College football often allows for those unique one-off games. The ones where there’s no definitive way to gauge what will transpire because the two teams simply do not play one another on a regular basis, or for this game, not since the year 1900 when the Irish won 57-0 over the Bearcats.
This year's contest will be much closer. One can be assured that this game also presents several unique sidebars for fans to follow, and that could determine the outcome between Notre Dame and Cincinnati. Here’s an overview of how the two teams matchup plus components of the game that add intrigue, which is where the focus begins.
Familiar Name, New School
Notre Dame hired its current Defensive Coordinator, Marcus Freeman, away from Cincinnati this past off season. Prior to coming to South Bend to coach the Irish, Freeman helped to resurrect a Bearcats’ defense that needed a creative mind to make up for a depth chart void of the type of talent it currently worked its way up to . Coach Freeman did an excellent job coaching and recruiting while a member of the Cincinnati staff.
Freeman coached the Bearcats from 2017-2020, and the unit’s overall defensive ranking improved dramatically during that time. Cincinnati’s total defense went from No. 72 in the nation in 2016, the year before Coach Freeman arrived to coach the Bearcats, to No. 13 in the nation in 2020.
From a yards per game allowed perspective, that would be 422.8 yards to a mere 324.6. Almost 100 yards less allowed per contest. Cincinnati also permitted 26.9 points per game in 2016, compared to just 16.8 points per game last fall. No wonder Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly wanted to hire Coach Freeman away from the Bearcats. At this point, there’s the concern of Coach Freeman’s Cincinnati knowledge.
There’s sure to be some concerns for the current Cincinnati staff regarding Freeman knowing play calls, as well as the overall personnel. Afterall, he recruited the vast majority of the current defensive players for Bearcats.
Will Cincinnati use new hand signals? Add dummy calls at the line of scrimmage to throw off Notre Dame’s defenders? Completely change signals?
It’s something to consider. Perhaps the coaching staff for the Bearcats prepared for this game by dumping the old signals altogether and creating a new system from the outset of 2020. It’s intriguing no matter what Cincinnati Head Coach Luke Fickell and his offensive coaching staff decide to do, and it could directly impact the final score. Now onto four prime matchups from this game.
On Both Sides of the Football, Elite Talent Out Wide
Few people know about Kevin Austin, the 6’2”, 215 pound Notre Dame senior wide receiver. After playing just briefly as a freshman, he was suspended during his sophomore season, although Notre Dame never definitively defined what happened. He was hurt for the vast majority of last season as well, breaking his foot twice in the same place.
Three years, very little production. Then in 2021, boom!
Austin has 14 catches for 230 yards and three touchdowns so far this season, and that does not even consider several missed throws by Irish quarterback Jack Coan when Austin beat his competitor over the top and would have scored with a better throw. He’s a player to watch for the Irish on the perimeter.
Austin can take a short pass and run over a defender, or he can run by a smaller defensive back with speed and score a touchdown over the top. He's a gamebreaker. His counterpart might be better.
Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner was an under-recruited prospect out of Detroit (Mich.) Dr. Martin Luther King. Michigan did not want him. Michigan State did not either. Coach Freeman and Cincinnati did though. He’s been a mainstay in the Bearcats’ starting lineup since his freshman season after the two Big 10 schools failed to recruit the prep talent right in their own backyard.
At 6’2”, 190 pounds, Gardner’s length and athleticism allow him to be physical when pressing wide receivers, and he’s also capable of deflecting passes or intercepting passes simply due to that length that cannot be taught. All of those skills and natural ability combined in 2020 to produce 28 tackles, one-half a sack, three interceptions, and six passes broken up.
For his efforts this past season, Gardner was named First Team All-American by USA Today and Second Team All-American by The Athletic. Keep an eye on the Austin versus Gardner matchup, as it will be the best within this game.
From a great one-on-one matchup to a curious matchup that will be interesting to follow, as well as a prime factor in determining the outcome of the game.
Notre Dame’s Offensive Line Versus Cincinnati’s Front Seven
Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled this year, and that’s being kind. The Irish average a lowly 2.3 yards per carry. Yes, you read that correctly. While Notre Dame lost four starters from last season up front, this unit looks completely disorganized and, well, not well coached.
So far in 2021, Notre Dame allowed 39 tackles for loss. That fact places Notre Dame No. 129 out of 130 possible positions in the NCAA for allowing tackles for loss. Additionally, Notre Dame’s pass protection failed miserably so far through four games. Notre Dame quarterbacks were sacked 20 times, also ranked No. 129 in the nation.
Cincinnati is an athletic group, but yet has not produced like one might expect so far this season (missing Coach Freeman?). Cincinnati recorded 19 tackles for loss and a paltry four sacks.
Well, something has to give. Notre Dame’s offensive line played horrible so far this season, while Cincinnati’s front seven did not create the havoc it did the past few seasons when Coach Freeman roamed the sidelines for the Bearcats. The winner of this matchup might just be the winner of the game, because Notre Dame has another issue to resolve directly related to the offensive line.
Jack Coan Will be the Starter, or Will He?
If there’s one thing that the vast majority of college football coaches do well, it’s lie. Yes, they lie a lot. This is especially true with accurately reporting injuries, especially when the starting signal caller is in question.
During last Saturday’s 41-13 win over Wisconsin, Coan was injured in the second half with an apparent ankle issue. He did not return to the game and backup quarterback Drew Pyne helped to lead the Irish to victory.
This week, however, Coach Kelly listed Coan as the starting quarterback once again. Is he really healthy? Nobody will know until Coan throws during warmups just prior to kickoff.
Just something to think about, as the gamesmanship of college football could inevitably play out once again. Do not be surprised if Pyne plays this Saturday, starter or not. Ankle injuries often linger for weeks if not months. They can be pesky.
There’s one last area that’s deserving of its own category, and it also involves a starting quarterback.
Ridder Needs to Have a Defining Moment
Senior quarterback Desmond Ridder needs to be ready to make the play; even if that play is best served by throwing the football in the stands. Yes, sometimes it’s okay to move on to the next down and live to fight another day.
Notre Dame’s defense is really aggressive, and it’s really good at penetrating into the backfield. The Bearcats will suffer some lost yardage plays, but if Ridder can avoid colossal mistakes by fumbling or throwing interceptions while under pressure, the Bearcats stand a very good chance to win against Notre Dame. He also holds a decided advantage that Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, whomever it may be, does not.
The Bearcats average 5.0 yards per carry as compared to Notre Dame’s 2.3 yards per carry. That fact means Ridder will likely see more second down and five opportunities than Notre Dame will. Instead of waiting on the big play, and Notre Dame can certainly do that with their skill position talent, Cincinnati will be able to sustain drives better because of its rushing attack.
Once the ground game makes its mark, Ridder needs to throw that one special pass to change the game. It must be a strike. A 60-yard bomb that changes the scoreboard and momentum of the game. If he’s off even a little bit, that play could head the other direction, however, as the Irish lead the nation in interceptions with nine.
Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton is arguably the nation’s best defensive player, and will be up for numerous awards. He’s already picked off three passes this season and recorded two pass breakups. Deep ball or not, Ridder needs to be wary of where Hamilton lines up. He’s not the only secondary member to respect.
Irish junior cornerback Cam Hart picked off two passes versus Wisconsin, and he’s also recorded three pass breakups on the year. It’s a really good combination of talent for the Notre Dame secondary.
When Ridder gets his chance, he must make the throw. There will be very few opportunities versus a defense that generally dictates to its opponent, so take advantage when the moment arrives.
This will be a very good football game full of big plays, ups and downs, and the ability to see several future NFL players. The difference will be Cincinnati’s offensive line being able to create just enough room for the running backs that they create better play-action passing opportunities for Ridder. Cincinnati inches by the Irish.
Bearcats 27 Irish 24