Ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-0) returns home to face seventh-ranked Cincinnati (3-0) on Saturday afternoon in a long-awaited showdown between two teams with plenty of shared history. Although the Fighting Irish have played the Bearcats just once (a 58-0 victory in 1900), there is significant connection between the respective coaching staffs. NBC will provide national television coverage beginning at 2:30 PM Eastern Time.
Coach Brian Kelly was hired at Notre Dame in December 2009 after a successful stint at Cincinnati, while Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman joined Kelly on January 8 of this year after three strong seasons in the Queen City. Cornerbacks Coach Mike Mickens played and coached for the Bearcats before coming to South Bend in December 2019.
On the Cincinnati sideline, Offensive Coordinator Mike Denbrock was an assistant coach for the Irish under Tyrone Willingham and was later hired by Kelly as part of his original Notre Dame staff. Denbrock served for seven seasons before moving to Cincinnati in 2017.
Bearcat Head Coach Luke Fickell is an impressive 34-5 in three plus years at the helm. He has built the program with the objective of competing successfully against Power 5 teams. The media took notice after Cincinnati led SEC blueblood Georgia for most of the way in last season’s Peach Bowl before losing by 24-21 on a 53-yard field goal in the final seconds.
This year, Notre Dame is the marquee program that Fickell has targeted to make a statement. “It’s definitely a measuring stick,” Fickell said of playing Notre Dame. “When you’re playing Georgia, you’re playing a top ten program. When you are playing Notre Dame, you are playing a top five program.”
Another level of intrigue involving Fickell is an undercurrent in this week’s matchup involving the coaching vacancy at USC. He is considered by insiders to be a candidate for the job. Therefore Fickell has an opportunity to make a strong impression on Trojan Athletic Director Mike Bohn this weekend. USC will play the Irish on October 23 and Bohn will be able to compare results. He will most likely make his decision after the regular season is completed. As can be expected in these matters, Fickell has not publicly expressed interest in the USC job and Bohn has not released any names associated with his search.
Both coaching staffs and players have enough to worry about on Saturday without these potential distractions. Notre Dame is the best team Cincinnati will face this season, and the Bearcats have enough quality athletes to give the Irish a full 60-minute battle. Cincinnati is even a slight favorite to end Notre Dame’s 26-game home winning streak.
The Bearcats return 16 starters from last season’s 9-1 squad. Three players stand out, including senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, All-American cornerback Ahmad Gardner, and Myjai Sanders, a 6’5” 260-pound defensive end. Ridder is a dual threat performer who can throw the ball downfield or take off and run with equal skill.
The biggest question for the Irish on the eve of this contest is who will start the game at quarterback. Jack Coan has held that position to date but injured his ankle last week against Wisconsin and was replaced by sophomore Drew Pyne. Pyne lifted the team during a fourth quarter surge and made his case for the starting nod this week. He showed the ability to move more quickly in the pocket and avoid sacks, which proved to be useful given the struggles with pass blocking by the line. Note also that Pyne has been in the offensive system for a year longer than Coan or freshman Tyler Buchner.
Also, Buchner is back in the picture after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury. Kelly has stated that Buchner will see action this week although he won’t start. The Pyne-Coan decision is unclear at this moment, but it’s possible we could see all three quarterbacks before the game is over. The second biggest question thus becomes which of them will finish the game for Notre Dame.
Sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody may be ready to return to duty after spraining an ankle three weeks ago. This would bolster a position where Tosh Baker has struggled and freshman Joe Alt is still learning. Opening day starter Blake Fisher had knee surgery and is a longshot to play again this season.
Notre Dame will play without starting nose tackle Kurt Hinish again this week. Kelly did say his injury is not serious and he should be back for next Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech. Running back C’Bo Flemister will also be available for the first time this season. The Bearcats are coming off a bye week and report no injuries.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE
Cincinnati continues to run the base 3-3-5 defense that Freeman implemented during his tenure. The three down linemen are quality players led by Sanders and fellow senior end Malik Vann. Linebackers Deshawn Pace, Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko are the team’s leading tacklers. They are physical players who are better against the run than the pass.
Regardless of the quarterback situation, Notre Dame must take advantage of its skill position talent and put points on the board. Running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree cannot be difference makers if they have no running lanes or aren’t utilized as receivers. Both can be targeted on screens or wheel routes against the Bearcat linebackers. The Irish failed to run similar plays last week, much to my chagrin.
The five-man Cincinnati secondary features Gardner and nickel back Arquon Bush. They will be matched up with Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin and Avery Davis, respectively. This heightens the need for tight end Michael Mayer, the running backs, and most importantly wideout Braden Lenzy to have strong performances in the passing game. Lenzy has been on the verge of catching a long scoring pass several times this season only to see the ball hit the turf. He must finally have a breakout game this week if the Irish expect to win.
While the package for Buchner consists mainly of running plays and RPOs, the Irish ground game must also improve when Coan or Pyne is in the game. The team managed a mere three net yards rushing against Wisconsin, which is an absolute disgrace. More balance is needed this week to control the clock and prevent the game from becoming a shootout where Ridder would have an advantage.
CINCINNATI’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Ridder is a 65% passer this year with a talent for throwing the deep ball. His primary targets are Alec Pierce, a 6’3” big play receiver, and Michael Young, who left Notre Dame in the middle of the 2019 season to join the Bearcats. Young led Cincinnati in receptions last season and is off to another good start. Tyler Scott, Tre Tucker and Jadon Thompson form a capable supporting cast along with tight ends Josh Whyle and Leonard Taylor. The sum of these parts is a potent aerial attack that will challenge Notre Dame’s defense at every level.
The Irish have nine pass interceptions in their first four games after recording only seven in the twelve-game 2020 season. A strong rush is a vital component of this success, and it will be needed again on Saturday if the Irish are going to slow down Cincinnati’s offense. Still, the elusive Ridder will enjoy an advantage over the Irish linebackers who may attempt to tackle him in space during his scrambles.
Running back Jerome Ford operates behind a relatively young offensive line. Guard Vince McConnell is the only senior, while the Bearcats are still unsettled at the left tackle position. Ford is a capable back but not a breakaway threat. Ridder enhances the overall ground game with his scrambles and designed runs. He must be accounted for and contained if the Irish hope to get off the field on third downs.
Notre Dame’s defense has steadily improved thus far under Freeman. One can see he is learning what his players do well and putting them in a position to succeed. Linemen who appeared uncomfortable defending in space are no longer asked to drop into coverage. Safety DJ Brown, a better pass defender, comes in on third down for Houston Griffith, a better run stopper and tackler. Cam Hart has come on strong at cornerback and may be taking on more responsibility on the field side. Running mate Clarence Lewis appears to be better suited on the boundary. The linebackers are making tackles and in proper position far more often than not.
While the results have been encouraging, Freeman’s knowledge of Cincinnati’s personnel will be needed to slow down the Bearcat attack. The chess game between him and Denbrock promises to have a significant impact on the outcome.
Tyree provided serious evidence that a bit of blocking in the return game can have a sizeable impact on the outcome. Notre Dame must deploy all its weapons in this game, especially if it becomes an offensive shootout.
Punter Jay Bramblett had a terrific game against Wisconsin, while kicker Jonathan Doerer had one bad miss among his otherwise successful field goal attempts. The move to allow Williams to return punts was a good one and needs to bear fruit this week as the teams fight for field position.
The Bearcats have a kickoff return specialist of their own in Tucker. His return for a score against the Hoosiers turned the tide in that game in similar fashion to what Tyree accomplished last week.
Kicker Cole Smith is just one of three in field goals with a long of 32 yards. Freshman punter Mason Fletcher is performing better as he sports a 43-yards average.
It’s difficult to measure Cincinnati’s true strength at this early point in the season. The Bearcats have played only one Power 5 opponent in the Indiana Hoosiers. They earned 328 yards of offense in that contest after averaging 466 against the likes of Murray State and Miami of Ohio. They trailed entering the fourth quarter despite the 99-yard kickoff return by Tucker. It would be a mistake to underestimate the Bearcats, however, as they are sure to exert their best effort on Saturday. One statistic in their favor is a 93% offensive success rate in the red zone compared to a 45% scoring rate allowed by the defense. That is impressive on any level.
Defensively, Notre Dame should be able to win the majority of battles in the trenches, even without Hinish. This will help against the run but won’t matter as much if Ridder flees the pocket with daylight ahead. Conversely, the Bearcats will pose problems for the Irish offensive front, although they are not as formidable against the run as Wisconsin. Because neither Coan nor Pyne are as elusive as Ridder, the Irish blockers must improve over previous outings to give the skill position players time to make good things happen.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will Ridder frustrate Notre Dame with his running ability?
Can Irish tackles Carmody, Baker and Josh Lugg handle Bearcat DEs Sanders and Vann?
Will Notre Dame find a successful solution at quarterback?
Which secondary will best defend the deep pass?
Will Notre Dame win the turnover battle again this week?
Can the Irish finally get the running game on track?
Which special teams will have the most positive impact on the game?
Where can the Bearcats spend $1.2 million on a Saturday night in Cincinnati?
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said on Monday he scheduled a game against Cincinnati to give his former school “a chance to play Notre Dame.” Little did he imagine this would be a bit more than a glorified exhibition. The Bearcats are slight favorites to knock off the Irish and end their 26-game home winning streak. Whether or not they are successful, Cincinnati will walk away with a check for $1.2 million just for showing up.
While the Irish have more talent up and down the roster, Cincinnati is favored because Ridder is a difference maker at the most important position on the field. Notre Dame’s triad of Coan, Pyne and Buchner seems inferior given their injuries and lack of experience, particularly if Coan’s ankle keeps him on the sidelines. The question becomes whether the Irish defense can hold the Bearcats to fewer than 30 points in a game where both teams can score from anywhere on the field. I believe Freeman will be able to hold that line.
NOTRE DAME 34 CINCINNATI 27