And In That Corner … The No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats bring close, personal ties to Notre Dame

Murray State v Cincinnati
Getty Images
16 Comments

Notre Dame has hosted two top-10 matchups since 2018, beating No. 7 Stanford then and No. 1 Clemson last year. Back in 2018, the thought that a top-10 tilt in South Bend would soon feature not only Cincinnati but a favored No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) would have been nearly incomprehensible, even if the Bearcats went 11-2 in 2018 and finished the year in the top 25.

Cincinnati has won 34 of its last 40 games, not quite the pace of the Irish going 37-5 since the start of the 2018 season, but by no means have the Bearcats come out of nowhere in 2021. Head coach Luke Fickell has been building to this for a while.

To get a look at how Cincinnati has gotten to this point, let’s turn to Keith Jenkins of The Cincinnati Enquirer

DF: The Cincinnati hype is mixed around Notre Dame. Some fans insist the raw talent disparity should make this an Irish cakewalk, while the fatalists are convinced Notre Dame has no chance against a quality opponent not quarterbacked by Graham Mertz.

I’d like to try to find the reality between those two camps, so let’s start with the raw talent disparity. It does exist — My database shows the Irish roster, considering only transfers and recruiting, as the No. 10 most talented in the country, while the Bearcats come in at No. 48. Obviously, this does not factor in evaluation, development or scheme. When it comes to evaluation and/or development, what players quickly exceeded even Cincinnati’s expectations, suggesting they should have been more broadly recruited in the first place?

KJ: Development has arguably been the biggest key to Cincinnati’s success of late. Unlike Brian Kelly, Luke Fickell doesn’t have a roster full of four-star and five-star guys. But he does have a lot of three-star guys who he and his staff have developed into some of the top players in the country. Junior Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is one of the top two cornerbacks in college football. It’s either Gardner or LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. at No. 1 on many draft boards. Gardner was a skinny kid from Detroit that didn’t have a bunch of offers. Now, he’s a true shutdown corner.

Senior defensive end Myjai Sanders is one of the top edge rushers in the country. He’s another guy that wasn’t one of the blue-chip recruits coming out of Jacksonville. Marcus Freeman deserves a lot of credit for finding those guys and helping them develop into the players they are today.

Linebackers Darrian Beavers and Deshawn Pace, two more Freeman recruits, were two guys who had standout careers at Cincinnati’s Colerain High School but didn’t have a lot of huge offers. They’ve been the two top performers on Cincinnati’s defense this season.

The biggest example of development at Cincinnati is fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. He was a tall, lanky athlete from Louisville that not a lot of programs wanted. Fickell didn’t find Ridder. Tommy Tuberville and Zac Taylor brought Ridder to Cincinnati, but Fickell honored Ridder’s scholarship and developed him from a run-first quarterback to a true dual-threat guy that will be in the NFL this time next year. Fickell also has gotten lucky with some big-time transfers like Michael Young Jr. (Notre Dame) and Jerome Ford (Alabama).

The development factor obviously best shows itself in fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, once upon a time a two-star prospect who could have been a mid-round draft pick this past spring. What brought him back for one more year?

Ridder came back because he wanted to go down as one of the top players in program history. I think he’s already done that, but another great season will not only improve his draft stock but also help him claim a few more spots in the record books. He also wants his name on the Ring of Honor at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. That’s something that means a lot to him.

Ridder is averaging nine yards per attempt this season. While the Bearcats have a strong run game — averaging five yards per carry — I trust Notre Dame to hold up well against the ground attack, particularly after last week’s dominance against Wisconsin. At that point, the game will be in Ridder’s hands. Can I assume Cincinnati would be very comfortable trusting Ridder to win this? What would Ridder’s success look like — deliberate, methodical, waiting for a break or pushing the envelope downfield hoping for the big play or utilizing his mobility as much as his arm?

Like most quarterbacks, if Ridder can put a big play on the board early, his confidence will go through the roof. Notre Dame can’t let that happen. Ridder’s first throw of the season was an 81-yard touchdown. He had some big plays with his legs at Indiana that helped open up that game. Fickell has all the confidence in the world in Ridder.

That offensive line? Not so much. If they have a good game and give Ridder time to survey the field, he’ll have a big day. If the line struggles like it did in the first half against Indiana, it could get ugly early for the Bearcats.

Defensively, the example of Cincinnati’s development comes up front. Of the five Bearcats with at least two tackles for loss, only senior end Malik Vann was a blue-chip prospect, while two of the five were two-star recruits. Yet I am confident now at least a few of these players will have NFL careers. Does Notre Dame have any hope of running on this defense that has given up only 3.48 yards per rush? I try not to ask questions that can be answered with one word, but I won’t fault you if you simply say, “No.”

No.

It’s hard to run on Cincinnati. The Bearcats’ defensive line may be their biggest strength. It’s also tough to get the ball outside. Gardner and Coby Bryant may be the No. 1 cornerback tandem in college football. They both were first-team all-conference performers a season ago. Gardner was on near every All-American team. Bryant is back for a graduate season, and Gardner was an AP preseason first-team All-American (along with Stingley). The middle of the field is where Cincinnati could struggle. Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer is a legit talent. If he can exploit the middle of that Cincinnati defense, it could open up things for the Irish offensively.

Does the faulty Irish offensive line have hopes of holding off the Cincinnati pass rush? I am a bit shocked to see it has notched only four sacks so far this season. I did not think it changed that much from Marcus Freeman’s scheme, did it?

The sack numbers haven’t been there yet for the Cincinnati D-line, but the pressure and hits on the quarterback certainly have. Teams are just getting the ball out quickly against Cincinnati because that’s the recipe for success. That and being methodical. Slow down the pace, move the chains and keep Ridder and that offense off the field. That’s the key for Notre Dame. If that Irish O-line struggled against Wisconsin, it’s certainly going to struggle against Cincinnati if it hasn’t figured out some things.

Speaking of Freeman — How exhausting has that storyline been on that side of this coverage? In my mind, I would think the Bearcats are more focused on being a Playoff contender than on facing their old defensive coordinator.

Freeman has certainly been a storyline and talking point. Many of the players on Cincinnati’s defense are there because of Freeman. Period. They want to show Freeman that he made a mistake by choosing to leave. But ultimately, none of those emotions will matter much once the ball goes up.

Let’s touch on the other piece of that narrative before we finish up here: How does the Cincinnati fan base feel about Brian Kelly 12 years later? I know there was a well-received 10th anniversary for his 2009 team a couple years ago. That at least suggested to me all fences were mended and Kelly’s successes were solely celebrated.

Cincinnati fans hate Brian Kelly. And that’s putting it kindly. It’s not because he left, it’s how he left. But seeing Fickell take the program further than Kelly did helps.

Cincinnati fans want nothing more than for Fickell and the Bearcats to thump Kelly in South Bend and laugh on their way out.

What have I missed in this conversation? If I have come across as diminishing the Bearcats, my intention was the exact opposite. I recognize this is a really good team that returned a ton from its unbeaten 2020 regular season. Creating that kind of run at a Group of Five school is impressive, and I always think the development is the biggest contributing factor to it.

What do you see happening Saturday? Notre Dame has not lost at home since the second week of 2017, but it has been the underdog at home just twice in that run of 26 straight.

Fickell doesn’t use “Group of Five” or “Power Five” in his program. I think that has paid a lot of dividends in helping this team think it can play with anyone anywhere. The talent gap isn’t as wide as people may think. That Will Likely show on Saturday. I think it will be close. But if it’s close, Notre Dame will have the edge because it’s in South Bend.