Notre Dame plays its toughest opponent of the season on Saturday when the 7th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats come to South Bend.
Notre Dame is ranked ninth, making this the second straight ranked opponent the Irish will play. When the two teams kickoff at 2:30 EAST inside Notre Dame Stadium it will mark just the third time since head coach Brian Kelly arrived that two Top 10 teams will square off.
Notre Dame is 2-0 in the two previous games, beating Clemson 47-40 last season and Stanford by a 38-17 score in 2018.
Kelly said his team is going to be challenged by the Bearcats offensively and defensively.
Quarterback Desmond Ritter, a 6 foot 4 senior, was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2020. Ritter has completed 54 of 83 passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three games of this season.
“He’s a playmaker,“ Kelly said of the Cincinnati signal caller. “He’s very talented in all phases offensively. He’s very athletic, he makes plays with his feet, he’s accurate with a strong arm. He’s a really good quarterback with lots of experience. He’s played a lot of winning football.”
Ritter will throw to a number of talented pass catchers that includes 6-3 wideout Alec Pierce, Notre Dame transfer Michael Young and 5-11 sophomore Tyler Scott. Pierce leads the offense with nine receptions on the season while Scott, the team's big-play weapon, leads the offense with 172 yards on seven catches (24.6 yards per catch). Young is second on the team with eight grabs.
“I really like Pierce,” Kelly said, comparing him to former Irish wideout Ben Skowronek. “He’s tall, rangy, and athletic and he runs good routes.”
Running back Jerome Ford, a junior that transferred in from Alabama, is their leading rusher with 300 yards in three games. Ford has been a big-play back during his Cincinnati career.
“This is a really good offense led by a veteran talented quarterback and I think we all know in college football, you start there,” Kelly noted. “They have skill players on the perimeter and they got speed at the slot, a go-to guy in Pierce, and then a big play back. There's enough there to really cause you some concern."
The defense, which was led by Marcus Freeman from 2017-20, is solid. The Bearcats are ranked 27th in overall defense, according to the NCAA. They are giving up 298.7 yards per game and 4.2 yards per play. Kelly said in the backend of the defense, the Bearcats are “probably as talented as anyone we’ll see.”
Kelly said Coby Bryant and Ahmad Gardner are good cornerbacks and that defensive lineman Malik Vann, a 6-3, 280-pound senior is “physical and plays with great leverage.” Myjai Sanders, a 6-5, 255-pound defensive end is “athletic," according to Kelly.
Sanders and Gardner are consistently listed as possible first round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Kelly called the linebacker play “excellent.”
“It’s a veteran defense with really good speed,” Kelly said. “They are well-coached. Luke (Fickell) has done a great job obviously. They are deserving of where they are ranked. From our perspective, this is the best team we’ve played to this point.”
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