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CINCINNATI – The Bearcats' slim chances of getting to a BCS bowl ended with Brendon Kay limping off the field. No more fitting image for the end of Cincinnati's six-game winning streak and its hopes of another fantastic finish.
Teddy Bridgewater rallied No. 19 Louisville with a couple of incredible escapes in the fourth quarter, and Dominique Brown ran 2 yards for a touchdown in the first overtime Thursday night for a 31-24 victory in the Cardinals' farewell to the American Athletic Conference.
The comeback clinched the first AAC title for Central Florida, which had a one-game lead over Cincinnati (9-3, 6-2) heading into the final weekend.
The Bearcats needed to beat Louisville (11-1, 7-1) and have Central Florida lose at SMU for a first-place tie. Then they had to move ahead of Central Florida in the final BCS poll to get the berth, something that was unlikely anyway.
Now they could be headed to the Belk Bowl.
"You couldn't have asked for any more out of this team," coach Tommy Tuberville said. "You could tell tonight how much we've grown up."
Louisville will play in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
"It was great to see this team finish the way they finished," Cardinals coach Charlie Strong said. "You talk about a team with a lot of resiliency and a lot of heart. There were high expectations this season."
For the second year in a row, the Ohio River rivals went to overtime to decide who gets the Keg of Nails, this time for the foreseeable future with Louisville (11-1, 7-1) leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
The Cardinals won 34-31 in overtime in the rain in Louisville last season. This one went to overtime on a wet, raw night when Cincinnati's Tony Miliano kicked a 26-yard field goal with 7 seconds left.
An interference penalty in the end zone set up Brown's 2-yard run to open overtime.
The Bearcats got the ball and wound up with a fourth-and-14 at the 29, and Kay's pass went off the hands of Anthony McClung at the 6, ending Cincinnati's first overtime game at Nippert Stadium since 2003.
Bridgewater was 23 of 37 for 255 yards with three touchdowns, two of them in the fourth quarter. He eluded three tacklers for a 14-yard run on fourth-and-12 to keep one touchdown drive going, and finished it by scrambling away from defenders and throwing an off-balance pass for a 22-yard score.
"We're athletic at defensive end, and we were grabbing air a lot of times," Tuberville said. "We had him in our grasp. That fourth-down run, that was obviously the one that took the air out of our defense."
He and Kay kept topping each other in the fourth quarter, but Cincinnati's sixth-year senior didn't have one more big play left in him. He was 22 of 40 for 304 yards with two interceptions and two touchdown scrambles, one of which left him woozy.
For Louisville, the game amounted to a farewell.
The Cardinals head off to the ACC next season, leaving Cincinnati behind. Louisville claimed the final Big East football title last season, beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and was favored to win the first AAC championship.
A loss at home to Central Florida ended the Cardinals' chances of winning the league's BCS bowl berth.
Both defenses rank in the Top 10 nationally for fewest points and yards allowed. They dug in a cold rain that made it tougher to throw and catch the ball, until the two quarterbacks lit it up in the fourth quarter.
Bridgewater rallied Louisville with two sensational plays. He slipped away from three tackles for his 14-yard run on fourth-and-12, then ran around in the backfield avoiding rushers before throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Damian Copeland with 8:08 left, ending up on his back after the off-balance throw.
Kay responded with a 57-yard completion that set up Ralph David Abernathy IV's touchdown run, and Bridgewater matched it with a 4-yard touchdown pass to DeVante Parker and a 24-21 lead with 2:26 to go — just enough time for Kay to lead the Bearcats in range for a tying field goal.
Kay hurt his left ankle on the opening drive of the second half and played the rest of the game with a pronounced limp. He went for an MRI after the game. He also got dazed on his second touchdown run, getting hit hard by two defenders as he crossed the goal line in the third quarter.
"That's how tough the kid is," Tuberville said. "You can't say enough about him. I'm proud he was my quarterback for the last nine games."
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay