five turnovers on a rainy day and knocked the Pirates out of the Top 25. East Carolina is the only AAC team that's been ranked this season.
Kiel lasted for only one pass during Cincinnati's 38-14 win at Tulane on Oct. 31, leaving because his bruised ribs prevented him from getting anything on his throws. He healed during a bye week and was on target at the outset Thursday.
His receivers helped a lot, too, by slipping away from defenders after catches. Mekale McKay took his short sideline pass, slipped through linebacker Maurice Falls' arms and went 55 yards for a touchdown on Cincinnati's third play of the game.
The Pirates couldn't hold down Kiel, who led two late touchdown drives in the second quarter for a 31-20 halftime lead. The Pirates hadn't allowed more than 20 points in an opening half this season.
And after Kiel's errant pitch-out gave the Pirates a chance at the end, he led them on the drive to Gantz's winning kick against a defense that hadn't allowed any points in the fourth quarter all season.
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