Notre Dame has come to the crossroads of its season.
The ninth-ranked Irish are undefeated heading into a matchup with what could be the last ranked team on their schedule: No. 7 Cincinnati. Notre Dame is coming off a resounding 41-13 win over 18th-ranked Wisconsin, but the only reward it will receive for that triumph is an opportunity against an even better opponent . The Bearcats, under coach Luke Fickell, have won 11 consecutive regular-season games and have spent 16 straight weeks in the AP top 10.
This matchup, set to kick off this afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium, could be the biggest remaining obstacle to another undefeated season and College Football Playoff berth for the Irish (4-0).
“This is about two top-10 teams,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who led the Bearcats from 2006 to 2009. “You gotta go out and attack your opponent. You can't sit around and wait. This is a heavyweight fight. If you're going to dance around and wait, you're going to get knocked out. This is a really good football team. You have to come out swinging and be aggressive. You have to take it to your opponent when you have two top-ten teams playing.”
Though the Bearcats (3-0) are not a Power Five conference opponent, they will also not be a typical small-conference team that comes to South Bend to play the role of Washington Generals to Notre Dame's Globetrotters.
Cincinnati has aspirations of becoming the first Group of Five team to reach the CFP and an undefeated mark that includes wins over Notre Dame and Indiana – the Bearcats beat the Hoosiers in Bloomington, 38-24, two weeks ago – might be enough to make that a reality.
“It's big, we're not gonna lie to you,” Fickell said of facing the Irish. “You get some of these (games), obviously it's a big game anytime you play Notre Dame. Notre Dame is obviously a top-five program and it just happens to be a year where we're both really good and ranked high. ... It is an ultimate measuring stick in all that we do. I think that's what's great for us as a program.”
The biggest question mark for the Irish entering the game is at quarterback where starter Jack Coan is dealing with a lower-body injury that kept him out for the fourth quarter of the matchup against Wisconsin. Coan is expected to start, but he and backup Drew Pyne have split first-team reps this week just in case. Freshman Tyler Buchner is also expected to get some snaps as a running threat at the position.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, are coming off a bye after their win over Indiana and are scoring 43 points per contest while giving up only 15. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is a dynamic dual threat throwing for 9 yards per attempt, while the defense is led by a secondary that has already picked off six passes and that Irish wide receiver Braden Lenzy called “the best ... we've seen this year.”
“Luke has done a great job obviously at Cincinnati and they're deserving of where they're ranked,” Kelly said. “This is clearly, from our perspective, the best team that we played up to this point.”
Note: Notre Dame will be without All-ACC nose tackle Kurt Hinish for the second straight week, Kelly announced Thursday. Hinish has an undisclosed injury and Kelly said the Irish expect him back against Virginia Tech next week. Redshirt sophomore Howard Cross III will get his second straight start at nose after picking up two tackles, including one for loss, against Wisconsin.
Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
When: 2:30 p.m. today
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Records: No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0), No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0)
Good to see you again: There is significant Cincinnati flavor on the Irish coaching staff. In addition to head coach Brian Kelly having three years (plus a bowl game) of experience leading the Bearcats from 2006 to 2009, Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens each held the same position with the Bearcats in recent years. Mickens also played for Kelly at Cincinnati and was an All-American. The connections go the other way, as well. Former Irish receiver Michael Young Jr., who transferred prior to the 2020 season, has eight catches for 110 yards for the Bearcats this year and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock was a graduate assistant alongside Kelly on the Grand Valley State staff in the 1980s before serving on Kelly's staffs at GVSU and Notre Dame, the latter from 2010 to 2016.
Bulletin board material: Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder said Denbrock had warned him about the volume at Notre Dame Stadium that opponents have to deal with. Ridder reportedly told Denbrock, "It shouldn't be loud for too long." The Irish have won 26 games in a row at home, a streak that stretches back more than four years and is the longest for the program since 1950.
Offensive line play: Notre Dame's Achilles' heel this season has been its offensive line, which permitted five sacks of quarterback Jack Coan and strip-sack of backup QB Drew Pyne against Wisconsin last week. The Irish played against the Badgers with their third- and fourth-string left tackles, but are hopeful that the No. 2 at the position, Michael Carmody, will be available against Cincinnati after missing the last two games with a nagging injury.
Prediction: No. 9 Notre Dame 27, No. 7 Cincinnati 23
- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette