The fifth game on the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule shows that the Irish will take the field against the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2. This contest offers some nostalgia for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly since he coached the Bearcats from 2007-09 before coming to the Golden Dome. In truth, Kelly’s career began during the Bearcats’ bowl game the previous year, which was the start of a strong 34-6 tenure at Cincy.
The Bearcats’ current head coach, Luke Fickell, is in his fifth season at the school, having compiled a 35-14 mark during his time there. That began with a 4-8 mark in 2017, with Cincinnati having since thrived by winning 11 games in each of the next two seasons. Amid last year’s chaotic issues that included simply being able to take the field, the Bearcats’ undefeated regular season earned them a Peach Bowl berth. Despite a loss there that dropped them to 9-1 on the year, Fickell and company are using that as another building block to grow the program.
Cincinnati Offense: A Dual Weapon Behind Center
Hopes of another big season were boosted when quarterback Desmond Ridder indicated that he’d return after a season in which he won AAC Offensive Player of the year honors. In 2020, he threw for more than 2,000 yards while tossing 19 touchdown passes and throwing just five picks. He also serves as a running threat after rushing for 592 yards and 12 scores.
Jerome Ford will be the main ballcarrier outside of Ridder, bringing blazing speed that allowed him to average 6.6 yards per carry last year and reach the end zone eight times. Ford and Ridder should tote the ball for much of the year, though Charles McClelland or Ryan Montgomery may also contribute.
Last year, 16 different Bearcat receivers caught a pass, though returning seniors Michael Young and Alec Pierce will be the min targets this season. Tre Tucker will also be in the mix, with each of these players scoring three times last season. The tight end position will be handled again by Josh Whyte, who grabbed 28 passes and led the team with six touchdown receptions.
One area of concern for Cincinnati is their offensive line, which is in transition on the outside after losing both of last season’s starting tackles. Who ends up filling those spots may be a guessing game early in the season, though the duo of Vincent McConnell and Jeremy Cooper are back at guard, while Jake Renfro should be at center.
Cincinnati Defense: Keeping a Good Thing Going
With a new defensive coordinator in place, the Bearcats hope to continue the success they enjoyed in 2020. That very well might happen, with defensive end Myjai Sanders after a team-high seven sacks last year, with Malik Vann on the other side. Inside, the duo of Marcus Brown and Jowon Briggs, the latter a Virginia transfer, should provide a solid line of resistance.
The Cincinnati linebackers have Darrian Beavers on the outside to stop ballcarriers behind the line and Joel Dubianko to take care of those who end up breaking through the middle. On the other side, Ty Van Fossen also showed a knack for quick stops, picking up five tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks.
Undoubtedly, the best part of the Bearcats defense is the cornerback position with Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant returning after outstanding 2020 campaigns. Gardner provides outstanding coverage and Bryant has a knack for both pickoffs and pass blocks. At safety, Ja’von Hicks and Bryan Cook are expected to move into starting roles, with Arquon Bush being used in nickel situations.
Cincinnati Special Teams: Weapons Still in Place
The Australian connection continues at punter for the Bearcats, with James Smith’s departure leaving a huge gap that needs to be filled by freshman Mason Fletcher. Kicking will once again be handled by Cole Smith, who’s been virtually automatic on extra points and saw an improvement when it came to his field goal accuracy last season. Each of the return men will also be back, which means that Tucker will once again handle kickoffs after compiling a solid 29.9 yards on his 13 returns, including a runback. Ryan Montgomery may also see time here, though he’ll definitely be the key player when it comes to punt returns.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Cincinnati
There’s no chance to get any recollections from people in attendance at the last Notre Dame-Cincinnati game. That’s because the contest took place in October 1900 and saw the Irish rout the Bearcats, 58-0. At that time, neither school even sported their traditional nickname, an indication that the game represents ancient football history. Undoubtedly, the Kelly connection will be the central focus during the buildup of this game.