CINCINNATI -- The Bearcats were going nowhere, and now their best running back was limping off the field, giving Gerrid Doaks the chance he'd long awaited.
The junior running back who's been beset by injuries took the game into his hands and kept the 21ST-ranked Bearcats unbeaten in the American Athletic. He ran for a pair of touchdowns and turned a short pass into a 28-yard score as Cincinnati held off Tulsa 24-13 on Saturday.
"He's an example in that locker room of what you can do when you never drop your head, you never give in," coach Luke Fickell said. "He's the reason we're sitting here happy right now."
Doaks moved into a bigger role when Michael Warren II left the game twice with leg injuries. He became the focal point of an offense that had just enough to get Cincinnati (6-1, 3-0) a win on a day when the Bearcats remembered one of their best teams.
The Bearcats honored the 2009 team that went unbeaten in the regular season before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Players and former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly — in town while Notre Dame has a bye — came on the field during the first timeout.
Doaks didn't expect to get the chance to play a leading role in the latest win. He missed all last season with a groin injury and two games this season with a knee injury, relegating him to a very limited status behind Warren. His first touchdown on a 4-yard run provided his first TD in two years.
"It was like a movie," Doaks said. "When I got the ball, I saw open field and I dove over the safety. I hopped up and saw everyone cheering. It's something everyone on the field wants to live."
His three-touchdown performance was barely enough.
Tulsa (2-5, 0-3) had a chance to take the lead after stopping Cincinnati on a fourth-down run at its 10-yard line with 4:11 to go and the Bearcats up 17-13, but Zach Smith threw an interception. Doaks then ran 27 yards for the clinching score.
It was a rough day for Smith, who lost three fumbles and threw two interceptions, one in the end zone. The Bearcats have nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries in the last three games.
"We're right on the verge, but it is not good enough," Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said. "We have to take care of the ball."
Cincinnati was committed to running the ball against a defense that's given up the second-most yards on the ground in the conference at 203.5 per game. Tulsa was up to the challenge, limiting Cincinnati to a field goal and Doaks' 4-yard touchdown run in the first half as the Bearcats managed only 145 total yards and a 10-7 lead.
"It's almost like we were in a little bit of shock," Fickell said. "We're accustomed to moving the football. It was quiet in the locker room. I think they really had confidence in what they were going to do."
Cincinnati finished with fewer yards (377-317) and first downs (23-18) than Tulsa.
"I think we faced the challenge and we were decent," Tulsa defensive end Trevis Gipson said. "We have to keep chipping away."
A weird play helped the Golden Hurricane get their only touchdown with 17 seconds left in the first half. The Bearcats partially blocked a punt and then touched the ball downfield. Tulsa recovered and went on to T.K. Wilkerson's 3-yard touchdown run.
Tulsa: The Golden Hurricane are 0-3 against ranked teams this season, also losing 28-7 to No. 18 Michigan State and 43-37 in triple overtime to No. 24 SMU.
Cincinnati: Warren limped off for a series in the first half and had to be helped off in the third quarter, putting little weight on his left leg. He finished with 35 yards on 13 carries. Doaks had 91 yards on 17 carries and scored on his only reception.
The Bearcats didn't embellish their credentials with their ragged play in their fifth straight win.
Kelly's 2009 team won the Big East with a 12-0 mark before losing to Tim Tebow's Florida team 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl. Kelly left for Notre Dame before the bowl game, angering some players and fans. Cincinnati arranged the 10-year celebration around Kelly's schedule so he could attend.
"It's been really special to get an opportunity to come back and thank them," Kelly said of his former players. "I didn't get that opportunity. It was taken from me. The circumstances were what they were."
Tulsa hosts Memphis next Saturday.
Cincinnati is off next week before playing at East Carolina on Nov. 2.
More AP college football: http://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and http://www.twitter.com/AP—Top25