SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame is in big trouble.
The Irish beat themselves in a disastrous first half against a No. 7 Cincinnati team that has made quarterback Desmond Ridder's prediction of silencing the Notre Dame Stadium crowd a reality. Notre Dame turned the ball over three times in terrible spots and the Bearcats have taken advantage, turning those miscues into 10 points on the way to a 17-0 lead at halftime.
The turnovers began early. The Irish marched down the field on their opening possession – the first play of the game was a 16-yard Kyren Williams run through maybe the biggest hole he's seen this season – and quarterback Jack Coan was in a nice rhythm, hitting tight end Michael Mayer on some quick passes for decent gains. But when the Irish got inside the Bearcat 10, Coan made the game's first big mistake. As he was in the grasp of a defender, Coan tried to throw off his back foot across the field and was unable to get nearly enough strength on the ball, instead putting the ball right in the hands of Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad Gardner for an interception.
Coan and the offense were mostly unable to move the ball after that and late in the first quarter, the Irish turned to package quarterback Tyler Buchner. Coach Brian Kelly had said Buchner, a true freshman with terrific running ability, would play this week. Buchner had one nice run for a gain of eight, but as a thrower he still has a long way to go. That was evident when he missed an open receiver on third down on his first series – after niftily stepping up in the pocket and away from the rush, to be fair – and became crystal-clear when he made nearly the exact same mistake as Coan, trying to get the ball to a receiver while fading away with a defender in his face. Buchner's mistake, which came in Notre Dame territory, was far more costly as Cincinnati's Deshawn Pace intercepted the ball and returned it to the Irish 5. Three play later, the Bearcats punched the ball in to take a 7-0 lead.
As if that weren't bad enough, last week's kickoff hero, Chris Tyree, perhaps trying to make another big play for his team, muffed the ensuing kickoff and the Bearcats recovered inside the Notre Dame 30. Tyree was clearly distraught on the sidelines after the play. The Irish defense held that time, forcing a Cincinnati field goal that felt like a victory in the moment but also left Notre Dame trailing 10-0. Midway through the next Notre Dame drive, Cincinnati's cheering contingent engulfed the stadium in "Let's go Bearcats" chants.
The bad news for Notre Dame is that, outside of the one big run to Williams to open the game, it still has no room to run. Cincinnati is every bit as good in the back seven as Wisconsin was and any holes the Irish line opens up are closed quickly by the Bearcat linebackers. That has left Coan (and Buchner) to make plays through the air and Coan at least has made some decent throws, but the interception looms large as a decision he wishes he could have back. After the first drive, Cincinnati did a much better job of taking Mayer out of the game and that has made every Notre Dame yard gained feel like pulling teeth. Nothing feels sustainable enough to get the Irish down the field, so they might have to hit a big play or two to win this game.
The defense has been a mixed bag. It played pretty well for most of the half, but in the final minute of the second quarter, the Bearcats marched 80 yards in 1:08 with three big passes from quarterback Desmond Ridder. The third of those was a 27-yard touchdown to Tre Tucker right over the head of All-American Kyle Hamilton, who had gotten turned around. That touchdown put the Bearcats on the path to a blowout.
Notre Dame is probably not going to win this game and it doesn't deserve to. The Bearcats have been better in all three phases and the Irish don't have an offense to speak of. The second half could get ugly.