SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The coaching storylines today are many and obvious, but they obscure something more unique at Notre Dame. Yes, Irish head coach Brian Kelly is about to face the school he once led to the brink of the BCS title game, and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will stand opposite the Cincinnati team he coached just a year ago, led by his mentor and close friend Luke Fickell.
Bearcats offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will return to South Bend, where he coached for a decade across two separate stints. He was, in fact, the coach who first recruited many of the current Irish seniors, like senior receiver Braden Lenzy. Instead of coaching them, he is calling plays to target Cincinnati receiver Michael Young, who left Notre Dame halfway through the 2019 season.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for [Denbrock],” Kelly said. “We’re great friends and we stay in constant contact, but we’re great competitors, too. He wants to beat us and I want to beat him and he wouldn’t want it any other way.”
These personal ties create unique dynamics and unfounded speculation of grudges to be settled, but the real unique nature of this afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium is that it is a top-10 matchup. Kelly has faced more former assistants in South Bend than he has top-10 opponents.
On his way to setting the Irish record of 106 career wins, Kelly has coached 71, about to be 72, games at home. Today will be the third time his opponent is one of the country’s best 10. Fittingly, in each of those three moments, Notre Dame (4-0) has also been in the top 10, though not by much this week at No. 9.
The Irish have now been in the top 10 in 29 of those 72 games, but only 2018 Stanford (No. 7) and 2020 Clemson (No. 1) preceded the No. 7 Bearcats (3-0) today as such foes.
The highest USC has been ranked on a trip to Notre Dame in the last 12 years was No. 11 in 2017, a peak that will go unmatched later this month. The highest Michigan came as was No. 14 in 2018. Michigan State showed up as No. 12 in 2016 and No. 15 in 2011.
But these top-10 tilts have been rare.
Though Notre Dame is 52-42-5 in matchups of two AP top-10 teams all time, it’s 4-16 in such games since 1994
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) September 27, 2021
TIME, TV: 2:30 ET on NBC. The game will also be streamed on Peacock. Immediately beforehand, four F-16s will fly over the Stadium.
It will be the first sellout of the year at Notre Dame, presumably because many Cincinnati fans recognize this as the biggest game in program history and live only a few hours drive away. It may also be the biggest game of Fickell’s coaching career.
“Yeah, I might say so,” he said this week. “When you say two top-10 teams, I don’t think we’ve had a situation where we’ve been in this position yet, where we’ve been ranked in the top 10 and somebody we’ve played had been ranked in the top 10. I’m not sure, maybe the bowl game (against Georgia) was that situation.
“Nonetheless, I think that this is what you’ve always kind of dreamed of. This is what you want. This is what these guys have worked for, not just to play Notre Dame, because that’s always a big deal, but to have the matchup where you’re legitimately two top-10 teams that a lot of people are excited about watching.”
🗣 Desmond Ridder isn’t worried about the noise pic.twitter.com/7ycWai4NO8
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 30, 2021
COMICAL HISTORY: The Irish and Bearcats have met once before, though not known as the Irish and the Bearcats then. Notre Dame won 58-0 in 1900, and to pull from The Cincinnati Enquirer’s wrap of the game …
“Notre Dame, with a patched-up team, defeated the University of Cincinnati this afternoon on Cartier Field by a score of 58 to 0. For the first five minutes of play Cincinnati gave evidence of being formidable opponents, but the fast play of the heavier varsity men exhausted the Buckeyeites and from then on it was merely a question as to how many points Notre Dame would score. The varsity displayed very little knowledge of the game, as two formations and a double pass were the extent of their repertoire. Each time the latter was attempted some aggressive Notre Dame tackle would pounce on the man with the ball behind the line and down him for a loss. Notre Dame displayed ragged work in the first half and the fumbling was the worst ever seen on the varsity gridiron. Between halves Coaches Oden and McWeeney convened the eleven for a strong lecture, which quickly showed effect. Five minutes before the close of play in the second half Cincinnati wanted the game stopped on account of darkness, but this was refused, as there is no such provision in the rules, and in that time Notre Dame twice crossed Cincinnati’s goal line.”
Happy Notre Dame-Cincinnati week https://t.co/amshzNBoQF
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) September 27, 2021
PREVIEW: That 58-0 rout will not be replicated, that much is certain. For one thing, there will probably not be 58 total points today.
The biggest question remains who will start at quarterback for the Irish. Jack Coan suffered a leg injury in the third quarter of last week’s 41-13 win against then-No. 18 Wisconsin. He managed to play two more snaps after his lower leg was rolled up on, but after that series, Coan would not return to the game.
In his stead, sophomore Drew Pyne completed 6 of 8 passes for 81 yards and led one touchdown drive. Kelly said this week Coan would start if healthy enough, but he also acknowledged the perks brought by Pyne’s added mobility, especially behind a struggling offensive line.
“I don’t think you could ever say mobility would be a negative in that situation, right?” Kelly said.
With Pyne, Notre Dame may solve some of its offensive line issues, but it also may face difficulties in pushing the ball downfield, a strength of Coan’s thus far and a needed one at that. The Irish have scored nine touchdowns of 20 yards or longer through four games, accounting for a whopping 26.4 percent of their total yardage.
Against the Bearcats’ stout defense — giving up 15 points and 299 yards per game — Notre Dame may need big plays to find the end zone at all.
PREDICTION: In the Irish 26-game winning streak at home, they have been an underdog twice, beating No. 1 Clemson in double-overtime last year as 4.5-point underdogs and beating Michigan in 2018 as 3-point underdogs. To reach 27 games, Notre Dame will need to pull off another upset, as a 2-point underdog, per PointsBet as of Saturday’s earliest hours.
Of Kelly’s 72 games coaching at Notre Dame Stadium, this will be the eighth time he is an underdog, going 5-2 to date.
PointsBet sets the combined point total Over/Under at 50.5, suggesting a 26-24 conclusion.
That low total is a testament to the mirroring defenses. Freeman brought the core tenets of his aggressive philosophy to the Irish, part of why they already have nine interceptions this season, tied for first in the country entering the weekend. Fickell knows that defense well, as he helped design it. Given Fickell is a defensive-minded head coach, not all of Freeman’s philosophy left Cincinnati when he did.
Both defenses rely on lines that do not need excessive blitzing to create pressure on the quarterback. The Bearcats’ front is already all-but assured success thanks to Notre Dame’s continued troubles along its offensive line, while the Irish defensive line tore through Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line last week with no trouble, despite missing fifth-year tackle Kurt Hinish, who will also be sidelined today.
Those defensive line constants will push this game well Under that total. In a tight, low-scoring game, some credence should be given to the team that has been there before, both literally and figuratively. Until Notre Dame loses a game at home, there is little reason to think it will. After all, it beat Clemson before that became fashionable.
That track record is more than Cincinnati can claim. The extent of its experience in this situation came two weeks ago on a trip to Indiana. The Bearcats won, 38-24, needing to comeback from an early 14-0 deficit.
“I don’t think we quite handled it as well as we should have, being an older team,” Fickell said. “But we had the poise enough to come back and not let that overwhelm us, so hopefully we learned a lot from that situation.”
If Cincinnati did learn a lot from that road trip, then today could come down to a pressure-filled moment. At which point, it is worth noting Irish fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer has made 74.1 percent of his career field goals, including clutch kicks against No. 1 Clemson and just last week against Wisconsin, while his Bearcats counterpart, Cole Smith, has made only 53.6 percent of his career field-goal attempts.
Notre Dame 20, Cincinnati 19.
(Straight up — 4-0; Against the spread — 3-1; Over/under — 3-1.)
Was that specific score chosen for its appropriate fit to the last time a red-based fan base invaded South Bend? Indeed.
This clip features Lenzy praising Cincinnati, drawing a pertinent comparison to #NotreDame's recent two games against Georgia.
But go listen to this whole interview (~10 minutes). Lenzy was *really* insightful. https://t.co/diO0UpN4lO
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 30, 2021
INSIDE THE IRISH
— On Chris Tyree’s choice, Notre Dame’s left tackles, and an injury update
— Notre Dame’s defensive line depth once again proves itself, while the offensive line depth faces an unprecedented test
— And In That Corner … The No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats bring close, personal ties to Notre Dame
— Cain Madden’s ‘consistency’ key to the steady half of Notre Dame’s unsteady offensive line
— ND’s Opponents: Widespread chaos positions Irish or Cincinnati for Playoff contention
— Things To Learn: Coan or Pyne, Notre Dame’s offense will need to take what it can get
— A Notre Dame-themed chance at $10,000? That’s the open bar of prediction contests
— How to watch Cincinnati vs Notre Dame: Live stream, TV info for Saturday
— When enemy lines are blurred: Cincinnati–Notre Dame to put coaching familiarity to the test
— A week with Bearcats reveals Cincinnati’s potential CFP rise, Luke Fickell’s staying power and why Notre Dame game means so much
— Bearcats coming: Marcus Freeman, Irish defense on the spot
— Passionate Kyle Hamilton providing leadership for Notre Dame
— Can quarterback Drew Pyne transcend his rescue role as Notre Dame’s backup?
— Toughest game? Trap game? The remaining paths for the top 11 teams in college football
— The biggest regular season Cincinnati game ever
— Football weekend events: Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
— NBC, YouTube TV strike deal on a “short extension”
🚨 No Juice 🚨 on Bearcats-Irish … everyone bet this and we’ll make it a weekly thing! pic.twitter.com/tf6CY1cUrz
— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) October 1, 2021